Venezuela Parliamentary Elections 2015: A Tilted Playing-field
Venezuela Parliamentary Elections 2015: A Tilted Playing-field
On the Horizon: March - August 2024
On the Horizon: March - August 2024
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures during his TV program called “Contacto con Maduro” (Contact with Maduro) next to a poster of late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in Caracas on October 2015.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures during his TV program called “Contacto con Maduro” (Contact with Maduro) next to a poster of late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in Caracas on October 2015. AFP/ Juan Barreto
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 10 minutes

Venezuela Parliamentary Elections 2015: A Tilted Playing-field

Venezuela’s parliamentary election campaign kicked off on 13 November, accompanied by intimidating rhetoric from the government, which recent polls show is trailing by over 30 points, and a series of armed attacks on opposition campaign events that have already cost one life and are a worrying sign that more violence could come.

President Nicolás Maduro has repeatedly said that the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its allies will secure a victory “como sea”, which roughly translates as “by whatever means necessary”. Underlining the obstacles facing the opposition on and after 6 December, he has also said he has no intention of “surrendering the revolution”.

In the absence of international observer missions, a major challenge faces representatives of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), who have been invited to “accompany” the election process, although not to carry out full-scale observation. The onus will be on UNASUR not to repeat the virtually automatic endorsement of the process that has been its practice hitherto.

The phrase “como sea” has been incorporated into the government campaign and features in a threatening campaign video showing a group of motorcyclists approaching down the narrow streets of a barrio. Their leader then addresses the camera in an aggressive tone, promising to “mobilise como sea on 6 December everyone who’s needed”. To Venezuelans, accustomed to the threat from the so-called “colectivos” – pro-government civilians, often armed and riding motorcycles – the message is clear. In Caracas alone, according to one study, there are over 70 such groups.

On 25 November, a drive-by shooting killed opposition politician Luis Diaz at an election rally in a small central Venezuelan town. He had been onstage with Lilian Tintori, wife of Venezuela’s best-known jailed opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez. The opposition blamed the government, but could offer no evidence for the allegation.

Hindering the Opposition

A left-wing regime that came to power through the ballot box, with Hugo Chávez’ election victory in 1998, the government has set much store by its electoral credentials. The electronic voting system has never been shown to falsify the number of votes cast. But the campaign conditions imposed (or permitted) by the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is almost entirely dominated by the government, have become steadily tougher for the opposition, whose complaints are almost never acted upon.

Functioning political parties have not been banned under the current regime. But preventing some prominent politicians, and some parties, from participating has clearly been part of the government’s plan. Some parties, including those formed by PSUV dissidents, have been refused registration by the CNE. Half a dozen of the most prominent opposition leaders have been barred (inhabilitado) from standing for office and some are in jail or under house arrest. The most prominent of these is Leopoldo López, leader of the Popular Will (VP) party, sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment on charges one of the prosecutors in the case recently admitted had no basis in law.

Additionally, several smaller parties have been subjected to judicial intervention by the Supreme Court (TSJ) and their leadership replaced. One of these, MIN-Unidad, whose party colour and logo are very similar to those of the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance, has been given a place on the ballot alongside the MUD. MIN-Unidad’s campaign posters say, “we are the opposition”, even though its candidates are aligned with the government. In Aragua state, it has been allowed to present a previously unknown candidate with the same name as a leading MUD politician, Ismael García. And in an apparently deliberate attempt to confuse the electorate, and take votes from the MUD, President Maduro spoke on television of MIN-Unidad as “the opposition”.

The Full Power of the State

The Venezuelan constitution prohibits state financing of political parties. It also bans public employees from using their position to favour any individual or organisation. The anti-corruption law and the election law (LOPRE) are equally clear on the subject.

