Venezuelans are being asked to vote twice in a week in two conflicting polls

Venezuelans vote to choose members of the National Assembly in Caracas, on Sunday, in elections that have been largely rejected on the international stage.

(CNN)This week, Venezuelans are being asked to go to the polls not once but twice, in two bizarrely conflicting electoral events.

On Monday, December 7, the government of embattled president Nicolas Maduro celebrated victory in parliamentary elections, largely rejected on the international stage.
Now, the opposition is holding a competing referendum to gather support and reject the outcome of the weekend's vote.
It's the latest split-screen episode in a years-long saga of Venezuela's rival presidencies -- and some observers fear it may also be one of the last.
    For the past two years Venezuela has effectively had two dueling presidents.
    In May 2018, sitting president Maduro was proclaimed the winner of a presidential election that was seen as shaky from the start. His opponents refused to concede the result, alleging fraud.
    Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro shows his ballot at the weekend elections, ahead of a competing referendum by the opposition this week.
    Even Smartmatic, the electoral product company that had managed previous elections in Venezuela, said it could not guarantee the validity of election results.
    But Maduro paid little notice and inaugurated his second term.
    This led the opposition to rally around the president of Venezuela's Parliament, a young lawmaker named Juan Guaidó, who -- according the constitution -- must rule ad interim should the presidency be vacant.
    Guaidó was sworn in as interim president in January 2019. More than 60 countries have recognized his presidency, including the EU, the UK, Canada and most of Latin America.
    But Maduro kept the support of China, Russia, Cuba and Iran, and control of the state apparatus, so while Guaidó's claim is de jure, Maduro is the de facto ruler in the capital city, Caracas.
    By staging competing elections, both parties are now essentially trying to build up their claims of legitimacy: Maduro by expanding control of state institutions in order to please international creditors, and the opposition by organizing their own parallel event to urge the international community not to abandon them and their supporters.

    Maduro's gamble

    According to official results released early on Monday, Maduro's party received 67% of the ballots in a vote where fewer than one in three voters bothered to turn up.
    Despite the low turnout, Maduro celebrated the result, hailing Sunday's election as "a great victory for the democracy and the constitution."
    Both the US and the EU have already announced they will not recognize Sunday's parliamentary election, but the new parliament it creates will nevertheless work on Maduro's behalf and further strengthen his control of the state.
    According to the Venezuelan constitution, commercial treaties and oil deals must be ratified by Parliament to go into effect. Clearing out the conflict between the executive and the once-independent legislature is seen as desirable for international creditors, such as China, who continue to invest in the flagging Venezuela oil industry.
    The election also erodes the legitimacy of Guaidó and the opposition movement, by removing them from control of the country's main legislative body.
    Most of the opposition had already decided not to participate in the election, calling it a fraud from the beginning.
    In the last five years, Maduro's courts have banned opposition political parties, sent lawmakers to jail despite parliamentary immunity and replaced opposition party chiefs with politicians less hostile to the government.
    The EU made a last-minute attempt earlier this year to send electoral observers if the election was postponed to early 2021 because of the pandemic, but Maduro insisted the elections had to take place in December, and as a result only a few international observers invited by the government audited the vote.
    On Sunday night, Guaidó highlighted the low turnout of the parliamentary election, calling it "a fraud nobody believes in."
    The opposition's own referendum, which begins on Monday, will ask Venezuelans three questions: If they want free and fair presidential elections to remove Maduro from power; if they reject the results of Sunday's parliamentary elections; and if they will give the current opposition leadership a mandate to "effort actions to bring back democracy, look after the humanitarian crisis and protect the people from human rights violations."
    The vote is cast online through a dedicated app or a Telegram channel, and open to both Venezuelans home and abroad, to tap into the largely anti-Maduro Venezuelan diaspora. The opposition expects between three and six million people to take part, and hopes to emphasize to both Maduro and the international community the legitimacy of Guaidó's claim to the presidency.

    What comes next

    This week's events are unlikely to change the current reality. Despite the competing claims, Maduro is already the practical leader of Venezuela, and the opposition has been reduced to its nadir over the past two years, with several top figures fleeing abroad.
    "To quote Churchill, we are going through the darkest hour of our Republican history," Humberto Prado, an opposition figure and close ally of Guaidó, told CNN.
    As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, Venez