Venezuela Elections 2015 – No Room for Credible Observation
Venezuela Elections 2015 – No Room for Credible Observation
Venezuela: The Twilight of Maximum Pressure
Venezuela: The Twilight of Maximum Pressure
A member of the militia at election time. The ink is used to prevent multiple voting. CRISIS GROUP/Oliver Schmieg
A member of the militia at election time. The ink is used to prevent multiple voting. CRISIS GROUP/Oliver Schmieg
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 8 minutes

Venezuela Elections 2015 – No Room for Credible Observation

On 6 December, Venezuela faces its most competitive election this century, and one that will play a crucial part in determining whether the country’s severe political, social and economic crisis can be resolved non-violently. For the first time since 2003, opinion polls show the opposition leading by around 20 points, putting it on course to take control of the 167-seat National Assembly. So concerned is President Nicolás Maduro at the prospect that he has threatened to take to the streets to “defend the revolution” if the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance wins a majority.

The danger is clear. Credible international election observation would help minimise the risk of a disputed result, but the government has once again refused to accept observer missions, dismissing them as a form of interference in its internal affairs. Instead, it will allow only “accompaniment” – a highly restricted form of observation which in the past has amounted to little more than an uncritical endorsement of the electoral authority (CNE).

In July, Crisis Group issued a briefing that expressed concern over the deterioration of Venezuela’s political situation. A sharp fall in real incomes, major shortages of essential foods, medicines and other basic goods and breakdown of the health service are elements of a looming social crisis.

In August, the government declared a state of emergency in areas along its western border with Colombia, suspending some civil rights, closing border crossings, and deporting more than 1,000 Colombians. Maduro said the measures were necessary to combat smugglers and “paramilitaries”. The opposition fears that the suspension of constitutional guarantees, which has since been extended to other border areas, will affect the election.

A number of key opposition candidates have been banned from standing, the electoral system has once again been adjusted to favour the ruling party, and on 10 September opposition leader Leopoldo López was jailed for nearly fourteen years for his role in street protests last year in which dozens died.

These developments point to the likelihood of an extremely bitter and inequitable election campaign. In 2013, the MUD and its presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, refused to accept Maduro’s victory, but the election authority (CNE) and the Supreme Court (TSJ) declined even to consider their demands for a partial or total annulment. Both bodies remain under the control of the executive, which rejected calls last year to use the opportunity afforded by a large number of vacancies in key posts to restore the political neutrality called for by the constitution.

These decisions, together with the CNE’s refusal to set a date for the parliamentary elections until the last possible moment, contributed to a sharp decline in its credibility. In one mid-2015 poll, 50 per cent of respondents said they had “no confidence” in the election authority. If the December election is to be effective in channeling the electorate’s frustration in the direction of peaceful change, the presence of competent and reputable international observer teams is vital.

Observation VS “Accompaniment”

The government has repeatedly rejected such requests. Maduro himself, speaking to journalists at the UN in New York in late July, said Venezuela “will not be monitored by anyone”. A month later, in response to insistent calls by the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, he again dismissed the idea, saying the OAS as an organisation should, “die in peace”. CNE chair Tibsay Lucena insists that foreigners should be limited to a role described as “accompaniment”, under which any criticisms they may have are subject to what amounts to a CNE veto.

Missions accredited for accompaniment are obliged to “avoid subjective appraisals of the stages of the electoral process” before delivering their reports to the CNE. Thereafter, they are permitted to publish only an “objective summary” of their results. In practice, “subjective appraisals” are permitted so long as they are uniformly positive.

These conditions are unacceptable to professional observation bodies, whose last missions to Venezuela date back to 2006. The “Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation”, for example – approved by the UN Secretariat, the OAS and the European Commission among others – states that observer missions are “expected to issue timely, accurate and impartial statements to the public”. They must demand guarantees that they can “issue without interference public statements and reports”.

However, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), created in 2007, prioritises “non-interference” in the affairs of member states over rigour and transparency. Its Electoral Council, made up of the electoral authorities of each of the union’s 12 members, has “accompanied” a number of electoral processes, including the presidential elections of 2012 and 2013 in Venezuela.

In early October, UNASUR secretary general Ernesto Samper announced that a 50-member electoral “accompaniment” mission comprising technical experts would be arriving in Venezuela in the first half of the month. It is reportedly to be headed by former Brazilian Supreme Court President and former cabinet Minister Nelson Jobim. Despite his excellent credentials for the job, Jobim will face an extremely difficult task if he is to reconcile the terms of the mission with the need to avoid a breakdown in governability.

