CARACAS, Venezuela – Negotiators for Venezuela’s opposition say they will return to the negotiating table next week as international pressure mounts on President Nicolas Maduro’s government over its decision to push up presidential elections.
The main opposition alliance announced Saturday that it would rejoin talks even as it harshly criticized the government for torpedoing prospects for a breakthrough by unilaterally setting a deadline for elections and banning it from the ballot.
The decision ends days of speculation that the Democratic Unity alliance could abandon the negotiations after one of its biggest parties announced it was boycotting the talks, which have been taking place in the Dominican Republic.
“We are obligated to keep fighting in all arenas for electoral guarantees,” Democratic Unity said in a statement.
In agreeing to return to the negotiating table on Monday, the opposition alliance said it would renew its push for guarantees that voting will be free and fair. Those include allowing foreign election monitors, lifting an electoral ban on several opposition leaders and guaranteeing that millions of Venezuelan exiles won’t be disenfranchised.
The pro-government national Constituent Assembly surprised Venezuelans this week by calling for an election to be held by the end of April.
While no date was set, Maduro immediately announced that he wants to run as the ruling socialist party candidate, pressing for the vote to happen on the earliest possible opportunity. Typically elections are held toward the end of the year to avoid a long transition when the new six-year presidential term begins in January 2019.
Foreign governments were quick to condemn the move, saying it undercuts the negotiations that have been taking place on and off since December.
Further stoking concerns that the vote will be rigged even before Venezuelans head to the polls, the government-stacked Supreme Court on Thursday night barred the coalition from being on the ticket, meaning whichever candidate runs against Maduro will have to do so under a less-recognized party banner.
Although polls say Venezuelans overwhelmingly blame Maduro for widespread food shortages and quadruple-digit inflation, Maduro heads into the race the clear favorite against an opposition divided and rudderless following the collapse of a deadly protest movement last year seeking the president’s removal.
Several of its leaders have been barred from standing for office, including Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro in special elections following the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013, and activist Leopoldo Lopez, who has been under house arrest since being released from jail last year. Others have fled into exile.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday became the latest foreign leader to condemn Maduro, saying that he’s open to additional European Union sanctions to punish the government for its “unacceptable authoritarian shift.”
Venezuela’s government reacted Saturday by calling Macron’s statement “a hostile and unfriendly act by the leader of a nation with which Venezuela has cultivated historic and fraternal ties” and accused Macron of trying to become “a faithful copy” of the U.S. government.
The EU on Monday imposed economic and travel sanctions on seven senior Venezuelan officials, sparking a tit-for-tat flare-up with the Spanish government that led both governments to expel each other’s ambassadors in protest. Venezuela one month ago also expelled top diplomats from Canada and Brazil.
The Trump administration has said it won’t recognize the results of Venezuela’s “snap” presidential election if it is held, saying the vote would be “neither free nor fair.”
Argentina, Brazil and Mexico were among a coalition of 14 mostly conservative Latin American governments that also issued a harshly worded statement saying the early vote contradicts democratic principles and does not align with international standards.
“If the elections are carried out without these guarantees, Colombia will not recognize them,” Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos said from Davos, Switzerland.
The chorus of condemnation doesn’t appear to be worrying Maduro, who showed up dancing on stage at a rally Friday to support his candidacy. Government supporters say the opposition doesn’t have enough popular support to defeat Maduro at the ballot box, leaving its only option to be rallying international allies to force him from office.
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