In practice, however, the PSUV exploits for its own benefit the resources (buildings, vehicles, staff, etc) of central as well as local governments and from state-owned enterprises such as the national oil company, PDVSA, and the power company Corpoelec. Government candidates are habitually given a prominent place at the inauguration of public works and even the National Guard and the militia have been used to get out the vote. Public officials accompany candidates to campaign events.

The CNE has rarely taken action, and in recent years has argued that any campaign events outside the formal campaigning period (which on this occasion will last just three weeks) are not covered by any regulations. The local branch of Transparency International, which compiles and presents complaints, says the CNE email address set up to receive them simply returns them to the sender. By 18 November, Transparency had compiled 281 examples of electoral abuses. Not all allegations related to the PSUV or its allies. Nineteen referred to the MUD.

Public employees say they are forced to attend government rallies and to take part in the so-called “1×10” system, whereby government supporters are supposed to sign up ten other people to vote for the PSUV. Although there is no evidence to suggest that votes are not secret, polls suggest around 50 per cent of voters believe the government can tell who they vote for.

Media Bias

When Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, the government had just one TV channel, a radio station with two frequencies and a national news agency. It now owns more than a dozen TV channels, a score of national or regional radio stations, a news agency, one national and several regional newspapers, not to mention a plethora of websites and state-financed “community” media. But it has also extended its influence through the purchase, by unidentified but clearly pro-government interests, of a number of formerly critical news outlets. These include the 24-hour TV news channel Globovisión and two national daily newspapers. It took off the air one opposition channel and nearly three dozen radio stations in 2007 by the simple expedient of cancelling their licences.

Dissident publishers and editors have been pursued in the courts and subjected to heavy fines, while opposition newspapers have found it increasingly difficult to obtain newsprint. Such cases were noted in a lengthy 10 November 2015 open letter from secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) Luis Almagro to Tibisay Lucena, head of the Venezuelan electoral authority (CNE), in response to her rejection of the OAS request to be allowed to observe the election. It said that independent journalists have been harassed, beaten and on occasion detained by security forces, as well as losing their jobs for refusing to censor their own reporting. The overall result is that the opposition voice in conventional media has been muffled, while government propaganda is broadcast day and night.

At the same time, the government keeps tight control over official figures, leaving the electorate in the dark about everything from inflation and homicide statistics to infectious diseases.

One of the PSUV’s key weapons is the so-called “cadena” (literally, “chain”). Under this system the president can interrupt all free-to-air radio and TV stations simultaneously for as long as he likes. During election time, cadenas are used primarily to promote official campaign messages and present government candidates. The CNE has declined to place any limits on the use of cadenas or state-financed publicity, despite repeated calls for it to do so by election observers from bodies such as the European Union and the Carter Center.

The PSUV in Uniform

Hugo Chávez always maintained that the Venezuelan regime was “civilian-military”. Maduro said on 29 October that if the opposition were to win on 6 December he would govern in alliance with “the people” and the armed forces (FANB). The sentiment is reciprocated by senior military officers, including Defence Minister and FANB chief Gen. Vladimir Padrino López. In July this year, Padrino López declared that the government represented, “the only project that is possible today (if we are) to have a fatherland”. His words violated Art. 328 of the constitution, which states that the armed forces are at the service the nation, “and never that of any person or political interest”, as well as Art. 330, which prohibits members of the FANB from taking part in party-political activities.

This is a matter for particular concern at election time, not least because the armed forces are deployed to transport election material and to safeguard the voting process. Also present during voting are the Militia, a uniformed body with no constitutional status, created by Hugo Chávez and numbering perhaps 150,000, whose members swear allegiance to “the revolution”, receive ideological instruction and often (if not always) belong to the PSUV. In October, President Maduro swore in the commanders of 99 recently-created “Integrated Defence Areas” (ADIs, whose function is to run military operations at a local level), all of whom are Militia officers. At the same ceremony the president handed over new riot-control equipment to the National Guard.

