When seeking to adequately understand the multidimensional nature of the Venezuelan crisis, one should not neglect analysis of the electoral dimension. The Venezuelan State, as currently constituted, peculiarly incorporates an electoral branch of government as a product of the ‘Bolivarian’ Constitution ratified in 1999. This electoral branch, institutionally represented by the National Electoral Council (CNE), is meant to pursue independent and impartial goals. Accordingly, elections are imbued with considerable importance in this political context, proffering civil society and international actors a critical domain to canalize efforts for a peaceful and democratic resolution to the ongoing political crisis.
Significantly, one should note that there are no elections scheduled in Venezuela between 2022 and 2024, providing an important time frame for the international community to endorse and enhance efforts to generate an electoral environment more propitious to democratization ahead of the upcoming electoral cycle. Actions towards this goal should be practically feasible and highly rewarding: creating such an electoral milieu would buttress attempts at constructing a sustainable and robust peacebuilding agenda.
Advances toward free and fair elections are a subject of continuing political negotiations. It is worth highlighting that these overtures have been limited in scope. Their success hinges on the ability of Venezuelan civil society and the international community to safeguard basic electoral guarantees while strengthening the CNE’s independence and credibility. An amalgam of national and international actors could contribute to advances towards a more open democratic space through coordinated and focused multilateral action.
A democratized and peaceful socio-political ecosystem is fundamental for overcoming the structural conflicts plaguing Venezuelan society, which perpetuate practices of violence. Establishing democratic governance and alternation of power through free and fair elections is instrumental in constructing a sustainable pathway towards peace. In light of institutional shortcomings in Venezuela’s electoral processes and high restrictions against civic space, building substantial progress necessitates that the international community coordinates multilateral and complementary actions that contribute to local efforts in the following areas of priority:
- Institutional strengthening of a credible and independent National Electoral Council (CNE)
- Updating the voter register to guarantee voting rights for Venezuelans in the country and abroad
- Securing State guarantees on the population’s right to participate in political and public life
Major Obstacles to Competitive Elections in Venezuela
The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has taken over the Venezuelan State against constitutional and democratic norms. Amidst a complex humanitarian emergency, massive and systematic human rights violations, and the mass migration of Venezuelans throughout the region, the challenges to expanding democratic space in Venezuela are numerous. However, we identify three key issues in establishing basic guarantees for competitive elections in 2024 and 2025.
Absence of the rule of law and independence of powers
The PSUV holds power over all branches of government without having held free and fair elections and violating constitutional norms. The absence of the rule of law and independence of powers have led to the erosion of State institutions. Authorities in charge of State institutions prioritize the ruling party’s interests over the exercise of their legal mandates.
Before 2015, the CNE supplied basic electoral guarantees that ensured competitive albeit unfair elections as State institutions openly and systematically supported pro-government candidates. However, after the opposition secured a supermajority in the National Assembly (AN) that year, the Venezuelan government prevented the ruling party from losing power over State institutions. After 2015, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) did not recognize the election results of the National Assembly deputies from the state of Amazonas, depriving the opposition of the two-thirds majority in the legislative body. Since then, the competitiveness of electoral processes decreased substantially as grave violations against the popular will and transparency became commonplace. For example, after the National Constituent Assembly elections of 2017, the electoral software provider, Smartmatic, denounced the falsification of the participation rate. Likewise, the CNE modified the election results of Bolívar state in the regional elections of 2017 and organized fraudulent presidential elections in 2018 and parliamentary elections in 2020.
Currently, 91% of National Assembly deputies are pro-government, 90% of TSJ magistrates are pro-government, and Nicolás Maduro remains the de facto President of Venezuela. Regarding the independence of the judiciary, the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela declared that “our latest investigation found reasonable grounds to believe that […] judges and prosecutors have […] played a significant role in serious violations and crimes […] committed by various State actors in Venezuela”.
However, as an initial concession for political negotiations, in 2021, the PSUV-controlled National Assembly approved a more equitable CNE board composed of three government-affiliated councilors, one related to the opposition, and the fifth to civil society. The new CNE authorities improved certain electoral guarantees in the most recent November 2021 municipal and regional elections, re-instating the right to participate for some opposition candidates, inviting a European Union Electoral Observation Mission (EOM) and a UN Panel of Electoral Experts, and auditing the voting process to ensure the outright manipulation of results would not occur again. In the EU-EOM’s concluding report, observers deemed that the most recent November 2021 elections were the first step towards electoral institutional strengthening; nonetheless, they acknowledged that structural deficiencies persisted.
In August 2021, the Venezuelan government and the opposition’s Unitary Platform signed a Memorandum of Understanding agreeing upon an agenda for political negotiations. The first two points of the agenda are “political rights for all” and “electoral guarantees for all .” Thus, while negotiations remain suspended, civil society actors expect the talks to resume and hope this may be a space for political agreements regarding robust electoral guarantees ahead of the forthcoming electoral cycle.
