Venezuela sets presidential election for July amid opposition candidate ban

Incumbent Maduro’s strongest adversary, Maria Corina Machado, was banned from public office for alleged corruption.

Venezuela''s President Nicolas Maduro crosses himself before voting in presidential elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, May 20, 2018 [Ariana Cubillos/AP]
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro votes in presidential elections in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 20, 2018. Maduro is seeking a third term in July [Ariana Cubillos/AP Photo]

Venezuela will hold presidential elections on July 28, the electoral authority said, with President Nicolas Maduro expected to run again – possibly without a strong challenger.

The date, which was announced on Tuesday, was chosen by the ruling party-aligned National Electoral Council after Maduro’s government and the opposition agreed in the Caribbean island of Barbados in October to hold a free and fair vote in 2024 with international observers present.

But in January, the country’s top court upheld a ban that prevents popular opposition presidential candidate Maria Corina Machado from running for office.

Machado, a former lawmaker, won the opposition’s independently run presidential primary last October with more than 90 percent of the votes despite the government announcing a 15-year ban on her running for office just days after she formally entered the race in June.

Her campaign has not commented on the election date announcement although the 56-year-old industrial engineer and longtime government foe earlier promised to stay in the race following the ban. A March 25 deadline for candidate registration could force the opposition to act.

The United States, which backs some factions of the opposition coalition, reimposed sanctions on Caracas following the ban on Machado, just as the two countries started to mend ties. Washington blocked US companies from trading with the Venezuelan state mining firm Minerva in January. The OPEC member could also see recently restored oil trade agreements with the US expire on April 18 unless Machado is allowed to run.

Washington initially rolled back longstanding sanctions on the country in October, conditioning relief on a prisoner swap and an electoral deal between Maduro and the opposition.

Opposition members expressed doubt at the time that the president would see the pact through. In December, the US granted clemency to Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman and Maduro ally who was being held in a Miami jail awaiting trial on a charge of money laundering, in return for 10 Americans imprisoned in the South American country.

Maduro, who has been in office since 2013, was re-elected to a six-year term in a 2018 vote criticised by the opposition, the US, and others as largely fraudulent.

Just months after a thaw in ties between Washington and Caracas, Maduro’s government did an about-face in February, shuttering a United Nations human rights office and arresting an activist.

Surveys by independent pollster Delphos in December showed that support for the president has waned slightly, with 25 percent of people saying they would vote for his ruling socialist party, down from 30 percent in the previous year.

July 28 is the birthday of the late President Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, who died in 2013.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies