Venezuela will hold parliamentary elections on Sunday to decide on the composition of the National Assembly, the only government department controlled by opposition parties in the deeply divided South American country.
The opposition leader and spokesman for the National Assembly, Juan Guaido, Venezuela’s self-proclaimed interim president and opponent of President Nicolas Maduro, has announced a boycott of the vote.
Guaido says the election is a fraudulent attempt to put the National Assembly in the hands of the government, while the United States, the European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS) have also said they fear that competition is not free and fair will be.
The Venezuelan opposition parties have instead called for a referendum, expected on December 7-12, to reverse the vote.
However, the Venezuelan government says the electoral terms are no different from the last National Assembly vote in 2015, when the opposition gained control. She has accused opposition leaders of pursuing a boycott because they are afraid of loss and are not committed to democracy.
“Since 2016, this opposition has refused to use democratic institutions,” said Andreina Tarazon, a Venezuelan politician with the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and president of the Center for Advanced Studies on Developing and Emerging Markets.
“They refuse to accept legal arguments and instead rely on the use of force as a means to bring about change in the country.”
After weeks of heated rhetoric and intense debates between factions, many Venezuelans hope the vote will bring more stability to the country, while some, particularly opposition supporters, fear it will affect democratic life in the country.
Here Al Jazeera examines what to expect in the general election:
How many people will vote?
According to the National Electoral Council, 20.7 million people – including 250,000 first-time voters – are entitled to vote in the parliamentary elections on Sunday.
The elections are taking place amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has infected more than 100,000 people in Venezuela, according to government data.
The government said voters must wear face masks, the voting machines disinfected after each vote, and the Bolivarian militia, a branch of the armed forces, are responsible for providing social distancing.
Almost 13 million people cast ballots in the 2015 general election.
A recent opinion poll conducted by Datanalisis found that 60 percent of the 500 respondents said they would not vote on Sunday, Reuters reported, while 34 percent said they wanted to vote.
Who will they choose?
The elections will vote 277 seats in the National Assembly, an increase of 110 from the previous term after the National Electoral Council increased the number of legislators in June.
The winners will be elected for five years from January 5, 2021 to January 5, 2026.
A total of 107 political parties take part in the elections.
Some opposition dissidents have criticized Guaido for calling for a boycott and they will vote in the elections despite allegations that it would give Maduro legitimacy, the AFP news agency reported.
Why is this choice important?
The National Assembly is the only one of Venezuela’s five state branches that the Maduro government does not control. It is also the only institution that can approve oil extraction and extraction agreements, a key power in oil-rich Venezuela.
In the opposition-controlled government since 2016, lawmakers have prevented Maduro from securing more foreign investment for the country’s oil industry, hitting the economy hard, and preventing the government from managing deals that turn badly needed capital into crude oil production could bring in.
This, along with US sanctions, has devastated the economy.
“This election is not a democratic process,” Ronal Rodriguez, researcher at the Venezuelan observatory at the University of Rosario in Colombia, told Al Jazeera about the upcoming vote.
“But it is relevant because it will give the government security to its international allies: Russia, Iran, Turkey, China,” said Rodriguez.
“You can now negotiate that will affect Venezuela’s natural resources and that will affect Venezuela’s economy as these negotiations are now recognized by the National Assembly.”
People raise their hands during a swearing-in ceremony in the Venezuelan National Assembly building in Caracas [File: Manaure Quintero/Reuters]The National Assembly can also approve public budgets and international agreements, and appoint public powers such as rectors of the National Electoral Council and judges of the Supreme Court.
In addition to these decision-making powers, the National Assembly is of central importance to Guaido.
The opposition leader became legislature spokesman in 2019, a position he accused Maduro of presiding over a fraudulent 2018 election, vowed to remove him and appointed himself interim president.
The move sparked large street demonstrations across Venezuela and was supported by dozen of nations, including the United States.
“This election could give Maduro and his party full control over the institutions,” Carlos Pina, an analyst at the Central University of Venezuela, told Al Jazeera.
“This could lead to a direct dialogue between his government and the US, as Maduro would have more room for maneuver in the country.
“If that happened, it would be a major blow to Guaido as it would be an effective US recognition of the Maduro government.”
Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido greets supporters in the low-income Santa Cruz del Este neighborhood of Caracas [File: Manaure Quintero/Reuters]
What is the government saying?
Maduro has campaigned extensively on behalf of his party’s congressional candidates – including his son and wife – and promised to finally silence the “radical” wing of the opposition, which he accused of instigating violent protests.
Maduro has been through tough US foreign policy. Last year his government was badly hit when sanctions against the state-owned oil company PDVSA were punished and cut off billions of dollars annually.
“The opposition does not yet understand the nature of the country,” said the politician Tarazon. “We believe in the principle of self-determination and will defend our autonomy.
“We will not advocate a policy that no longer subordinates our national policy to international interests.”
Nicolas Maduro Guerra, son of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and a candidate for a position in the National Assembly, looks on as his father speaks to the media before a softball game with ministers [File: Marco Bello/Reuters]
What is the opposition saying?
The opposition represented by Guaido says it will not recognize a “wrong” electoral authority.
Guaido has accused the government of appointing loyalist Supreme Court-appointed officials to the main electoral body to ensure support for Maduro prior to the vote, saying the electoral body should have been installed by the National Assembly.
Instead of voting in Sunday’s elections, Guaido and his allies will hold a “popular consultation” beginning December 7th aimed at gaining popular support for ending Maduro’s rule, holding new elections and seeking international support Measure solution to the country’s crisis.
Civil society groups organize the referendum without independent scrutiny or observers.
“The questions asked in this consultation have no impact on the lives of Venezuelans,” said Rodriguez.
“In essence, it’s a mechanism that tries to show this to the international community [the opposition] still has internal support that is supposed to be there and to demonstrate that it is visible in the political scene. “
What does the vote say about the future of Venezuela?
Analysts say these are challenging times for the opposition, and Guaido in particular.
“When you say you will recognize Guaido in power until the end of Maduro’s time, how long do you mean?” Luis Vicente Leon, president of the Caracas-based election bureau Datanalisis, said.
“One year, five, 20? Are we talking about an emperor? Sooner than later, this symbolic recognition of Guaido explodes when he cannot bring about change, and here Maduro wins the hand. “
Meanwhile, Venezuelans continue to struggle with hyperinflation, acute shortages of basic services, unemployment and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think people are losing interest in politics in the country,” Jose Meza, a Venezuelan journalist with El Nacional newspaper, told Al Jazeera.
“The population is at a stage where it is more important to survive and solve the challenges than to engage in a political struggle.”