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Venezuela’s Parliamentary Elections: A Basic Guide
Venezuela’s Parliamentary Elections: A Basic Guide
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro shows his ballot after his vote in a polling center in Caracas, 28 June 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

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.

The president of the National Assembly, Jorge Rodriguez (C-top) swears in the new authorities of the National Electoral Council (CNE), during a special session at the National Assembly, in Caracas. 4 May 2021. Federico PARRA / AFP

Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized

A series of gestures from Caracas suggests that President Nicolás Maduro’s government might be more willing to negotiate with rivals and enact partial reforms. Washington should respond in kind with phased sanctions relief and diplomatic gestures that can be reversed if Venezuela backslides.

On 4 May, Venezuela’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National Assembly, swore in a new electoral authority, two of whose five principal members are from the opposition. It was perhaps the most significant of a series of gestures by President Nicolás Maduro’s government over the past two weeks. While nothing suggests that Maduro is ready to make concessions that might threaten his grip on power, his recent moves do signal a willingness to negotiate and might provide a rare opportunity to temper a crisis that has brought the Venezuelan economy to its knees and caused Latin America’s worst humanitarian emergency. Reciprocal moves from foreign powers opposed to Maduro are necessary to ensure that this chance, however slim, is not missed. Washington is best placed to make comparably conciliatory moves by offering modest relief from the sanctions it has imposed and initiating low-profile diplomatic contacts to assess the odds of further progress.

These moves represent partial responses to demands laid down by the U.S.

Several other developments preceded the new election rectors’ appointment. The first came on 19 April, when Caracas finally signed a long-awaited agreement with the World Food Program, granting the agency access to the country to attend to the dire and growing child malnutrition crisis. The second occurred on 30 April, when the chavista government released six imprisoned oil executives from Venezuela’s Houston-based Citgo corporation – five of whom hold U.S. citizenship – into house arrest. A day later, the country’s chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab took a third step, announcing charges against low-ranking officials in three high-profile political killings for which the government had hitherto denied any responsibility. These moves represent partial responses to demands laid down by the U.S. and other external allies of the opposition movement led by former National Assembly chair Juan Guaidó, who since 2019 has asserted a claim to the “interim presidency” of the country.

The changes to Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, or CNE, by its Spanish acronym, were the most significant concession yet. Chavista domination of the CNE has been crucial to the government’s campaign to shut down any and all electoral threats. It ultimately led to the standoff with Guaidó and pushed many other opposition figures into exile. Opposition parties mostly boycotted parliamentary elections in early December 2020 – as they had the presidential contest in 2018 – and the small number that took part in the poll, some of them mere appendages of the government, obtained only twenty seats in a 277-seat Assembly. Even today, conditions for the opposition remain forbidding. Despite the new rectors, the electoral playing field remains deeply skewed in Maduro’s favour. Still, permitting a more balanced electoral authority marks a tentative step toward restoration of political competition.

For Maduro, greater opposition representation on the CNE could have benefits. First, this year’s elections, due in December, are local and regional, so there is less at stake for the president in any case. Moreover, he can sell the CNE deal to his own supporters as opposition recognition of government institutions and a strategy for reducing Venezuela’s international isolation. 

News of the reformed electoral board has divided opposition ranks. Even before Maduro announced the new CNE line-up, the alliance headed by Guaidó had rejected it as illegitimate. Its stance has not changed since, despite the two new opposition rectors’ strong credentials. (One is an experienced politician and former deputy chair of the Assembly; the other is a systems engineer whose role as an opposition elections expert was so important that the government jailed him for six months in 2017.) The opposition alliance maintains that the Guaidó-led parliament, a rump of which continues to meet, is the only body with the power to approve a new CNE. Guaidó himself, whom Washington recognises as the country’s legitimate president, blasted the appointment via Twitter, saying it would “drag the country toward a greater disaster”. 

