On September 2, prominent Venezuelan opposition figure Henrique Capriles announced his support for opposition candidates in the upcoming December legislative elections. The announcement garnered international attention as Juan Guaidó, self-declared interim President of Venezuela and leader of the opposition, has also declared his intention to boycott the elections, saying they are certain to be fraudulent.
This rift within the Venezuelan opposition illustrates a major dilemma that democratic parties face when confronted with fraudulent elections by an incumbent regime—should they participate? Guaidó and his allies believe, given the current regime’s history of manipulating elections, that the opposition can best draw domestic condemnation and international attention by openly refusing to participate. Moreover, they fear that willing participation in fraudulent elections legitimizes their outcome. Capriles, on the other hand, believes that condemnation of fraud can still be achieved, but opposition parties should not freely hand over all power to the regime and its allies, for the consequences (as demonstrated by recent Venezuelan history) would be dramatic.
There is no perfect answer that fully resolves this dilemma. Yet I contend that Capriles’s argument, that an opposition should participate in elections, is better than Guaidó’s. By refusing to participate, opposition parties not only lose the practical benefit of holding seats in government, but further harm themselves in two ways: they injure democratic norms and strengthen the argument of antidemocratic populism.
The act of boycotting elections is inherently injurious to democratic norms, thus contributing to democratic erosion. The Organization of American States (OAS) captured this sentiment following a previous Venezuelan opposition boycott in 2005, “Every democracy requires an institutional opposition committed to the electoral process.” It is the duty of an opposition to provide alternatives to an incumbent party’s rule, even when the ultimate election outcomes are unfairly decided.
Although the OAS statement was issued in 2005, when Venezuelan democracy was still mostly functional, I believe it remains equally valid during a democratically-eroded or even undemocratic regime. As Nancy Bermeo argues in “On Democratic Backsliding,” the very nature of democratic erosion allows for “reversing backsliding,” and that undemocratic regimes are less sustainable today than in the past.  By neglecting to uphold the democratic obligation of presenting a vigorous opposition to a ruling party, Guaidó and his allies only make it harder to convince citizens to restore democratic norms and democratic governance.
The second argument against boycotting elections, that such boycotting fuels antidemocratic populism, is obviously only valid in countries where the threat of populism exists. Yet given the growth of populism in the past decade, where countries from virtually every part of the globe have shown susceptibility to populism, this concern must not be overlooked. 
According to Jan-Werner Müller in What Is Populism?, democratic politicians attempt to combat undemocratic populism by ignoring and excluding populists. But unexpectedly, this only further strengthens the populist argument: populists claim that their views are ignored by elites and that the voice of “the people” is silenced by the current democratic system. Müller argues instead that the only way to properly deal with populists is by interacting with them, analyzing their claims, and working to disprove them. 
With this in mind, it is easy to see why boycotts of elections fuel populist sentiment. “Established” democratic parties, like those in Venezuela, are criticized by populists as corrupt, out-of-touch, and hostile to the will of the people. In refusing to challenge populists come election day, democratic parties unknowingly acknowledge that characterization as true. Populists can easily cast such boycotts as elites fearing to face the judgement of the people, making the situation worse for democratic parties. Whether in mature democracies or autocracies, democrats must always be willing to interact with and oppose their opponents, at the very least to combat the potent populist sentiment of ignorance by the ruling elites.
While Guaidó and allies are concerned that participating in elections lends them legitimacy and undermines domestic and international condemnations of fraud, these concerns are mostly unfounded. Internationally, democracy and free and fair elections continue to be widely accepted virtues, as explained by Bermeo.  Election fraud remains a risky move by autocrats, especially given how much effort has been devoted internationally to election-monitoring. Boycotting elections does nothing to help such election-monitoring, and ultimately costs opposition leaders their seats in government; it does virtually nothing to garner international support against autocrats.
Domestically, it is admittedly more difficult for democratic parties to justify participating in fraudulent elections. When ruling autocratic parties control the media and manipulate the flow of information, like in Venezuela, it is easier for them to justify their undemocratic actions to the public, as explained by Adena et al. in “Radio and the Rise of The Nazis in Prewar Germany.”  But the alternative to participating in elections—boycotting—actively injures the reputations of democratic parties. The costs of boycotts far outweigh the gains.
It is very difficult to combat autocracies operating under a hoax of democracy. But democrats like Guaidó must not take steps that seem good at first, but do severe long-term harm to democratic parties and principles. As Capriles argues, “We’re not going to leave the people without an option” in elections, no matter how unfair those elections may be. To boycott elections is to abandon the democratic responsibility that opposition parties have to challenge the ruling party. The choice is clear.
 Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 27 (1 January 2016).
 Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, “How Democracies Fall Apart,” Foreign Affairs, December 5, 2016.
 Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 82-85.
 Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding.”
 Adena et al. “Radio and the Rise of The Nazis in Prewar Germany,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 130 (November 2015), 1885-1939.