Venezuela Has a New Electoral Board. Don’t Get Too Excited
Last week, a new CNE board was appointed. To better grasp how optimistic Venezuelans should really feel, let's consider the tortuous history that brought us here
The appointment of a new National Electoral Council (CNE) by the “National Assembly” elected in 2020 brings up three topics of the utmost importance to the “opposition”, the “oppositions”, or whoever is against the Maduro regime. First, what we just experienced: is there an opposition in Venezuela, or are there several? Second, what will happen to the caretaker government? And third, what expectations should Venezuelans really have of the so-called electoral path?
One Struggle, Many Roads
The political tussle in Venezuela, since 1999, has had several ways of manifesting itself, from the protests against Decree No. 1,011 in 2000, to not running in the National Assembly elections of 2005, the National Assembly victory in 2015, the presidential elections in 2012 and 2013, and the caretaker presidency in 2019 and 2020.
Being used to voting between 1958 and 1998, the decision to run or not in elections since 1999 has been made on a case-by-case basis, according to the political context and different reasons that aren’t always compatible. Abstaining from running in the 2005 parliamentary elections came from distrusting the 2004 recall referendum results—another election—although, just one year later, we were voting between Manuel Rosales and Hugo Chávez. Another example is that, after the election between Hugo Chávez and Henrique Capriles (October 2012), Capriles presented a document that was over a hundred pages long to the Electoral Court of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, arguing why those elections should have been null. But in 2013, he ran again against Nicolás Maduro, and in 2015 the opposition as a whole went to the National Assembly elections—which they won. Another recent example, more revealing, if you will: when the National Constituent Assembly called for the 2018 presidential election, the opposition’s main political parties came together as a group and decided not to run, considering it a fraudulent process (which later became the legal foundation for the caretaker presidency), and Nicolás Maduro won the elections against the “opposition” candidate, Henry Falcón. But then, a few months later, the opposition took part in the election for governors: Juan Pablo Guanipa won in Zulia, but was never sworn in because he refused to take his oath of office before the National Constituent Assembly.
The Need for an Electoral Path
Whenever a political strategy different from the electoral route fails—demonstrations, abstention, a caretaker presidency—the need to “retake” the electoral path has been there, as if discarded by a group of zealots. Each of these political strategies, which differ from elections, has been the result of frustration provoked by the failure to bring political change through elections, and holding them under fair terms and with electoral integrity.
One of the consequences that this landscape will bring is that the regime will only recognize those in the opposition who are in line with the electoral route they’re laying out.
A vicious circle has been created through all these years: the electoral path won’t bring change, basically because it’s corrupted from within the CNE, which creates frustration, leading to another plan that disregards the electoral method, which fails again, leading to new frustration, and new strategies different from elections. This noxious version of democracy has been there since 2003, when the CNE itself put obstacles to delay the recall referendum by almost a year, from which Hugo Chávez came out victorious.
In this tradition, the caretaker presidency’s strategy ran out and has reintroduced the topic of elections in political discussions once again. The argument this time is that “shortcuts have failed, we have to retake the electoral path to build a new majority which will lead us to political change.” Elections for governors and mayors are due this year, and the regime has been bringing up the topic.
The National Assembly elected in 2020 appointed the five main CNE board members on May 5th. Out of those, two members (Roberto Picón and Enrique Márquez) are more or less close to the opposition spectrum. “A balanced CNE,” said a large portion of the public opinion. However, politicians, analysts, and academics have denounced that the appointment didn’t comply with constitutional and legal rules.
The truth is that the decisions the CNE makes, by institutional design, don’t answer to a simple two-to-three majority vote; there are sensitive decisions in the electoral process made by civil servants who can now make one-sided calls, like it happens in the National Electoral Board, the Civil Registry Commission, or the Political Participation and Financing Commission. Therefore, having two out of three members belonging to the opposition isn’t something to be happy about.
Today, we have a National Assembly whose election wasn’t recognized by the opposition or a good part of the international community and appointed a new CNE outside the Constitution and the Law, where two out of three main board members are considered to be from the opposition. Many political leaders, analysts, and observers in the international community see this appointment as a “first” step to an electoral path that could, eventually, generate political change in Venezuela.
But one of the consequences that this landscape will bring is that the regime will only recognize those in the opposition who are in line with the electoral route they’re laying out. This will have an impact on possible negotiations and in the topics that the opposition can place in the public opinion—and over the expectations Venezuelans could have regarding a solution to the political, economic, and social crisis.
That the regime “recognizes” a victory doesn’t mean the victor will be able to exercise any power. Look at Juan Pablo Guanipa.
And all this will deepen the differences between some in the opposition, which have grown with the withering of the interim presidency.
But Let’s Be Honest
Since we’ve seen this movie several times in Venezuela, it would be frank and responsible to significantly decrease the expectations around the “electoral path” being picked up again.
First, we have to acknowledge with intellectual honesty that there are no conditions for electoral integrity in Venezuela. For there to be free elections, certain requirements that don’t exist need to be met, which can be found summarized, among other studies, in the Informe sobre propuestas de reforma electoral en Venezuela, put together a few years ago by the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello.
Once we’ve accepted this, we need to consider if an electoral route without electoral integrity can be of any use. One of the reasons for retaking elections is to take care of municipal spaces, and any other that can be won, for example, on a regional level. The argument says that “I’d rather have an opposition mayor in El Hatillo, or Baruta, or in Maracaibo, than one from the regime.” This is hard to counter.
In the political parties circle, it’s often said that the electoral route is the only way to keep the party structure alive, which would otherwise vanish.
What doesn’t seem very honest, however, is to try to convince Venezuelans that “retaking” the electoral route (after failing in everything else) is a “first step” to rebuild a “new majority” which will take us to a national victory, triggering a political change to improve the lives of Venezuelans. The only time the opposition has managed a national victory since 1999 was with the National Assembly in 2015 and, as memory has it, that AN only succeeded in passing one law in five years, a law forbidding the use of cell phones in prison. That the regime “recognizes” a victory doesn’t mean the victor will be able to exercise any power. Look at Juan Pablo Guanipa.
If we’re “retaking” the electoral way, we have to make sure that we’re honest in the public arena first, and all the expectations should be based on that honesty.
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