By Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth
VALENCIA, Venezuela – Venezuelan evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci has promised to mobilize his vast network of followers in upcoming regional elections to defeat the ruling Socialist Party candidate and become governor of the industrial state of Carabobo.
But the country’s main opposition parties refused to back his candidacy following years of suspicions that he is a shadow ally of President Nicolas Maduro – allegations Bertucci calls unfounded.
The result is that two opposition candidates will be running for Carabobo governor on anti-government platforms in the Nov 21 vote, with the opposition’s Unity Platform coalition fielding former mayor Enzo Scarano alongside Bertucci.
“The government wants there to be division in all of the states,” said Bertucci in an interview in August. “We’re going to build unity.”
There’s little sign of unity ahead of the vote, which comes after three years of opposition election boycotts and a failed U.S.-backed effort to force Maduro from power through sanctions and the creation of a parallel opposition-led government.
In all 23 states plus the capital Caracas, at least two candidates calling themselves opposition leaders are expected to run against Socialist Party – strengthening the hand of Maduro’s allies.
The opposition needs to at least maintain the four governorships it currently has to renew faith in the ballot box as a means of confronting Maduro, said Luis Vicente Leon of polling firm Datanalisis.
“The objective of the regional elections is for the opposition to revive interest in voting and to reconnect with its base,” said Leon in an interview.
Failing to win any state houses, in contrast, would leave the opposition “pulverized” and allow Maduro to continuing consolidating power.
The regional vote, which also includes elections for 335 municipal governments, poses little threat to Maduro’s control of the country. He has hung on to power despite a breathtaking collapse of the country’s economy as well as a broad U.S. sanctions program meant to force him from power.
But for the opposition, it represents an opportunity to jump back into the fray after years of hoping that the armed forces would push Maduro from office.
The opposition has historically struggled to overcome internal bickering.
But this year’s vote has created a broad split between those who have for years confronted the Socialist Party and a group of relative newcomers including some candidates who have been accused of corruption and disguised ties to the government.
An alliance of politicians who sometimes call themselves the “minority opposition” has announced candidates in 23 states plus the capital, effectively splitting the ticket with the mainstream opposition.
Consulted about the problem of multiple candidates, Henry Ramos of the Unity Platform said, “I can’t answer for the actions of the scorpions,” using a pejorative term for politicians suspected of working on behalf of the government.
Some members of the minority opposition say they simply have different views and have been unfairly targeted as Maduro apologists.
Others have already faced significant public scrutiny.
In the eastern state of Anzoategui, legislator Jose Brito is running as an opposition leader despite being kicked out of the First Justice Party in 2019 following corruption accusations.
Brito, who denies wrongdoing and disputes being a shadow Maduro ally, did not reply to a request for comment.
Another nine gubernatorial candidates are running under the banner of Democratic Action, a party who leadership was named last year by the pro-government supreme court in a rare move that critics condemned as a state-sanctioned power grab.
Opposition activists says its current leader, Bernabe Gutierrez, will be unable to confront Maduro because his leadership of Democratic Action derives from a decision by Maduro allies.
Gutierrez, who is not running in November, did not respond to a request for comment.
At a rally in the downtown Caracas in September to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Democratic Action’s founding, he said he was willing to negotiate with other opposition leaders but had no plans to stand down.
“We’re willing to reach an understanding, but for those who do not want this and want to sow division, we will make sure this is known,” said Gutierrez before a crowd of supporters.