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What to know about Venezuela’s election as Maduro faces the toughest race of his decade in power

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s self-described socialist government is facing a serious electoral challenge in a presidential election for the first time in decades.

President Nicolás Maduro, now in his 11th year in office, is being challenged by former diplomat Edmundo González Urrutia at the head of a resurgent opposition, as well as a field of eight other candidates. The official campaign period for the July 28 election kicked off Thursday.

Maduro, who has presided over an economic collapse that has seen millions of people emigrate, and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela have fended off challenges by barring rivals from elections and painting them as out-of-touch elitists in league with foreign powers.

This time, he promised to let the Unitary Platform opposition coalition participate in the election in a deal that brought his government some relief from crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States. That respite, however, was short-lived as the U.S. reimposed sanctions amid mounting government actions against the opposition, including blocking the candidacy of opposition powerhouse María Corina Machado.

Here’s what to know about Venezuela’s upcoming presidential election.

Who is the opposition candidate?

The most talked-about name in the race is not on the ballot: María Corina Machado, a former lawmaker, emerged as an opposition star in 2023, filling the void left when a previous generation of opposition leaders went into exile. Her principled attacks on government corruption and mismanagement rallied millions of Venezuelans to vote for her in the opposition’s October primary.

But Maduro’s government declared the primary was against the law and opened criminal investigations against some of its organizers. Since then, it has issued warrants for a number of Machado’s supporters and arrested some members of her staff, and the country’s top court affirmed a decision to keep her off the ballot.

Yet, she kept on campaigning, holding rallies across the country and turning the ban on her candidacy into a symbol of the loss of rights and humiliations that many voters have felt for over a decade.

She has thrown her support behind Edmundo González Urrutia, a former ambassador who’s never held public office, helping a fractious opposition unify behind him.

They are campaigning together promising an economy that will lure back the millions of Venezuelans who have migrated since Maduro became president in 2013.

On Thursday, the bus that was set to move Machado and González throughout a section of Caracas was temporarily stopped by law enforcement with both standing on a platform affixed to the vehicle. The officers argued the stop was a routine procedure to verify the validity of the driver’s documents.

People gathered at the opposition’s march marking the official start to the campaign chanted “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” and “And it will fall, and it will fall, this government is going to fall.” They waved Venezuelan flags as they awaited the duo’s arrival while motorists joined them honking their horns.

González began his diplomatic career as an aide to Venezuela’s ambassador in the U.S. in the late 1970s. He had postings in Belgium and El Salvador and served as Caracas’ ambassador to Algeria. His last post was as ambassador to Argentina during the first years of Hugo Chávez’s presidency, which began in 1999.

More recently, González worked as an international relations consultant and wrote a historical work on Venezuela during World War II.

Why is the current president having trouble?

President Nicolás Maduro’s popularity has dwindled due to an economic crisis that resulted from a drop in oil prices, corruption and government mismanagement.

Maduro can still bank on a cadre of die-hard believers, known as Chavistas, including millions of public employees and others whose businesses or employment depend on the state. But the ability of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela to use access to social programs to get people to the polls has diminished as the country’s economy has frayed.

He is the heir to Hugo Chávez, a popular socialist who expanded Venezuela’s welfare state while locking horns with the United States.

Sick with cancer, Chávez handpicked Maduro to act as interim president upon his death. He took on the role in March 2013, and the following month, he narrowly won the presidential election triggered by his mentor’s death.

Maduro was re-elected in 2018 in a contest that is widely considered a sham. His government banned Venezuela’s most popular opposition parties and politicians from participating, and in turn, the opposition urged voters to boycott the election.

That authoritarian tilt was part of the rationale the U.S. used to impose economic sanctions that crippled the country’s crucial oil industry.

Maduro held two events Thursday, including a march in Caracas, marking the official start of his campaign.

Who will vote?

More than 21 million Venezuelans are registered to vote, but the exodus of over 7.7 million people due to the prolonged crisis — including about 4 million voters — is expected to reduce the number of potential voters to about 17 million.

Voting is not mandatory and is done on electronic machines.

Venezuelan law allows people to vote abroad, but only about 69,000 met the criteria to cast ballots at embassies or consulates during this election. Costly and time-consuming government prerequisites to register, lack of information and a mandatory proof of legal residency in a host country kept many migrants from registering to vote.

Venezuelans in the U.S. face an insurmountable obstacle: Consulates, where citizens abroad would typically cast their ballots, are closed because Caracas and Washington severed diplomatic relations after Maduro’s 2018 re-election.

Under what conditions is the election taking place?

A more free and fair presidential election seemed like a possibility last year, when Maduro’s government agreed to work with the U.S.-backed Unitary Platform coalition to improve electoral conditions in October 2023. An accord on election conditions earned Maduro’s government broad relief from U.S. economic sanctions on its state-run oil, gas and mining sectors.

But hopes for a more level playing field began fading days later, when authorities said the opposition’s primary was against the law and later began issuing warrants and arresting human rights defenders, journalists and opposition members.

A U.N.-backed panel investigating human rights violations in Venezuela has reported that the government has increased repression of critics and opponents ahead of the election, subjecting targets to detention, surveillance, threats, defamatory campaigns and arbitrary criminal proceedings.

The government has also used its control of media outlets, the country’s fuel supply, electric network and other infrastructure to limit the reach of the Machado-González campaign.

The mounting actions taken against the opposition prompted the Biden administration earlier this year to end the sanctions relief it granted in October. ___

Follow AP’s coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean at https://apnews.com/hub/latin-america

By REGINA GARCIA CANO
Associated Press

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