Suddenly, Ballot Access is Hard

A skittish government has started creating arbitrary obstacles to granting official status as a party, meaning the ballot of the future will be nothing like the crowded ballots of yesteryear.

So what does it take to gain ballot access in Venezuela? What do you have to do to ensure a spot on that overcrowded papeleta we use to vote with? Basically, you have to get yourself officially recognized by CNE as a legit political party. In the past, that was dead easy — as witnessed by the kilometric ballots of yesteryear. But a series of new Supreme Tribunal rulings and the government’s newfound dread of electoral competition is making it all much harder: to the point that some historic parties may well disappear.

Venezuela technically has 67 parties — an insane number though, granted, many of them have activist bases that would fit in the back of a VW bug. Of those 67, two managed to automatically renew during the last national elections (PSUV and MUD, which is officially a party as far as CNE is concerned), three are not required to renew because they came into existence after 2015. The rest —including all the parties that make up the MUD— are waiting for the CNE to announce the dates and the locations for party members to express their support so they can be recertified.  

Even the venerable old Partido Comunista de Venezuela could disappear as an official party.

According to the Ley de Partidos Politicos, Reuniones Publicas y Manifestaciones (take a deep breath for the acronym: LPPRPM) of 2010, the minimum number of members a party has to have in order to be granted official party status is 0.5% of the voting population in at least 12 States. (As we’ll see, that last curlicue was a recently freelanced by the TSJ, and it matters.)  For the exercise, the CNE decided it will be using the usual system of fingerprint collection with special machines provided by voting company Smartmatic, which will likely prove to be a logistical mess.

In MUD, Primero Justicia, Voluntad Popular and Acción Democrática will probably be ok — probably. But the CNE’s new requirement will stretch quite a few other parties: some just don’t have enough activists to rally that many signatures. Others have plenty of activists, but massed in one place (Zulia, for UNT; Lara, for Avanzada Progresista, Bolivar for La Causa R).  

Jesus Gutierrez, from Unidos para Venezuela, has said that 25 political parties are planning to challenge CNE’s new rules, because they were unveiled too late. Even the venerable old Partido Comunista de Venezuela could disappear as an official party: they announced in November that they would not renew but that they would continue to operate anyway – imagine that!

CNE’s budget this year was cut down 92% and they still owe money to their main provider, Smartmatic, for the 2015 Parliamentary elections.

The renewal period for political parties was supposed to have coincided with the start of Maduro’s Presidency, and should have ended in November last year. A TSJ ruling on October 21st extended CNE’s deadline for six more months. The new deadline is April 21st 2017, with March and April the official months for parties to hold primaries and choose candidates for the regional election promised for sometime in June.

The road ahead is uncertain and disconcerting.

Last year the TSJ gave new interpretations to certain articles of the LPPRPM as well as the Constitution (of course). CNE’s budget this year was cut down 92% and they still owe money to their main provider, Smartmatic, for the 2015 Parliamentary elections. Tania D’Amelio tweeted that only 59 out of the 62 parties have filed for renewal, but the elections schedule for the year has yet to be published.

Anibal Sánchez from COPEI estimates that parties need at least 97,000 members in order to be renewed, which will be hard for the smaller parties. Even Juan Barreto is complaining about the measure, saying that it is unfair to measure all parties con el mismo rasero. Tomás Guanipa has been saying “quieren ilegalizar la MUD” on a virtual loop to anyone with a microphone for weeks, while Henrique Capriles and Freddy Guevara are staging surprise protests to demand elecciones en la calle.  UNT, for its part, wants more rules and procedures. Those guys love rules and procedures.

Three rulings

This conundrum comes from three separate TSJ sentences handed down last year, numbered 01, 415, and 878.  

Sentence 01 is the one that establishes that, in order to qualify for automatic renewal, parties need to have attained 1% of the votes in at least 12 States in the previous national election and it clarified that the 1% was measured by voto lista (which only applies in elections to collegiate bodies, like the National Assembly.) Before the ruling, parties needed 1% of the votes, but not necessarily in 12 different States (Article 26 of the LPPRPM).

Additionally, the tribunal ruled that if a party did not display its individual ballot as an option in the most recent national election, then it must go through the renewal process. This seems tailor-made to snare all the parties that ran under an umbrella alliance, such as the MUD. But it also includes small regional parties that did not offer a candidate for Parliamentary elections.

Finally it ruled that the 0,5% required to renew also must come from 12 different States and declared that no one is allowed to belong to two parties at once. This final note is going to prove the most difficult for parties, as switching around is commonplace and they will have to rely on their members in good faith when the time comes to express their support.  The sentence gave CNE 60 days to revise all party registrations and apply the new interpretation of the law… we don’t know if it ever did.

Sentence 415 then gave the CNE five days to announce the 62 parties that needed to renew their official party status, using the voto lista from 6D, 2015 as the reference election to fulfill the 1% in 12 States. They sort of did this eventually.

Confused yet? Everyone is. The TSJ might have gotten a bit lost in their own alternative facts labyrinth.

Finally, Sentence 878 reiterates article 27 of the LPPRPM on the cancellation of the registry and dissolution of political parties. The tricky bit is that this decision contradicts sentence 01 by ruling parties must have failed to show their symbols in two consecutive national elections to have to renew. The ruling expands on the definition of a “national election”, noting it does not exclusively refer to the voto lista set out in sentence 01. It reiterates the importance of Presidential elections, where national political parties did not offer a candidate under their banner, and mentions that many parties that were present in the 2012 Presidential elections were not present in the Parliamentary elections while others were present but did not gather the 1% of votos lista.

Confused yet? Everyone is. The TSJ might have gotten a bit lost in their own alternative facts labyrinth… but heed it we must!

Maybe the ambiguity is the whole point: by making it all so unclear, this new interpretation of article 32 gives CNE plenty of room to pick and choose which parties will be required to jump through which hoops to suit the government’s political needs. You can just imagine CNE ruling that parties que se han portado bien around the dialogue table (cough cough UNT cough) won’t need to go through this rigamarole. Evidently, PSUV will keep renewing automatically from now until El Intergaláctico makes his glorious return from the heavens.

We might also expect the CNE to “find” hundreds of people that have double membership and decide which parties to allocate them to. In theory, whoever you sign last for will be your party, but that information might get lost in the black box that is the CNE. Or perhaps just invalidating them both, just for spite. You can be sure chaos will ensue, and the government will then blame the opposition’s disorganisation as they announce the parties that did not fulfil the 0.5% requirement.

The upside — to the extent it is an upside — is the likely shakeout of a whole bunch of fake-ass microparties that never should have been on the ballot anyway. Hardcore political junkies might, I suppose, shed a tear for the Partido Autonomo Nacional PANA — but not many others will.

And while the parties obsess over their official status, the elections schedule is still not up so what will most likely matter is their unwavering commitment to, and professional display of, delaying tactics.


Isabel Bacalao

Isabel's resumé is a mix of international development and Primero Justicia. She dreams of revamping Venezuela's educational system, figuring out a way to streamline the country's NGOs, and working at an elephant sanctuary before they become extinct.