During the presidential elections of October 2012, the Militia and the “Guardia del Pueblo” (a similarly indoctrinated component of the National Guard, formed by the late President Chávez in 2011) were used to transport government voters to polling stations. There are reports from the interior of the country of the PSUV canvassing support at night accompanied by uniformed members of the armed forces.

Border Guarantees Suspended

The issue of military supervision of the elections is particularly relevant along the 2,200km border with Colombia, closed since August 2015 by order of the president and subject to a “state of exception” which restricts rights to free movement, the right of assembly and the inviolability of communications and the home. Military officers have been appointed to take over the functions of local government in areas under emergency rule. Although the election campaign itself is theoretically exempt from emergency rule restrictions, this potentially affects voting in 24 municipalities and four border states. What happens in practice will be largely determined by the military. According to the MUD, 27 parliamentary seats are affected, of which the opposition hopes to win 22.

Another concern is that the CNE has so far declined to say where the military personnel deployed along the border will vote. Were they to be allowed to do so in those constituencies where they are currently based, the election results could be seriously distorted.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The only full-scale international mission on hand to evaluate the situation is hampered both by the highly restrictive terms imposed by the Venezuelan government, and also because the opposition believes that the mission, from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), is biased, as we explained in a previous post.

The mission, launched on 17 November, is headed by Leonel Fernández, a former president of the Dominican Republic. The challenge Fernández and his UNASUR colleagues face was highlighted by the letter from the OAS’s Almagro to the CNE. Outlining his concerns in great detail, Almagro wrote that the “transparency and electoral justice” that the CNE should provide were “not currently guaranteed”.

Almagro is not alone in questioning whether the playing-field is tilted against the opposition. On 16 November, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) published the interim conclusions of its joint study of the campaign, carried out in association with the Centre for Political Studies of the Catholic University (UCAB) in Caracas.

Its principal finding was that, while the main strength of the election process lay in the electronic voting system, “the greatest weakness is in the equity of the conditions for the electoral contest”.

In addition to the problems outlined above, the report noted the CNE’s lack of credibility, due partly to irregularities in the appointment of its board members (see Crisis Group Briefing N°31: Venezuela: Dangerous Inertia); the lack of an independent audit of the electoral register (REP) since 2005; and the widespread perception that the vote is not secret.

Legitimacy at stake

In any event, the Venezuelan opposition faces an uphill struggle if it is to translate its popular support into an equivalent number of parliamentary seats. The complex electoral system does not ensure proportional representation and in 2010 the government won nearly three fifths of seats with less than half the votes. Through its calculated efforts to hinder the opposition, the Maduro government is creating conditions in which violence can easily recur. The killing of the opposition activist on 25 November is only one example of the problem. Campaigning by MUD candidate Miguel Pizarro in the barrios of eastern Caracas, for example, was thwarted on 22 November by men in ski-masks wearing red PSUV t-shirts who took out pistols and automatic rifles and fired into the air. 

By barring observer missions from the OAS and the European Union, and placing heavy restrictions on those from UNASUR, the government may hope to obtain at least the benefit of the doubt if the opposition cries foul. Under the terms of its electoral “accompaniment” agreement, UNASUR is barred from making so-called “subjective” comments about election conditions and its final report is available only to the CNE, unless the latter decides otherwise. The Brazilian electoral authority (TSE) has declined to take part in the mission on the grounds that these conditions make “adequate observation” impossible. Its Paraguayan opposite number also raised caveats.

This places a heavy responsibility on the UNASUR delegation to be as rigorous as possible in ascertaining not only the fairness of the vote itself but the conditions under which the campaign was waged. The stakes on 6 December are higher than in any other Venezuelan election this century.

Although there will be national observers deployed across the country, as well as party witnesses and some foreign delegates, the onus will ultimately be on the international community – and in particular Venezuela’s neighbours – to insist on adherence to international norms. To rubber-stamp the result, as UNASUR has tended to do in the past, is not acceptable and – given the differences of opinion already apparent among member states, may prove impossible.

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