The Real Risk That Maduro Would Defy Election Defeat

As Venezuela's government becomes nervous about possible defeat in parliamentary elections Sunday, its threatening rhetoric shows signs it might refuse to acknowledge a loss at the polls. Then, all bets are off.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Nov. 30
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Nov. 30


BOGOTA â€" All signs indicate an imminent victory for the opposition in Venezuela's legislative elections Sunday, and that means the beginning of the end for the authoritarian regime of President Nicolás Maduro, and for 16 years of socialist Bolivarian rule launched by the late Hugo Chavez.

And yet, the government's blatant superiority in strength, political violence, disqualification of opponents and the possibility of fraud are setting off alarms, notably at the Organization of American States (OAS).

As pessimism builds at the presidential palace in Caracas, the Venezuelan leadership has adopted a more aggressive discourse, using abusive language and, worse, implicitly threatening that it won't recognize the results of Sunday's polls. Maduro has said that "in that hypothetical, distorted, rejected" situation (meaning an opposition victory), he would assume his "political and military" responsibility and even "take to the streets."

The explanation for such crazy talk is in what the polls are saying, that the opposition is between 20 and 30 points ahead of the pro-government coalition. Amid the simmering distrust and tensions, an opposition politician was shot dead days ago at a rally. Luis Manuel Díaz, a regional leader for the opposition MUD coalition, was killed at a gathering that included Lilian Tintori, wife of detained politician Leopoldo López who has herself become one of the opposition's most visible international faces.

The OAS, changing its previous, muted conduct, vigorously condemned the incident, and its secretary general, Luis Almagro, issued a communiqué urging the Venezuelan government to investigate. It deplored the intimidation of opponents and declared that the elections can't be an "exercise in brute force, violence and fear."

In typical form, President Maduro called the OAS "trash." Almagro wrote back saying he would be trash if he "were lenient with killings, threats and the logic of fear. We would be trash if deaths in Venezuela did not affect us." He urged Maduro to disband armed groups, "especially those dependent on the government and its party," the socialist PSUV.

Almagro is right, of course, and all regional governments should state their support for the OAS posture, especially since the other regional grouping, UNASUR, and its secretary general, Ernesto Samper, a former president of Colombia, have had a shameful attitude towards Venezuela so far.

Several issues are at stake on Dec 6. One is the need to wrench control of parliament from the government and its allies. The president has so far had tight control of not only the three branches of government â€" executive, legislative and judiciary â€" but also other departments. The opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) is threatening this accumulation of power.

Venezuelans will be voting for 167 legislators, with 84 constituting a simple majority. We should recall that in 2010, the opposition won 65 seats, though the mathematical logic will not apply here, as this parliament's meddling with electoral boundaries â€" gerrymandering, as Americans call it â€" will make it difficult for the opposition to win the 100- or 110-seat absolute majority it needs to make big changes in the country. This means that the opposition, which is stronger in cities, will need to win about 60% of all votes just to get a simple majority. Go figure.

Either way, this Sunday could deliver the Bolivarian movement its first big electoral defeat since the constitutional referendum of 2007. With serious problems of corruption, shortages, inflation, crime and an increasingly authoritarian government, Venezuela needs changes now and in the medium term. Voters have the decisive word on this, and the government must heed their verdict.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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