A Second Independence Day? Scenarios for Venezuela’s July 28 Election

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This piece was updated on July 11, 2024, to clarify that the scenarios considered represent only those in which the Maduro regime seeks to remain in power and are not an exhaustive list of all potential electoral outcomes.

Expectations for Venezuela’s upcoming elections on July 28 are astronomical. For many Venezuelans, the day represents something akin to a second independence day. Much is at stake: liberty, respect for fundamental human rights, economic and social prosperity, and the reunification of Venezuela’s many separated families, given that nearly 8 million have fled the Maduro regime’s authoritarian grip and unprecedented economic mismanagement.

For a country accustomed to electoral disappointments, something about this year feels different. One thing is clear: Venezuelans want to vote, and above all, bring home the many who have migrated abroad in search of a better life. Thanks to the electrifying and once-in-a-generation leadership of Maria Corina Machado and Edmundo Gonzalez Urrutia (her replacement as presidential candidate after the Maduro regime banned her), the opposition is in a better position than it has been in many years to compete in an unfree and unfair presidential election. At the very least, Machado’s leadership has managed to completely unmask the Maduro regime, peeling away even its erstwhile allies in Colombia and Brazil, which have grown tired of Maduro’s authoritarian antics.

Thus, the Maduro regime is in trouble, and knows it. Most of the polling to date shows Maduro losing by 20- to 40-point margins. Even the most generous polls show Maduro likely to lose by 10 points. This is both a function of Machado’s tireless efforts to travel the country and evade regime efforts to stop her and an overwhelming desire among Venezuelans for change.

This is the first time in 11 years that Maduro will put his presidency on the line in any serious way, and despite the writing on the wall, the regime has shown no sign of retreat or a willingness to hand over power in a postelection transition process. This is because Maduro knows that regime strength and regime survivability are two different concepts. Indeed, it is more likely than not that the regime, devoid of fonts of strength, will nevertheless seek to remain in power and continue its authoritarian grip on Venezuela. After all, Maduro stated at a recent campaign rally that the regime would win “by hook or by crook” (por las buenas o por las malas) (authors’ translation). Others have noted Chavismo’s “hegemonic vocation”—a persistent will to stay in power.

The U.S. government and the international community should prepare for all possible scenarios wherein Maduro clings to power. Although this list is far from comprehensive, these are several of the most likely scenarios before, after, and during election day.

Photo: CSIS

Scenario 1: Postponement or Cancellation

In many ways, postponement or cancellation is the least attractive and riskiest option for Maduro. The regime leverages managed elections to simulate competition and wrap itself in the fig leaf of “democracy,” all while consolidating political power. Maduro has been under the cloud of rigged elections for the better part of a decade, but especially in his current mandate. Having beaten back the interim presidency of Juan Guaidó—which had its origins in the rigged election of 2018 and Maduro’s self-inauguration—the regime would ideally like a victory that permits it to escape international scrutiny, illegitimacy, and most importantly, sanctions. Postponing or canceling the election also carries with it the risk of having to reschedule the election under new U.S. leadership with a tougher Venezuela policy.

Done simply, the Maduro regime could announce the postponement or cancellation of the election by fabricating multiple types of conspiracies. Recently, regime figures have announced ersatz assassination plots against Maduro (the “White Bracelet” plots), disrupted “terrorism” plots against the electoral authorities, thwarted supposed opposition plots against infrastructure in Venezuela, warned of alleged sabotage of the national power grid, and conjured plotting from the Argentine embassy, where campaign staff from Machado’s team are currently seeking asylum due to the regime’s persecution. While “assassination” and “terrorism” might seem an exaggerated scaffolding for postponement or cancellation, Maduro has called Vente Venezuela, Machado’s political party, “Vente Terrorista” (Come Terrorist) on the campaign trail. Fabricating these plots has been made easier thanks to the regime’s so-called Anti-Fascism Law, a highly repressive law that punishes certain speech (or lack thereof).

If the Maduro regime desired a larger, grander reason for postponement or cancellation of the election, manufacturing a national crisis is also possible. The most immediately available crutch in this scenario is the dispute over Guyana’s Essequibo territory. In this scenario, Maduro would order the armed forces to stage some kind of crisis with Guyana with the goal of provoking a reaction or planting a false flag. Under the guise of a state of conflict, Maduro could declare that Venezuela does not have the requisite peace and stability domestically to hold elections (pointing to Ukraine as a country suspending elections during conflict). He would likely smear the opposition as traitors and accuse them of working with Guyana to sow instability.