Forced migration and restricted voter register disenfranchise millions of voters
The CNE’s voter register is not updated, and eligible citizens cannot register or update their information in a permanent manner, particularly those abroad. This predicament constitutes a violation of the right to vote. Given the alarming scarcity of official information by the electoral body, civil society organizations have researched the subject to arrive at projections regarding the voter register.
The UN estimates there are over 6.1 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants worldwide; however, only 107,967 Venezuelans are registered to vote abroad. According to NGO Súmate, over 3.2 million Venezuelans 18 years or older reside abroad but are registered to vote in Venezuela. The Venezuelan Electoral Observatory has noted that Venezuelan consulates have imposed requirements for registration beyond what is required by law, and many sites have suspended the ability to register for prolonged periods of time. Enacted legislation has required that Venezuelans abroad prove legal residency in the receiving country even though many eligible voters do not have access to a valid ID or passport as a direct consequence of the ongoing institutional crisis. Additionally, there exist only 127 consulates in 88 countries, which cannot satisfactorily fulfill the crucial demand of updating the voter register information of eligible voters abroad.
Súmate also estimates that roughly 2.5 million registered voters need to update their residential information and voting center within Venezuela, including internally displaced people and those whose voting center was arbitrarily changed by the CNE. In 2020, Venezuelan elections expert Eugenio Martínez estimated that over 2 million Venezuelans eligible to vote were not on the voter register. Moreover, Súmate projects there will be around 4 million people who will be above 18 years of age but not registered to vote by December 2023 if action is not taken.
Furthermore, the existing process to update one’s data or register to vote for the first time in the country is remarkably limited. There is only one CNE office in the capital of each state, and these often work intermittently. While the CNE’s most recent voter register is composed of approximately 21.2 million voters, the right to vote of millions of Venezuelans domestically and internationally may be violated if the CNE does not devise and arrange a major update of the country’s voter register.
Restrictions upon the voter register have become State policy since the PSUV overwhelmingly lost the 2015 National Assembly elections, after which the CNE decreased the number of sites for inscription and updating voter information along with the number of days these sites were open during special operatives before elections. Although the November 2021 elections under new CNE authorities saw an increase in both sites and number of days for the special operatives, the effort did not reach the scale of operatives held before 2015 and do not make up for accumulated and structural deficiencies in the voter register.
The systematic violation of the right to participate in political and public life
The Venezuelan government has persecuted real and perceived political dissidents and prevented political parties and aspiring candidates from systematically participating in elections and public affairs as a means to remain in power.
In the context of electoral guarantees, the three most notable dimensions of the violation of this right are 1) the TSJ’s intervention of political parties belonging to the opposition and dissident chavismo (former government supporters); 2) the persecution and disqualification against political figures of the opposition and dissident chavismo; and 3) coercive practices to force voter participation.
Since 2012, the TSJ has intervened against political parties in the opposition, dissident chavismo, and even pro- government parties who sought to promote candidates who were not in the ruling PSUV party. The judicial interventions sought to re-assign party authorities that did not challenge the ruling party’s power or prevent the re-authorization of established parties and the creation of new parties, significantly weakening political pluralism in the country.
Simultaneously, the Venezuelan government has also persecuted individual politicians and used arbitrary disqualifications to prevent their participation in elections. Venezuelan authorities are currently under investigation by the International Criminal Court and a United Nations Fact-Finding Mission for the crimes against humanity of imprisonment or other severe deprivations of physical liberty such as torture, sexual violence, and persecution based on political grounds. Both bodies found reasonable grounds to believe that these crimes had been committed in the country. As of April 18, 2022, NGO Foro Penal has registered 15,770 politically motivated arrests, of which 9,414 victims still have precautionary measures, and 240 are currently political prisoners.
The timespan of the FFM’s and ICC’s investigations on crimes against humanity coincide with State policies that systematically violated the right to participate in political and public life. The government has used judicial sentences and administrative rulings by the Comptroller General’s Office to disqualify politicians from running for office. On several occasions, opposition candidates who were able to run and won were not allowed to assume or exercise their power, a situation that also occurred in the most recent November 2021 municipal and regional elections.
The Venezuelan government also violates the right to freely participate in political affairs through coercive practices that shape political behavior, often by threatening communities with the loss of social benefits amidst a complex humanitarian emergency. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights documented that social programs are used to monitor women’s political activity, cutting benefits after protests. Furthermore, the Venezuelan Electoral Observatory has documented the use of PSUV registration tables outside of election centers which track people’s voting behavior, tying participation to social benefits and instigating fears regarding the secrecy of the vote.
