Venezuela's 'acting president' seeks parliamentary re-election

Alexander MARTINEZ, Esteban ROJAS
Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed acting President Juan Guaido, pictured in December, is seeking re-election as National Assembly speaker

After a tumultuous year in which he declared himself Venezuela's acting president and at times seemed close to toppling socialist leader Nicolas Maduro, Juan Guaido will bid for re-election as the parliament's speaker on Sunday.

While the first half of 2019 was full of drama, tension, an abortive military uprising, arbitrary detentions, US sanctions and a political tug-of-war, by the end of the year opposition leader Guaido's push seemed to have run out of steam.

Maduro appears firmly entrenched in the presidential palace, thanks primarily to the support of the armed forces, and Guaido is merely attempting to hold onto his primary role, as president of the National Assembly.

"We have more votes than we need," said Guaido about his chances of re-election.

It's the "most likely scenario," said political scientist Luis Vicente Leon, as the opposition-controlled parliament already has an agreement in place.

It is an important step for Guaido to continue his power struggle with Maduro after declaring himself in overall charge on January 23, 2019 -- a move acknowledged by more than 50 countries, including the United States.

He claimed the right to do so after declaring Maduro's 2018 re-election fraudulent, insisting the constitution authorized his ascension to the presidency.

But once Guaido is re-elected as National Assembly speaker, not much will change on Venezuela's political landscape, according to Peter Hakim, president emeritus at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

"I would guess Maduro keeps hold of the government with the support of the military, while Guaido heads an opposition that remains divided on issues and strategy," Hakim told AFP.

Guaido insists he will "do more, correct things, redouble efforts" but his challenge to the Chavist regime has been stalled for months.

For all his backing from Washington -- including sanctions against senior regime figures -- Guaido's momentum has been stifled by Maduro, who can count on support from China, Russia and Cuba.

Guaido's popularity has waned and recent accusations of corruption among his inner circle have been damaging, but he remains "the most popular political figure in Venezuela," according to Michael Shifter, Inter-American Dialogue's president.

Some 44 percent of Venezuelans are in favor of his re-election as the parliament's speaker, according to a survey by Datanalisis.

- Trump's 'lost interest' -

Guaido has not wavered in his demand for an end to Maduro's "usurpation" followed by a transitional government and free and transparent presidential elections.

But presidential elections this year are highly improbable, according to Shifter, who said there was "no sign that the upper echelons of the military (are) ready to abandon Maduro."

This is despite an economic crisis that has led to shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicines and sky-high inflation the IMF predicted would reach 200,000 percent for 2019.

There will be one vote this year, though, as legislative elections are due in which Maduro is confident of taking back control of the National Assembly, the only branch of government in opposition hands.

The Constituent Assembly -- a controversial grouping of regime loyalists set up by Maduro in 2017 to supplant parliament, whose every decision has since been annulled by the supreme court -- is due to set a date for those elections.

Guaido has already said the opposition will boycott any election called by the Constituent Assembly, which he considers illegitimate.

But Shifter believes he is nonetheless likely to focus on parliamentary elections to avoid losing control of that branch.

Crucially, Guaido also faces the possibility of losing the support of US President Donald Trump.

"Trump has seemingly lost some interest in Venezuela since last January. He was led to believe that Maduro's fall was imminent," said Shifter.

"In 2020 he will be totally consumed by his re-election, dealing with his impeachment in the House and his likely acquittal in the Senate."

Trump's "aggressive rhetoric" against Maduro will continue, but only to galvanize support from Venezuelan and Cuban exiles in Florida opposed to the radical leftist regimes in their homelands.

"Trump's decisions about what to do about Venezuela, will be the crucial element in 2020," said Hakim.