If Sunday's elections in Venezuela proved anything, it is that the opposition to President Nicolás Maduro is caught in a trap: How do you fight for power at the ballot box in a country that no longer plays by democracy's rules?
That the opposition even participated in the vote — for the governorships in all 23 states — was always a calculated risk. As recently as July, Maduro's government held an election creating a new super congress stocked with his loyalists that was internationally condemned as a fraudulent power grab. The opposition boycotted that vote so as not to validate it. But it participated in this one, calculating that it could perhaps claw back a vestige of power.
Yet on Sunday, Maduro — the anointed successor of Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 — pulled off a surprising, some say too surprising, victory. The government had limited the opposition's airtime and, at the last minute, relocated hundreds of polling centers in opposition-heavy districts. Opinion polls had still predicted a big win for anti-government forces. But Sunday night, Maduro's socialists captured 17 states to the opposition's five — with one race still in dispute.
If the mission was to show the world that Maduro does not play fair — and in part it was — then consider it mission accomplished. The United States, which has already sanctioned Maduro and his inner circle and sought to squeeze Venezuela out of the U.S. financial system, on Monday strongly denounced the vote. It also offered a thinly veiled threat of more measures to come.
"We will work with members of the international community and bring the full weight of American economic and diplomatic power to bear in support of the Venezuelan people as they seek to restore their democracy," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
Yet the outcome, analysts say, could now leave the opposition more weakened than it already was. Some anti-government Venezuelans argue that by even running, the opposition aided Maduro, lending credence to the optics of a democracy that many say no longer exists. Others were disappointed that the opposition did not more forcefully denounce the government's tactics immediately following the vote.
Indeed, the opposition coalition appeared at least momentarily blindsided late Sunday, offering a vague condemnation that suggested foul play but stopping short of a direct charge of vote rigging. The government, it said, had engaged in dirty tricks on the campaign trail as well as on the day of the vote, allegedly buying off voters with cash and food and sending its thugs to disrupt the opposition's get-out-the-vote drive.
But had the government actually stuffed ballot boxes? Contradictions suggested the possibility. Carlos Ocariz, the opposition candidate for governor of Venezuela's important Miranda state, for instance, said his campaign's own exit polling showed him up by nine percentage points — a major discrepancy with the official tally that favored his opponent, a Maduro backer, by 52 percent to 46 percent.
But proving outright fraud is tough when democratic powers are so constrained. The government seemed to do best, Ocariz said, in rural areas where the opposition's legally permitted observers were allegedly barred from entering polling places. In addition, he said, phone signals in some areas where the government outperformed strangely went down during the vote, limiting the opposition's ability to monitor the balloting there.
Yet even he conceded that the opposition was dealing with an electorate so jaded and frustrated by the government's tactics that many did not even bother to vote.
"I did everything I could," he said. "We raised people's moral, tried to awaken them and went all around the whole state. We'll keep doing it. . . . This is not about a job, but about changing a system that brings lies, frustration and pessimism."
In a news conference Monday, the opposition again rejected the results, saying the electoral process was "fraudulent" and demanding an exhaustive independent audit overseen by trustworthy international observers. Its next moves were unclear, but it ruled out the possibility of negotiations with the government and urged the world to condemn the regime and increase sanctions.
"We went to these elections," said Angel Oropeza, opposition coalition coordinator, "knowing they would be arbitrary. But we were convinced that we had to confront the regime in this scenario to either conquer new spaces or to keep fighting."
But the outcome left the opposition in a deeper rut.
Following the collapse of oil prices and the corrosive effects of faulty economic policies, Venezuelans are suffering through a historic crisis marked by desperate shortages of food and medicine. Maduro remains deeply unpopular, with about 23 percent support. But without doubt, some Venezuelans, beholden to the government for food and jobs, still see supporting it as the path of least resistance.
Many others are fed up. But this year, months of massive street demonstrations that initially put enormous pressure on Maduro failed to change the game, while leaving more than 100 people dead. The choices facing the opposition going forward now are not good. Does it risk participating in more elections to face only similar, perhaps orchestrated defeats? Or does it boycott the political process, to suffer only more losses in local elections in the coming months?
Meanwhile, the opposition leadership must contend with supporters who have grown increasingly frustrated with its lack of a clear vision on how to confront Maduro.
"I'm not just disappointed in the government, but also in an opposition that does nothing," complained Daniela Duarte, an unemployed 38-year-old sitting in Caracas's Plaza Altamira on Monday. "They aren't prepared or qualified to confront this. I voted because I had the hope that they were. I thought they'd respond strongly, defend us. But the government robs our votes, and they just do nothing."