BARINAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Sunday named a former foreign minister as his party’s candidate for a special gubernatorial election in the home state of his mentor, Hugo Chávez, that was scheduled after the opposition contender in November’s regular contest was retroactively disqualified.
Maduro declared Jorge Arreaza as the ruling party’s candidate via a livestream connected to a gymnasium in the rural state of Barinas packed with supporters who erupted in cheers as their new candidate promised them a comprehensive review of their communities’ needs.
The announcement came less than a week after the country’s highest court disqualified Freddy Superlano as he was leading the vote count, a move that has become emblematic of what the opposition says are unfair election conditions. The state in northwest Venezuela has long been considered a bastion of Chávismo., which made Superlano’s potential win particularly hard to swallow for the ruling party.
Superlano was ahead by less than 1 percentage point in the Nov. 21 race against incumbent Argenis Chávez, one of Hugo Chávez’s brothers, when he was disqualified. Argenis along with Adán Chávez and father Hugo de los Reyes Chávez have served as governors of the state of Barinas since 1998.
The opposition announced Saturday that Aurora Silva, Superlano’s wife, would take his place in the election. But Superlano’s campaign late Sunday said Silva appeared to have been disqualified but did not immediately provide details.
Leaders of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela convened in Barinas this week to decide on a new candidate after Argenis Chávez announced his decision to resign as governor and not enter the race again. They needed a unifying candidate after many blamed the election’s results on an internal rift.
“(This is) giving a golden opportunity to the community of Barinas to go to a new gubernatorial election,” Maduro told the crowd. “I thanked him publicly in that private meeting for taking a step aside and facilitating the appointment of a new candidate" in the election.
Venezuela’s Supreme Court of Justice on Monday ruled that Superlano should not have been on the ballot because he had been disqualified over an administrative sanction imposed in August stemming from his work as a legislator between 2015 and 2020. The ruling did not explain why Superlano’s participation was initially authorized while other candidates were kept out of the election.
The disqualification raised further doubts about the fairness of Venezuela’s electoral system following the first vote in years in which most major political forces agreed to take part and which was monitored by observers from the European Union. Maduro’s government invited the monitors but later called them “spies” after they issued a preliminary report critical of the electoral system.
The court is one of many government bodies seen as loyal to the Maduro government.
While a Chávez won’t be in the ballot Jan. 9, the man who founded the ruling socialist movement was ever present. Hugo Chávez was repeatedly mentioned in speeches, two large photos of him were on the gymnasium’s stage and his connection to Arreaza was also highlighted.
Arreaza is the father of one of Hugo Chávez’s grandchildren.
“In November, what happened here is that we were overconfident, and suddenly, the division played a role in the decision,” said Maria Jimenez, a local party leader. “It is a call for the revolution to keep up to date. The state of Barinas is the cradle of the revolution.”
The report from EU observers concluded the regional contests happened under better conditions compared to the country’s elections in recent years but were marred by the use of public funds and other actions meant to benefit pro-government candidates. The monitors also noted that the elections were tainted by the disqualification of opposition contenders.
Arreaza, who previously served as minister of industry, promised jobs and changes should he become elected.
“The president instructed me to listen to everyone, and we are going to do so because it is necessary for all levels of government to listen to the people of Barinas,” Arreaza said. “It has a lot to say, it has a lot to criticize, and it has a lot to contribute as well.”