One of the key functions of international election observation is to enhance the credibility of the process, particularly in circumstances in which a large part of the electorate does not trust the government or the electoral authority. UNASUR is poorly placed to fulfil this role, since it is perceived by the Venezuelan opposition as a partisan organisation which always sides with the authorities.

The head of UNASUR’s two previous missions to Venezuela was former vice president of Argentina Carlos “Chacho” Álvarez. In 2012, Álvarez suggested that any criticism of the CNE was the product of “disinformation or prejudices”. In 2013, he announced before the election that there was “no room for any type of fraud”. Despite the MUD’s immediate challenge to the result, he described the process as “totally democratic”. UNASUR later held an emergency summit, at which the Venezuelan government committed itself to a “100 per cent audit” of the results. When the opposition complained that this had not been carried out, UNASUR failed to follow up. UNASUR’s relations with the MUD suffered another setback in May 2015, when the election authority unilaterally invited the union to observe the opposition’s internal primaries.

Another principle of professional election observation is that it should be “comprehensive” and “long-term”. In Venezuela, it is impossible to rate how free and fair the parliamentary election will be without taking into account issues such as the opposition’s limited access to the media, the use of state resources for the campaign, the banning of key opposition candidates and the over-representation of the rural population, which tends to support the government.

Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, has repeatedly asked the Venezuelan government to invite an observer mission but has been brusquely rebuffed on each occasion. The OAS has carried out 70 observation missions since 2007 – including in countries whose governments are closely allied with Venezuela, such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

In an open letter to Almagro in September, Venezuela´s Minister of Communes (and former foreign minister) Elías Jaua dismissed the OAS as a “colonialist organisation” and Almagro himself as “Washington’s proconsul”. Jaua took particular exception to Almagro’s meeting with former MUD presidential candidate Capriles, now governor of Miranda state. Jaua said the secretary general had “proposed himself” as an observer of the December elections.

In his reply, Almagro said there could be “no democracy without guarantees for minorities” and noted that the opposition was asking the OAS to furnish an electoral guarantee. “If I do not offer it, I am at fault,” he said, adding that if the government was refusing permission for an OAS mission for political reasons, “that is, moreover, unjust”.

National Observer Organisations

Observers from Venezuelan organisations will be in the field on election day and are present during the eighteen separate pre-election audits of the system. The two most important of these groups are the Venezuelan Electoral Observatory (OEV) and the Observer Network of the Assembly of Education, both of which have many years’ experience in the field and intend to deploy over 1,000 observers between them. While their work is of great importance, it may not be adequate in a highly polarised political environment such as that of Venezuela.

In such circumstances, the presence of experienced and prestigious international observer missions can significantly enhance public confidence in an electoral process and act as a dissuasive element where unfair practices and even fraud might otherwise be present. The stature and visibility of international missions, such as those from the OAS or the European Union, makes them harder to intimidate.

National observer groups complain that their work is hindered in various ways by the CNE, which, for example, arbitrarily limits the number of voting centres they can cover to around 5 per cent of those in each state. This year, the CNE insisted that only two representatives from these groups can be present at the various audits – and that they must be the same two individuals. This is despite the fact that many audits require specialist knowledge of various kinds, and that several of them take many days.

Impartiality Questioned

The CNE has made a number of other decisions that raise doubts about its willingness to conduct the election process in an impartial manner. In April, it announced a redistribution of parliamentary representation that effectively reduced the number of seats in traditionally safe opposition districts. Some seats were reassigned to districts which returned pro-government legislators in 2010, when the last parliamentary elections were held.

The authority has also announced the creation of over 1,000 new, small polling stations in places whose names arouse suspicion. Many make explicit reference to former President Hugo Chávez: one is called “With Chávez and Maduro”, another, “Chávez Lives, the Fight Goes On”. In small polling stations like these, some with only a little over 200 registered voters and often located in “community council” buildings occupied by the ruling party, the margin of victory for government candidates is traditionally much higher than the average. Observers and party witnesses also report more intimidation.

Due to the state of emergency in border areas, the election campaign in large parts of the country will take place without the right of assembly or free movement. Under the constitution, formal campaigning is exempt from such measures. But the CNE has limited the formal campaign to just three weeks. While government candidates, backed by the full resources of the state, are already staging campaign events, MUD politicians fear that if they do so they may be banned for violating the state of emergency.

Never has Venezuela been more in need of a professional, impartial, international election observation mission. But never has such a mission looked less likely. If December’s poll leads to a disputed result, or triggers fresh violence on the streets, there will be no intermediaries on hand to step in and cool tempers. Venezuela’s neighbours have long been reluctant to get involved in what they professed to see as “internal” matters. But as the situation on the Colombian border makes clear, “internal” disputes can often escalate. The region could pay the price for its failure to act in time.

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