Others take a different view. Notable among them is two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who, prior to the December elections, made fruitless efforts, with EU backing, to negotiate conditions that would allow his party to take part. Together with other opposition politicians, some of whom prefer for now to remain anonymous, Capriles rejects the “all-or-nothing” approach of Guaidó and his party, Voluntad Popular, which is led by the exiled Leopoldo López and has campaigned without success for Maduro’s immediate overthrow. Support for the new electoral board is also strong among regional and municipal politicians and party activists, especially those in opposition-held states and municipalities, who fear oblivion if the policy of boycotting elections is maintained. The issue threatens to fracture several parties, and could even lead to a formal split in the opposition coalition as a whole, which would also favour the government.

Venezuelan civil society is increasingly emerging as a significant, autonomous force.

Another important element in this complex equation is Venezuelan civil society, which is increasingly emerging as a significant, autonomous force, committed to a negotiated resolution of the country’s protracted political crisis. Four of the fifteen CNE members (the five principal rectors plus ten reserve members) appointed on 4 May were proposed by groups linked to the recently launched Foro Cívico, which brings together NGOs, trade unions, the main employers’ federation, professional syndicates, faith-based organisations and others. The Foro has played a role not only in the CNE negotiations but also in pushing for agreement between the government and opposition on importing COVID-19 vaccines, seeking economic reforms and setting up mechanisms for attending to the humanitarian emergency. Broadly speaking, the Foro leaders support a more conciliatory approach, along the lines of that promoted by Capriles, seeking areas where they can engage the government to alleviate ordinary Venezuelans’ suffering. 

Yet it is Washington’s response that is most keenly awaited. Under President Donald Trump the U.S. pursued a “maximum pressure” policy toward Venezuela, on the assumption that external action, particularly in the form of severe economic and financial sanctions and diplomatic isolation, would force the Maduro government to step down and accede to free elections. That approach failed. President Joe Biden came to office committed to a more pragmatic stance, but for various reasons related largely to the attention given to other pressing concerns – notably the pandemic and migrants at the southern U.S. border – little beyond the rhetoric has changed to date. Washington has demanded “concrete measures” from Maduro if it is to relax sanctions. It must now decide whether the gestures by Caracas merit a response in kind.

All the Venezuelan government’s steps thus far are political gambits; they are tentative and reversible; and, again, in themselves they do not create conditions for credible polls or in any way jeopardise Maduro’s hold on power. On the key question of election conditions, the opposition presence on the new CNE is only a start, albeit a promising one. Much more is needed. The government must legalise opposition parties, for example, most of which are barred from electoral participation and some of which have seen their names and assets transferred to minority, pro-government factions. The electoral authorities need to thoroughly audit voter lists. Most importantly, the Maduro government will also have to scale down its apparatus of state repression if it wishes to convince the U.S., the EU and its neighbours of its good faith.

Still, given the gridlock in Venezuela’s political standoff and the country’s appalling humanitarian suffering, outside powers should respond to and seek to encourage any signs of movement. Crisis Group has argued for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of sanctions that inflict humanitarian harm alongside a phased lifting of other punitive measures in response to the gradual restoration of civil and political rights. The most obvious and pressing humanitarian need is for a restoration of permits to allow Venezuela to swap crude oil for diesel, of which there is a critical shortage. Diesel is vital, among other things, for food production and distribution. The U.S. could also consider steps like renewing licences and lifting sanctions that prohibit certain activities by U.S. and other foreign oil companies, with the understanding that these steps could be reversed if Caracas backtracks or fails to make further progress.

Also important is that Washington and Caracas set up channels of communication, either direct or through third parties, so that each can correctly interpret the other’s moves. Biden will pay a political cost for any easing of pressure on Maduro, with no likely immediate return. U.S. politicians are naturally – and perhaps increasingly – reluctant to incur the hostility of the Venezuela lobby in their country. The Maduro government will have to factor in that reality, just as Washington will need to take into account the difficulty the Venezuelan president may have in selling any rapprochement to his own coalition. Contact would allow each side to feel its way with more confidence.

The worst thing the U.S. could do now is to sit on its hands and await further concessions without any corresponding move on its part.

The worst thing the U.S. could do now is to sit on its hands and await further concessions without any corresponding move on its part. Such a course would strengthen the hand of those in the Venezuelan government who argue that however much they concede, Washington is interested only in getting rid of Maduro. It may well be that the Venezuelan president has no intention of going further, but the only way to find out is to engage in a process of gradual, reciprocal change. The ball is in Washington’s court.