While the ability to participate in elections was re-instated for a part of the political opposition in the regional and municipal elections in 2021, these elections did not threaten the ruling party’s hold over national State powers. The challenge for the 2024 presidential and 2025 legislative elections is guaranteeing that the candidacies selected by political parties can participate in the election and that the CNE and other State institutions would recognize their victory. Current discussions on democratization in Venezuela also provide an opportunity to promote the right to participate in political and public affairs of women, people with disabilities, and indigenous peoples, historically excluded from public life, particularly in preparation for the 2025 legislative elections.
Priorities for the Institutional Strengthening of Electoral Processes
It would be highly implausible to suggest taking on the challenge of addressing every single deficiency concerning electoral guarantees. The tenet that advocacy should be focalized has assuredly become somewhat of a truism. Taking into account the very real possibility that the first steps towards improving electoral conditions attained in 2021 may suffer setbacks, the Peace for Venezuela team has identified three priority lines of action for achieving basic guarantees for the forthcoming electoral cycle. Crucially, these priority lines of action seek to mitigate and redress each of the abovementioned major obstacles to competitive elections in Venezuela. The international community’s support for these lines of action is vital to civil society efforts considering the magnitude of Venezuela’s crisis and the degree to which civic space is restricted.
Institutional strengthening: building a credible & independent National Electoral Council
As aforementioned, the electoral branch of the Venezuelan state aims to pursue purportedly impartial goals which are effectuated by the CNE. Ergo, the key to attaining free and fair elections is a credible and powerfully independent National Electoral Council. The strengthening of the institution responsible for organizing elections is imperative, partly because it would effect the democratization that could potentially proffer a resolution to the political crisis.
The credibility and independence of the foremost electoral body will be strengthened if:
- The CNE exercises sanctioning powers to impose penalties for abuse of State resources in political campaigns
- State-owned media provides equal and neutral coverage of all political actors
- The State eliminates the executive power’s ability to block citizens from running for office
- The TSJ refrains from emitting verdicts that violate the law and fall squarely within the competencies of the CNE
- The CNE improves the training of polling staff, applying sanctions if the norms that apply to their work are infringed
- Military officials safeguarding elections under the Plan República operatives strictly abide by their legal obligations
- The CNE guarantees ample freedom of movement and expression to national and international electoral observation missions
- The CNE improves its communications with the general public regarding voter education and informs candidates on the status of their candidacy
Additionally, the CNE ought to also request technical assistance from international actors, such as an EU Electoral Follow-up Mission or the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, in order to improve its credibility and maximize its autonomy from other State institutions.
Updated voter register guaranteeing voting rights for all Venezuelans
This item previously articulated how the disenfranchisement of millions of Venezuelans constitutes a flagrant violation of the right to vote. This must be urgently remedied. Within Venezuela, the CNE should open permanent voter registration points in every municipality in the country to be complemented by special registration operatives in key public spaces. To ensure the right to vote of Venezuelans abroad, the CNE must provide a valid form of identification for eligible voters whilst facilitating access for them to be able to register or update their information. In addition, the CNE ought to request the technical assistance of the UN in implementing such an initiative, given the precedent established by the UN International Organization for Migration regarding support for out-of-country voting efforts.
While the CNE councilors associated with the opposition and civil society have publicly declared they are working to take some of these measures, this has not been the institutional position, and they have both reiterated that their implementation also responds to political decision- making by the Venezuelan government and the results of negotiations.
Guaranteeing the right to participate in political and public life
The CNE must endeavor to guarantee that all political parties can participate in the forthcoming electoral cycle. International pressure upon the judiciary and the Comptroller General’s Office to respect the right to electoral participation will be crucial for assuring competitive elections with basic electoral guarantees. An end to political persecution is also required to expand democratic space in Venezuela. Moreover, international actors should be highly encouraged to support for the ongoing political negotiations, as this could facilitate the achievement of sustainable political agreements. Such agreements could considerably strengthen political rights and electoral guarantees for the Venezuelan population. These improvements should include horizontal gender parity, and an end to both politically motivated judicial persecution and arbitrary political disqualifications. Furthermore, international support for the renovation of the UN Fact-Finding Mission and for the work of the ICC may also lead to a decrease in political persecution.
In sum, the international community must recognize it can play a crucial role in supporting civil society and local actors in efforts to expand democratic space by guaranteeing political rights and strengthening electoral guarantees. The upcoming electoral cycle offers a unique opportunity for international actors to help democratize the electoral environment, thus encouraging a peaceful and democratic resolution to the ongoing political crisis. Given the magnitude of the issues discussed, the international community should seek to coordinate multilateral and complementary actions that contribute to local efforts within the scope of the aforementioned areas of priority. Moreover, international protection mechanisms could put the population’s civil and political rights on the public agenda. Lastly, international actors should support civil society leadership and processes as local organizations will be crucial to democratization, the broadening of political pluralism, and the safeguarding of basic electoral guarantees.