Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

The Electoral Guarantees Venezuela Needs

Candidates and parties are gearing up for the regional elections announced for November, but we are still waiting for proper audits, global observation, and full participation

I must start this off by saying that every Venezuelan election since 2017 has lacked any legitimacy, not only due to the partisan nature of the National Electoral Council (CNE), the country’s top election arbiter, but also because there haven’t been enough guarantees for elections to meet the universally accepted attributes of freedom, fairness, transparency, and competitiveness needed for them to be considered truly democratic processes.

The upcoming elections for regional and local authorities close in, with some of the most visible opposition parties seemingly having made their minds to leave behind the abstentionism they enforced since 2017 and participate in them, as well as strong international actors—especially European Union diplomacy, led by Josep Borrell, known for being pretty tolerant of chavismo—showing a willingness to relax sanctions against the regime in exchange of minimally tolerable elections. Bearing this in mind, a fundamental question arises: have we finally met the conditions for a free, fair, transparent and competitive election?

Firstly, we need to take into account that a few months ago a new directive of the CNE was appointed, comprising a majority of governing party members and a minority of opposition figures. This prompted some political pundits to give their blessing, seeing it as a good sign, a step toward better electoral conditions. Some hardcore electoral enthusiasts even considered the new composition of the CNE as sufficiently good a guarantee for the opposition to make their way back into the electoral battleground, and for now, three of the big four antichavista parties seem to have bought into that idea.

They are wrong. Reality is very different. Though the new CNE board includes experienced opposition members—like former political prisoner and electoral adviser to the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, Roberto Picón—and not just government puppets, it’s far from being balanced.

Chavismo still has a tight grip over the electoral administration as a whole. The president of the CNE, Pedro Calzadilla is a former minister of Chávez and Maduro, and the Junta Nacional Electoral, a key bureau commissioned with all the operational parts of every election, is presided by Tania D’Amelio, a former chavista congresswoman, just to name a few major figures, so this new composition isn’t enough a guarantee to consider that any election has the aforementioned democratic attributes. 

Being this the case and having the certainty that, despite their highly dubious legitimacy—due to their political affiliations and the National Assembly that put them in charge own’s illegitimacy—the current top electoral officials will still be in office by November’s election without having their authority contested by the opposition parties, there are still plenty of other requisites that need to be met so those attributes can be reached. Specifically, three of them are non-negotiable. 

One: Serious Audits

For starters, we need adequate audits to the electoral system and the voting results. Venezuela uses an electronic voting system, and since it has a high degree of technical complexity and needs to be constantly updated, it’s of the utmost importance for every political actor involved in an election to audit its software and hardware components.

Since the opposition withdrew from the electoral scene, the adequacy of that electronic voting system has been questioned. Not only has the CNE plainly removed some software audits, it has also reduced the time for the remaining ones to be thoroughly implemented. Furthermore, these audits are basically performed by the CNE’s own technicians, reducing the role of independent organizations and political parties’ roster of experts to mere watchers. The object of control, and not the auditors, oversees itself.

What’s more, there’s been a sequence of events that put Venezuela’s electronic voting system under the microscope. First of all, the company that designed the system and supplied the technology for over a decade, Smartmatic, rang the bells for the possible oversizing of the National Constituent Assembly’s 2017 election results in over a million votes. After that, the CNE rescinded Smartmatic’s contract and hired a new company: Ex-Clé Soluciones Biométricas, which is sanctioned by the U.S. and little is known about its methods. Finally, they changed to a new electronic voting system last year since all of the CNE’s electronic voting assets burned to ashes after a fire broke out where they were stored.

All of this makes it impossible to know that the voting system won’t be tampered with in upcoming elections. Only the unreliable CNE and its suppliers have direct access to it. Independent, serious audits are needed, period.

Audits don’t end with technical proceedings, they also include “citizen verification,” which is nothing but the process of counting each individual vote on the paper traces issued by the voting machines every time someone cast their vote, and comparing them to the results that the machine generates after automatically counting the votes stored in its memory, in voting centers selected at random. 

This event has to be witnessed by every citizen who wishes to do so, but authorities often tend to impede people to be present during them and to ignore any disparity they show. I experienced this myself as I was arbitrarily expelled from a voting center by election officials and soldiers guarding the center when the citizen verification of the 2013 presidential election was going to take place, so it’s not a recent problem, but it’s something that if corrected, would make citizens trust election results again. Despite not having the technical precision of other audits, citizen verification helps a lot in making people feel safer about the political process.

Two: International Observation

The deployment of Electoral Observation Missions (EOM) in their Long Term format (LTO) by respected international organizations, another fundamental guarantee.

Venezuela’s electoral authorities are known for not allowing true electoral observation for the voting processes they organize, but only a mere “accompaniment,” primarily done by organizations chosen by the CNE, with activities limited to short visits to a few electoral centers in Caracas. When an electoral process is highly contested, the arbiter’s reputation is disputed, or simply as a way of ensuring peace among voters, both national and international electoral observation missions are allowed to supervise a voting process.

In a case such as Venezuela’s, where democracy itself is non-existent and an election seeks to begin its resurrection, an even greater deployment is needed in the form of a long term mission that goes beyond supervising the voting process on election day, but the whole electoral process in all its phases as well. This is a months-long endeavor that checks on the country’s authorities compliance with all four major democratic attributes. It’s done by entities such as the Organization of American States, the European Union and non-profit organizations such as the Carter Center.

This is precisely what the EU is studying to do, as it sent a delegation to Caracas which is currently discussing with different political actors if conditions are met for it to send an EOM for November.

In this sense, the EU should ponder what guarantees can the Venezuelan regime offer, but with such a short timeline, it will be difficult to ensure that all conditions are met for a democratic election. More than anything, the EU should decline to send a mission if the government only allows an accompanying mission instead of a full-fledged LTO whose members are granted freedom of movement and communication in the country, non-interference with their work, immunity against detention, and personal safety.

Three: Everyone Can Compete

Lastly, opposition leaders that have been banned from running for office by the government and parties whose brand and administration were hijacked by government collaborators with illegal court decisions, need to be rehabilitated, granting them their full rights back.

A country can’t have competitive elections if the people running in them are all aligned with the current government’s interests and the main political threats to its hegemony are either banned from running to office, imprisoned for political motives or exiled for fear of their security and lives. A vigorous and organized opposition guarantees an election where a true dispute for power, and not a pantomime, is going to take place.

There are other concerns, such as the unequal campaigning favorable to government candidates, the shady funding of most candidates, and especially, the use of public funds in chavista campaigns, “buying” votes with social benefits or even forcing to vote in a certain way under the threat of curtailing those benefits, and the heavy militarization of voting centers.

But despite all that, and even with a biased and insufficiently balanced CNE, those three are the main points that need to be met for an election to be considered democratic enough. The terrible prospect that Venezuelans face is that either of the G4 opposition parties (AD, UNT, Voluntad Popular and Primero Justicia) decided to run in the November regional elections without those conditions being met, or that the EU only sent a little accompanying mission. Even if only one of those parties chose to do so, and the EU condemned the final results, the damage would be done. The government’s false narrative of a radical faction trying to forcibly topple a “democratic system” will be out there.

Anything less than those three guarantees shouldn’t be admitted under any circumstances, as it would only make international actors believe that democracy is finally blooming again in Venezuela, when we know it’s been buried under layers of dirt, blood, and concrete.