The day came and went without any big surprises. The results of the Venezuelan regional and local elections were as expected. Chavismo won at least 19 out of 23 gubernatorial races (with one result still too close to call) and in a majority of municipalities as well, far from surprising for an election organized by an authoritarian regime. Another expected figure was the turnout rate, which represented less than half of the electoral census (the second-lowest turnout since governor and mayor elections are held in Venezuela), confirming the steady decline in participation since the parliamentary elections of 2015. This makes sense in a country where almost 20% of its citizens migrated and most of the people who live there feel increasingly disenchanted with all political parties or are disenfranchised in one way or another.
The real novelties of these elections were the return of an important part of the organized opposition to the electoral battlefield—except for one of the four major opposition parties, Voluntad Popular—after four years enforcing an abstention policy, and the presence of an Electoral Observation Mission deployed by the European Union (EU EOM), first of its kind on Venezuelan soil in 15 years.
Venezuelan elections haven’t complied with international standards of freedom, fairness, transparency and competitiveness for years. They lack the guarantees needed for an electoral process to have those attributes, namely, an unbiased and autonomous electoral administration, fair campaigning and all candidates’ equal access to public media, serious technical audits of the voting system, international electoral observation missions, enfranchisement of all able voters, among others.
The presence of the EU EOM—one of the few results of the currently suspended negotiations between government and opposition held in Mexico—was supposed to bring a level of certainty to the election and was one of the deciding elements that made the opposition partake, as it expected the mission’s certification of chavismo’s electoral tricks and schemes, as international observation. If done well, it’s indeed a key guarantee in environments of special instability and polarization, such as Venezuela’s, to ensure an election is technically and legally trustworthy.
Two days after the regional election, the EU EOM released its preliminary report. Although it admitted that some of the issues that affected the electoral processes in Venezuela had been addressed: like technical audits of the voting system, determining that the system guaranteed the secrecy of votes and that it was, in general, apt and safe; it also underlined the deep structural deficiencies of the system in its institutional and democratic aspects and on some technical issues.
Despite the suitability of the voting system at a technical level, which prevented anyone from voting more than once or stealing a person’s identity, and made it impossible for the electoral administration to tamper with vote counting and results, it pointed out a series of factors that compromised the election’s fairness, transparency, competitiveness, and freedom.
Among these, the mission’s report denounces the abusive use of assisted voting by the ruling party and the presence of partisan checkpoints outside voting centers despite their explicit prohibition, both of which makes it easier for the government to control the direction in which any person casts a vote. It also pointed to the lack of transparency of the electoral registry, which hasn’t been fully audited since 2005, despite numerous claims of irregularities.
It also warned about the disproportionately favorable campaign conditions enjoyed by the government: its use of public funds and public assets such as vehicles, state media outlets and institutional social media accounts favoring and promoting chavista candidates. This contrasted with the greatly disfavorable conditions of the opposition parties’ campaign, with their candidates being denied access to state media and facing self-censorship from private outlets.
Chief among the vices of the system were those related to the functioning of institutions. The EOM signaled as its main problem the undermining of the Rule of Law as a whole and, in particular, the lack of judicial autonomy. This translates, in the electoral field, to two especially pervasive problems. Firstly, many opposition parties had their executive boards and symbols surrendered by court decision to dissident factions close to chavismo, which prompted confusion among voters and transgressed parties’ rights. Using the justice system as an enforcer of PSUV’s electoral decisions has been a constant practice of chavismo. Luckily, in this case, foreign players like the EU EOM have been keen enough to point it out.
Many opposition leaders and even dissident chavista politicians were barred from running for office, imprisoned, or forced into exile, which could diminish their respective parties’ probabilities of winning by having less notorious candidates running in the election. It thwarts the opposition’s chances of an electoral victory and it also weakens the election’s overall competitiveness and fairness.
Another important institutional problem comes in the form of the dependence of regional and local electoral committees, which are tasked with crucial operational duties like the transmission of voting data and proclamation of winners, on the centralized National Electoral Council. This ostensibly limits their autonomy for acting without interference from the centralized electoral administration officials, which are notoriously aligned with the ruling party’s interests, despite not being pointed out as such by the EOM.
This dependence replicates on the polling station officials, who are either normal citizens who lack experience and enough training—making them totally submissive to the orders and instructions of the electoral administration officials—or PSUV agents, who tend to replace those citizens who didn’t respond to the official notice issued by the National Electoral Council.
From all this, and despite its stated intention to keep an absolutely neutral position, it’s evident that the EU EOM’s preliminary assessment was negative, basically considering the return of the opposition to the electoral battlefield a success on itself, but raising serious concerns about the general fairness of the election.
Normally, this would be considered a heavy blow to the government’s pretenses of running a full-fledged democracy, but it isn’t. To Maduro, the mere deployment of the EU EOM was enough to accomplish his goal of gaining some legitimacy. It doesn’t matter what the report said or how hard the criticism against his regime is. To him—and he’s right on this—the presence of a respected international body in Venezuelan territory to observe an election organized under his watch was an indirect acknowledgment of his government’s legitimacy.
The actual work, content, or conclusions of the EU EOM don’t matter. The fact that the mission was allowed to come would be enough in the eyes of an important part of the international community to highlight Venezuela’s purported return to the right path.
The main problem with the EU EOM is that it doesn’t represent by itself enough of a guarantee for the freedom, fairness, transparency and competitiveness of the Venezuelan elections. It had to converge with those other important requisites that weren’t met. That was inevitably going to make for a tainted and unreliable election. Knowing this for a fact, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell decided to deploy the mission, against the advice of his own staff that alerted him of the risks.
According to a report presented to him by the officials he sent to Venezuela to review the possibilities of sending an EOM, a deployment would precisely legitimize Maduro, stain the reputation of the EU’s election observation missions and go against the political line of Europe on Venezuela.
They are right in their assessment of the situation. The EU EOM doesn’t represent a true shift of the Maduro regime to a more open and free political system, but just another stepping stone on its metamorphosis from an authoritarian government cracking down on its unruly dissidence and repulsed by the international community, to a regime in full control of its opposition, which only functions as an electoral validation tool to the increasingly tolerant European powers.
It’s up to the still independent sectors of the opposition to decide which path to take. If their long-term goal is the gradual dismantling of Venezuela’s dictatorship through a recovery of political normalcy and cohabitation with the regime, they have to know that the current situation won’t lead to a true cohabitation in which they could progressively gain independent power quotas and spaces. If their wish is to submit to the rocky electoral road, they must necessarily collate it with other strategies, mainly a negotiation agenda supervised by the biggest international stakeholders in Venezuela: the U.S., Russia and China, trying to benefit from the leverage they still have in the form of international sanctions and pawns like Alex Saab and Hugo “El Pollo” Carvajal. Otherwise, Venezuela will be condemned to waning under an old dictatorship with a fresh face.
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