This scenario entails a major risk of escalation or miscalculation, as CSIS has written elsewhere. The cohesion that Maduro has sought to desperately forge across Venezuela’s armed forces would be at risk as the result of such an operation. For example, recent moves—creating a military rank above general, altering a photo of Machado to claim she supports eliminating the armed forces—belie the level of confidence in the armed forces’ loyalty necessary to leverage the dispute with Guyana or any other conjured threat as the crisis point. Maduro’s recent coercion of Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez to make a highly visible and public statement of his loyalty only adds to these doubts.

Scenario 2: Sowing Confusion or Clearing the Field

If the Maduro regime does not postpone or cancel the election, they can continue their predictable tactics of clearing the field and undermining the Venezuelan people’s will to vote. In reality, this is a continuation of the status quo. The regime needs voter abstention rates to near 50 percent to have the best chance of winning.

The best example pertains to the difficulties of out-of-country voting. Of the estimated 7.7 million Venezuelans outside the country, many are eligible to vote—a right guaranteed by the country’s constitution. Only 69,000 Venezuelans, under 2 percent of potential voters outside Venezuela, were able to register. Over 4.5 million Venezuelans outside the country were unable to register to vote, which is nearly 20 percent of the national electoral registry. Despite Venezuelan law permitting absentee voting, which allows citizens to vote abroad at their local embassy or consulate, the regime has set forth a series of bureaucratic obstacles that make voting impossible. Venezuelans have encountered impossibly long lines to register, or spurious requirements like residency permits, passports, or not actively seeking asylum, that are not formally part of the registration process as per the National Electoral Authority (CNE). Many Venezuelans lack legal or regularized status, and even those who do have such status typically encounter difficulties registering. Venezuelans who fled the country are most likely to vote against Maduro—having voted already with their feet—so the regime has erected hurdles to prevent them from reaching the ballot box.

Maduro is also erecting barriers within the country through his persistent manipulation of voting centers in Venezuela. On June 24, the civil association Súmate reported a reduction of over 15,000 voting centers in the country and an increase in the number of polling stations under Maduro’s control. This indicates that the regime is also relocating voters without official notice, and it has even renamed more than 6,000 schools—common voting places—in the weeks leading up to the election, sowing confusion and disorder among voters regarding their voting place.

Additionally, the Maduro regime often uses the ability to disqualify opposition members to its advantage. Most famously, the regime has already disqualified Maria Corina Machado and her first preferred successor, Corina Yoris, from running. The regime could go further by invalidating Edmundo Gonzalez’s candidacy under a similarly trumped-up set of charges. If done shortly before July 28, this would leave opposition voters without a candidate for whom to vote and provide the opposition precious little time to maneuver. An even more extreme option for the regime is persecuting and imprisoning either Maria Corina Machado, Edmundo Gonzalez, or both. The Maduro regime has already jailed 46 members of the opposition’s campaign staff as well as activists.

This scenario would be extremely scandalous, especially as the election date nears, but it would signal Maduro’s desperation to clear the field to win without question. It would place Maduro in the same category as Nicaragua, where, before the 2021 presidential elections, president Daniel Ortega jailed the entire field of opposition candidates.

Scenario 3: Rigged Election and Mega Fraud

Beyond sowing confusion or clearing the field, Maduro may proceed to an election and, leveraging his close relationship with Elvis Amoroso and control over the CNE, announce an election result in his favor, with no documentation or proof whatsoever. This scenario has the benefit of allowing people to vote—a cathartic exercise that may release the opposition’s pressure valve—while not relinquishing power.

Regardless of whether or not the regime releases numbers and a paper trail, it is inevitable that their usual bag of tricks for impeding voting will be employed. This playbook has been honed over many elections, harkening back to the days of Hugo Chávez.

The playbook begins with a slew of procedural moves to commit electoral fraud at polling centers. Not only has the Maduro regime moved many polling centers without notification, but there are more than 2,000 remote polling centers in isolated places where oversight is difficult, as well as 228,000 voters registered abroad. All of these present the Maduro regime opportunities to alter the vote count. Further, the regime has a fine-tuned sense of where its supporters reside. In those regions and neighborhoods, polling places are known in advance and are well staffed. Regime mobilization schemes ensure that supporters will be rewarded with free food and other handouts at polling places, while national identification cards replete with Chinese technology from state-owned ZTE allows the regime to track citizens.

