The opposition in Venezuela, which has fought a fierce political battle against President Nicolas Maduro’s efforts to consolidate his power, received on Wednesday a European Union prize for human rights.
The opposition urged the world to keep a close eye on an upcoming presidential election where it aspires to end two decades of socialist rule in the OPEC nation.
Maduro’s adversaries failed to dislodge him during months of street protests this year that turned violent killing more than 125 people. The opposition has been left dismayed to see him consolidate his power in recent months.
But they hope a presidential vote due in 2018 will galvanize exhausted and despondent supporters, and want foreign pressure for reforms to an election system they say is at the service of Maduro’s “dictatorship”.
“In the next few months, there should be a presidential election and we ask Europe and the free world to pay full attention,” Julio Borges, head of the opposition-led National Assembly, said, receiving the Sakharov Prize.
“The regime has kidnapped democracy, and installed hunger and misery,” he added during the ceremony at the EU parliament in Strasbourg.
The prize, named after Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, was awarded this year to Venezuela’s National Assembly and “all political prisoners”, according to the citation.
Venezuela’s opposition won National Assembly elections in 2015, but the legislature has been sidelined by verdicts from the pro-government Supreme Court and the controversial election this year of a pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly superbody.
Another opposition leader Antonio Ledezma, who recently escaped house arrest in Venezuela and fled to Spain, said the EU prize ceremony was a painful moment because of the scores of opposition activists still jailed.
“I cannot be happy receiving this prize knowing that in the dungeons of Venezuela there remain, unjustly deprived of liberty, more than 300 political prisoners,” he said.
Maduro, the 55-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez who has ruled Venezuela since 2013, denies the existence of political prisoners, saying all activists in detention are there for legitimate charges such as coup-plotting and violence.
The opposition has a dilemma in choosing its candidate for the 2018 race, given that its most popular figures cannot run: Leopoldo Lopez is under house arrest, while Henrique Capriles is prohibited from holding office.
On Monday, opposition parties said they will not be bullied out of participating in future elections.
As the ruling socialists captured a majority of mayoral seats across Venezuela on Sunday, Maduro said that opposition parties would be banned from future elections as punishment for boycotting the races.
Juan Mejia, a leader of opposition party Voluntad Popular, called the vote an "electoral farce," saying that his party would not be eliminated by a presidential decree.
"This party does not kneel," he said. "This party does not back down and does not give up on its principles."
Three of the four biggest opposition parties refused to take part in Sunday's contests, protesting what they called an electoral system rigged by a "dictator."
The tense exchange stems from Sunday's voting, which marked the last nationwide elections before next year's presidential race, in which Maduro is expected to seek another term despite his steep unpopularity.
At a rally held Sunday in the colonial center of Caracas, Maduro announced that pro-government candidates swept the mayoral offices as hundreds of supporters shouted "Go Home, Donald Trump!"
Communications minister Jorge Rodriguez said Monday that government candidates won 308 of 335 mayor seats.
"The imperialists have tried to set fire to Venezuela to take our riches," Maduro told the crowd. "We've defeated the American imperialists with our votes, our ideas, truths, reason and popular will."
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert condemned Maduro's threat in a tweet as "yet another extreme measure to close the democratic space" in Venezuela and consolidate power in an "authoritarian dictatorship."