Venezuela’s Parliamentary Elections: A Basic Guide
Venezuela’s Parliamentary Elections: A Basic Guide
On the Horizon: March - August 2024
On the Horizon: March - August 2024
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro shows his ballot after his vote in a polling center in Caracas, 28 June 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 6 minutes

Venezuela’s Parliamentary Elections: A Basic Guide

In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Senior Venezuela Analyst Phil Gunson explains the ins and outs of this decisive poll and the likely political scenarios after 6 December.

Amid rampant inflation, a humanitarian crisis and nationwide shortages of everything from bread to vehicle parts, Venezuela is in the throes of the toughest election campaign in its recent history. Polls suggest that the governing coalition could for the first time in fifteen years lose its majority in the National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislative body, possibly triggering fresh violence. As pressure mounts on Venezuela to allow election observers, even the negotiation of a South American mission to “accompany” the process has been fraught with difficulties.

What is at stake in these elections?

Venezuelans go to the polls on 6 December to elect the 167 members of the country’s unicameral National Assembly (AN), or parliament, dominated for the past fifteen years by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its predecessor the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR). The presidency, held by Nicolás Maduro of the PSUV, who was elected in 2013 for a six-year term, is not at stake. Venezuela’s political system vests most power in the presidency. However, a Democratic Unity (MUD) majority in the AN would – among other things – be able to exercise control over government spending, decree an amnesty for political prisoners, withhold permission for the president to travel abroad, and appoint members of the Supreme Court (TSJ). A two-thirds or three-fifths majority would give it greater powers.

How does the electoral system work?

51 members of the AN will be elected from party lists. A further 113 will be elected as individuals, plus three indigenous representatives. Each of the 23 states, as well as the capital district, elects either two or three members of parliament, as well as a number based on its population. Each state is divided into constituencies (circuitos electorales), some of which elect more than one representative. But state representatives are elected from party lists, with voters choosing a party symbol rather than a name. Although the constitution stipulates proportional representation, in 2010 this system gave the government almost three fifths of the seats with less than half the votes.

Who are the main contenders?

Although some candidates are running as independents, most are affiliated either with the pro-government alliance known as the Gran Polo Patriótico (GPP), of which by far the largest party is the PSUV, or with the opposition MUD alliance. The MUD is made up of two dozen parties, of all ideological shades, of which the biggest are Primero Justicia (PJ), Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT), Acción Democrática (AD) and Voluntad Popular (VP).

What do the polls say?

Most give a large lead of between 20 and 30 percentage points to the MUD. They also suggest that turnout could be relatively high for this kind of election. In Venezuela, where voting is not obligatory, abstention rates of around 40 per cent are common in legislative elections. President Maduro has seen his popularity slump since winning a very narrow victory over MUD candidate Henrique Capriles in the 2013 presidential election and it now stands at around 20 per cent.

So will the MUD win a large majority of the seats?

Although polls suggest that the MUD is on course to take control of the AN, precise predictions are complicated by a number of factors. Venezuela’s constitution stipulates proportional representation, but the current electoral law enshrines a mixed system (see above). In large cities, where the MUD tends to be strong, many more votes are needed to elect an MP than in rural constituencies. The electoral authority (CNE), which is effectively under the control of the executive, has also altered constituency boundaries and the assignation of seats to tip the balance in the favour of the government.

What are the main issues?

Venezuela is gripped by a serious economic crisis. Inflation is running at almost 200 per cent a year and there are severe shortages of basic goods, including food and medicines. The economy is forecast to shrink this year by between 7 and 10 per cent. Discontent is also fuelled by exceptionally high rates of violent crime and collapsing public services, including electricity, water and hospitals. If the government were prepared to seek a consensus with an opposition majority in parliament, the MUD could contribute to resolving the crisis by securing policy changes in areas such as the economy, public services and the health and justice systems.

Other than that, will the election be free and fair?

Venezuela uses an electronic voting system which has never been shown to falsify the votes cast. Nonetheless, the playing field is heavily tilted. The government has used its control of the CNE, the Supreme Court (TSJ) and other nominally autonomous institutions to bar some prominent candidates from taking part and to block international observer missions from attending. It uses state employees, state-owned assets and public funds in its election campaign. Its control of television, radio and the written press is overwhelming, especially in the interior. And it habitually coerces public employees and recipients of welfare benefits into voting for government candidates and intimidates opposition witnesses, especially through the use of armed civilian gangs. The armed forces and the militia, both of which are closely aligned with the PSUV, are deployed at election time; some constitutional rights have been suspended in constituencies on the Colombian border in what the government says is a response to “paramilitary” activities.

What will happen if the opposition wins?

President Maduro has made contradictory statements. But he has reiterated on several occasions that he is prepared to win “by whatever means necessary” (“como sea”) and that he will not hand over power to the opposition. He has even said he would personally take to the streets to oppose a MUD-run parliament and that there would be a “massacre”. The MUD leadership says the government will have no choice but to recognise its victory. However, executive and legislature would be at loggerheads and the government has implied that it would circumvent “bourgeois” institutions and install a “communal state”. It might, for example, use the outgoing parliament to transfer legislative powers to President Maduro.

What if the government is perceived to have stolen the election?

The MUD leadership has vowed to “defend the vote” and take to the streets if the government does not recognise its victory. An attempt to do this after the 2013 presidential election was abandoned after the government banned the planned march, but there would be more pressure to go ahead regardless this time. In 2014, a campaign of demonstrations that sought the resignation of the president lasted for months and cost several dozen lives. It was eventually snuffed out by security forces.

Will there be impartial election observers?

Several domestic election observation organisations have been accredited, and will deploy several hundred observers across the country. They are limited as to the number of voting centres they can observe, but at least two of the organisations have established credentials. There will also be party witnesses accredited by the CNE present at each centre. However, the government has refused to allow international observers. Instead, it has insisted on what it calls electoral “accompaniment”, which places important limitations on the mission’s ability to make public statements. This has led to severe strains even within the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which includes many allies of Venezuela. The terms of the agreement with UNASUR have been a matter of dispute within the organisation.

How impartial can UNASUR be expected to be?

Past UNASUR missions have in practice merely endorsed the CNE’s management of elections and reports have usually been secret or confidential. This time however several member states insisted on a more thorough and impartial form of observation, leading to clashes with the Venezuelan authorities and disagreement within UNASUR. The Brazilian electoral authority announced in October that it would not join the mission, after failing to negotiate adequate conditions and having its proposal for chief of mission turned down.

How would the international community react to a disputed result?

Venezuela’s neighbours, and the international community as a whole, have mostly held back from anything that could be construed as intervention in the country’s internal affairs. But there is growing concern over the country’s economic and social plight as well as its intractable political crisis. If the government were to openly frustrate the will of the electorate, for example by closing parliament or refusing to accept the result, there would undoubtedly be moves to bring it to account under the terms of international treaties, including the Inter-American Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS). Venezuela could potentially be suspended from membership of the OAS, the Mercosur trading bloc and even UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, which has hitherto been very supportive of the Maduro government. A regime already struggling to meet its financial commitments, facing a major social and political crisis domestically, can ill-afford to court international isolation.

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