The regime also has a sense of where the opposition’s voter base resides. In the past, the regime has run “Operation Turtle” in these areas, intentionally slowing down voting centers where the CNE refuses to expedite the process or sometimes obstructs operations entirely. Furthermore, before voters can even arrive at the correct polling place, they often must brave regime-aligned thugs, or colectivos, intimidating and harassing them from motorbikes. And there is a further asymmetry—while the Maduro regime’s supporters are often located in more remote or peripheral areas where access is difficult, opposition areas tend to be urban and more accessible to disruptors. On top of everything, the CNE may choose to postpone the announcement of results, claiming that remote polling places have not transmitted results due to power outages—likely to be blamed on opposition sabotage and U.S. sanctions, given the regime’s accusations mentioned above—as happened famously in Bolivia in 2019 and in Barinas state in 2021.

To prevent the many iterations of procedural fraud possible on election day itself, the Venezuelan opposition has amassed a significant cadre of monitors and election witnesses. Victory on election day hinges on the competence of these witnesses and the range of polling places they can cover effectively. Registering the likely millions of protest votes in favor of the opposition that reside in traditional pro-regime areas—a phenomenon on display during the opposition’s October 2023 primaries—is a function of how well this network of monitors can be mobilized to defend the vote. The opposition recently declared that its network would be able to cover more than 90 percent of known voting centers on election day. In response, the regime-controlled CNE published a rule altering the eligibility to monitor voting stations: witnesses can only register to monitor stations where they are themselves assigned to vote. According to Venezuelan election expert Eugenio Martinez, this could impact up to 40 percent of the witnesses the opposition had in its network. The CNE’s new rule is intended to limit the number of polling stations with opposition presence and increase regime control.

The rigged election and mega fraud scenarios imply that the regime would severely repress protest and hunker down against opposition denouncements and pressure from the international community, hoping to ride out the storm and receive diplomatic cover from its authoritarian allies in Russia, China, and Iran. The reaction of the international community is also critical in this scenario, as without any substantial consequences for Maduro, he will not think twice about pursuing this path. For instance, it will be insufficient for the United States not to recognize Maduro’s legitimacy. There should also be a new individual sanctions package readied before the election for all of those involved in electoral fraud and the violation of human rights during the campaign and on election day.

If Maduro commits massive fraud, he is betting that the level of unrest will be survivable, short-lived, and not unbearably expensive in terms of the resources required to put it down. After all, the Venezuelan people are exhausted, remain focused on quotidian survival, and a desire for political change can only take one so far. Maduro’s nightmare scenario, of course, is to end up like Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who blatantly stole the election in 2019 but was forced to stand down by the armed forces.

Scenario 4: Opposition Wins, Regime Hijacks or Derails Transition

Edmundo Gonzalez could win the race, and a democratic and peaceful transition is the most desirable scenario. If Edmundo wins, there is a slight chance of the regime fragmenting after the election, and the military could support him in his effort to rise to power. However, it is highly unlikely that Maduro would admit defeat and hand over power without creating turmoil or seeking to hijack or derail a transition. There is a six-month window between the election and the inauguration in Venezuela. Maduro has hinted on the campaign trail that he plans to call for a national dialogue to forge greater unity after the election concludes. With less than a month before election day, Maduro unexpectedly announced that he would resume negotiations with the United States on July 3. Under this guise, the regime could seek to hold on to power through endless negotiations, a tactic Maduro has elevated to an art form over a decade in power. He could also push for a “power sharing” agreement, dividing the opposition into those who would accept this agreement and those who favor a cleaner break from Chavismo. Rather than giving any power to Edmundo Gonzalez, Maduro could appoint members of what the regime calls “loyal oppositions” (read: fake opposition) to ministerial positions to argue he is constructing a “unity government.” This scenario is still highly unlikely, given that Maduro would have to first admit defeat.


After the interim government of Juan Guaidó crumbled in 2023, Venezuelan optimism and morale was at its lowest. The opposition did not expect to be in such an auspicious position, much of it owing to the guile and grit of Machado herself. At the very least, Machado has unmasked the nature of repression in the Maduro regime, revealing that its authority rests on nothing but brute force. The keys to success thus far have been a unified opposition and a resilient population that has joined forces to remain focused on defeating the regime at the ballot box. A transition will not happen without a fight, however, and the opposition, the United States, and the international community should be prepared for whatever Maduro throws in their way.

Ryan C. Berg is director of the Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Alexandra Winkler is a non-resident senior associate with the Americas Program at CSIS.