What’s at stake in Venezuela’s legislative elections?

Much is at stake in the upcoming Venezuelan legislative elections. After months of uncertainty, and amid intense domestic and international pressures, in late June the National Electoral Council (CNE, Consejo Nacional Electoral) set December 6, 2015 as the date for electing the 167 members of the unicameral National Assembly.

In Venezuela, legislative elections are held on a different date from presidential elections. The most recent presidential election was held in April 2013 to elect the successor to Hugo Chávez. Nicolás Maduro emerged the winner by a very close margin (1.4 percent) in a tense environment where the election result was called into question by the opposition.

Chavista hegemony at risk

Since the year 2000, Chavista affiliated parties have maintained majority control of the Assembly. Their predominance became even greater in the 2005 elections when the opposition made the mistake of not participating. The most recent legislative elections were held in 2010, when the pro-government forces, through self-serving reforms to the electoral system aimed at improving their own representation, obtained 99 of the current 165 legislative seats. This wide majority enabled the Chávez administration and now the Maduro administration to govern with considerable control and a wide margin of discretion, a situation that could change as of January 2016, when newly elected members of the legislature should take office. Currently the Assembly’s credibility is very low; nonetheless, it is a key site for political debate and governmental control, adopting laws—including the budget—and approving the key political authorities in charge of the principal branches of government.

For the first time in many years the pro-Chávez forces risk losing control of the Assembly. Among the factors that could have an adverse impact on the Maduro administration are the serious economic situation (i.e., high inflation, scarcity, corruption) and social situation (i.e., high levels of crime) that Venezuela is experiencing, as well as the marked attrition of support for the president as reflected in the polls. According to a leading Venezuelan polling organization, Datanálisis, 84 percent of the population believes that the country is on the wrong path and only 13 percent view Venezuela’s situation positively.

In response to this adverse situation, and given the fear of suffering an electoral disaster, Chavismo has stepped up political repression, unfairly jailing several opposition leaders (Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, among others). In addition, during the week of July 20 the Office of the Comptroller General (Contraloría General) announced that several members of the opposition have been disqualified from holding public office, including one of its leaders, María Corina Machado, and former governor Pablo Pérez. In response to these arbitrary measures the opposition coalition known as MUD (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática) announced protest marches and an international campaign to denounce the situation at the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations.

Electoral integrity and international observation

The integrity and credibility of this important electoral process depends on a number of critical and essential conditions. First, the government should put an end to political repression in all its forms (including by releasing political prisoners), cease harassment of the few independent media outlets that still exist, and roll back administrative measures aimed at hindering participation by the opposition. Second, the CNE should act with total impartiality and guarantee fair conditions throughout the upcoming electoral campaign. This would require avoiding the uneven “playing field” that currently favors pro-government political forces. Third, it must reestablish the principles of proportional representation enshrined in the Constitution and revise the currently gerrymandered electoral map to reduce the disparities among districts in terms of the number of votes obtained and the number of representatives elected, as occurred in the 2010 legislative elections. And fourth, the CNE should open the process to genuine international observation, which should not be limited to the “accompaniment” mission currently offered by UNASUR (Union of South American Nations). Accordingly, the OAS and the European Union, among other international organizations, should be invited to send their respective electoral observation missions with sufficient lead time to examine all stages of the electoral process.

Since 2006, Venezuela has impeded the presence of electoral observation missions except for the “accompaniment” missions of UNASUR, whose methodology (to date) differs significantly from that of the OAS, an organization that has deployed more than 200 electoral observation missions which are, with very few exceptions, widely recognized for their credibility.

In a recent conversation we had at the Carter Center with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and the Group of Friends of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, Almagro reiterated the OAS’s interest in observing these elections and said he disagreed with the political proscriptions that have been imposed in Venezuela.

In the near future, if the CNE does not send a formal invitation to the OAS or blocks its participation, the Secretary General should propose undertaking a collective assessment of the critical political situation in Venezuela by invoking Article 20 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. After all, as Rubén Perina (a former OAS official) quite rightly states, there is “the danger of an alteration in the democratic order, in terms of an election fraud or when Maduro announces that he will be the first one to take to the streets if the opposition wins….”

My Opinion

I fully agree with the recent statement by the 27 former heads of state of the Ibero-American states on the need for Venezuela’s legislative elections to be free, fair, and impartial, and calling for the elections to be held in a climate of absolute confidence and transparency. In effect, legitimate and credible elections are the best mechanism for breaking the current political deadlock, diminishing the acute polarization Venezuela is experiencing, and making progress toward reconciliation. On the other hand, electoral results that are not accepted by all contending parties could dangerously aggravate the already delicate and complicated situation facing Venezuela.

Ahead of the December 6 elections, the political climate will be tense and complex, and there is no doubt that there will be any number of obstacles and challenges on the road ahead. Given this outlook, the CNE (which currently suffers from a low approval rating) should act with absolute impartiality and ensure, throughout the different stages of the electoral process, full respect for civil and political rights as wells as transparency and fairness. If it acts counter to these principles, the legitimacy and credibility of the elections will be in jeopardy.

The countries of the region, for their own part, cannot continue to turn a blind eye or maintain a complicit silence in relation to the situation Venezuela faces. Both the OAS and UNASUR have a responsibility to make their best efforts to help ensure free, transparent, and fair elections that enable an institutional solution to the grave present crisis and help restore the full exercise of democracy in Venezuela.

This piece was initially published by International IDEA.