Despite Violations, Venezuelan Elections Offer Glimmer of Hope

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Public frustration with the Maduro administration is expected to overcome extensive manipulation by the government, and the ruling party will face international pressure to accept the results.

Venezuela’s December 6 parliamentary elections are widely viewed as a referendum on the performance of President Nicolas Maduro. This is partly true, as voters are expected to cast their ballots based on their perception of the Maduro government’s ability to resolve Venezuela’s deepening economic breakdown and curb its rampant criminal violence. Most citizens seem dissatisfied with the status quo.

However, the results of the elections will not fully reflect the severity of the country’s governance crisis, or the extent to which human rights protections have deteriorated under Maduro’s administration.

Gerrymandering of parliamentary districts, indiscriminate use of public resources to support the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV), and systemic violations of electoral laws to limit the opposition’s chances all reduce the likelihood of a devastating defeat for Maduro. Even if the opposition Democratic Unity Party (MUD) wins a majority in the National Assembly, as predicted, Maduro may respond by rejecting the outcome as the product of misinformation by the opposition or foreign meddling.

Nevertheless, the mere possibility of an opposition victory is remarkable given the obstacles erected by the government in recent years.

Undemocratic elections

The upcoming elections will not be the first to fall short of democratic standards. As president from 1999 until his death in 2013, Hugo Chávez eroded the independence of institutions that are critical to upholding democratic integrity, such as the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council (CNE), and he consistently used state resources to bolster his party’s campaigns and crowd out opposition candidates. In 2009, Freedom House found that Venezuela was no longer an electoral democracy, according to the definition in its Freedom in the World report.

Yet conditions have since worsened considerably. Last month, an unprecedented letter by Organization of American States (OAS) secretary general Luis Almagro detailed a long list of adverse electoral conditions that, in his estimation, “affect only opposition parties.” He mentioned ongoing concerns, such as unequal access to media and use of public funds for campaigns, but focused on more recent manifestations of the PSUV’s electoral manipulation machine, including last-minute changes in election rules, the use of ballot placement and design schemes intended to confuse voters, and the misapplication of Venezuelan law to prohibit seven opposition leaders from participating as candidates. Almagro further alleged that the Venezuelan government’s denial of an OAS request to conduct an official election observation mission, particularly in the absence of any other formal international monitoring, was “based on a political stance.”

The unevenness of the electoral playing field has not been lost on citizens. Roughly 7 in 10 Venezuelans say they do not trust the CNE, the body charged with administering the process. Pollsters estimate the opposition’s advantage in public support to be as high as 35 percentage points. But the elections have been engineered to reduce the impact of this voter discontent. Chávez redrew the electoral map, creating dozens of districts that are safely progovernment, many of them with large disparities between population and parliamentary representation. Consequently, only about 35 of the 167 total seats are considered competitive. The decisive factor may be whether currently undecided voters in such competitive districts, most of whom have previously supported the PSUV, will do so again. As with past elections, the ruling party will go to great lengths to persuade these individuals to vote.

Human rights not on the ballot

While much international attention has focused on human rights in Venezuela, due largely to the imprisonment of opposition political leader Leopoldo López, polls suggest that the issue will have only a limited effect on voter choice. This is good for Maduro, given his administration’s dreadful record. Venezuela currently holds over 70 political prisoners, more than Cuba by many estimates. They remain in detention despite repeated calls by international human rights bodies for their release.

The government’s recent attempts to divert attention from economic problems have led to further human rights violations. In August, it manufactured a humanitarian crisis by declaring a state of emergency and deploying troops to deport thousands of people, some of them Venezuelan citizens, living in cities along the Colombian border. The state of emergency remains in force in the states of Táchira, Zulia, Apure, and Amazonas, meaning many voters will go to the polls under the watchful eye of military officials.

Independent nongovernmental organizations seeking to expose human rights abuses have been punished through acts of intimidation, hate speech, and even violence. Marino Alvarado, former director of the organization PROVEA, was the victim of an armed robbery and assault in his home in October, a month after Maduro made unsubstantiated statements on national television alleging that Alvarado had links to Colombian paramilitaries.

After December 6

Even if the opposition wins a majority in the National Assembly, its representatives may have a limited ability to influence policy. Consistent with his track record, Maduro has already suggested that he will rule “by hook or by crook.” Moreover, the recent murder of opposition leader Luis Manuel Diaz, regardless of its motivations, demonstrates the growing role of violence in Venezuelan politics and could portend further conflict following the elections.

Nonetheless, these elections offer several reasons for cautious optimism. An opposition victory could increase pressure on the government to come to the negotiating table and hold a real dialogue with its critics. It would be in Maduro’s interest to do so, if only to deflect some of the blame for the ever-deepening economic crisis.

Sustained diplomatic pressure could also push the government to accept unfavorable election results. International criticism of the Venezuelan government’s actions has become deafening, especially regarding political persecution and the rigged electoral process. Secretary General Almagro’s assertiveness in particular marks a shocking departure from the reticence of his predecessor. In addition, Venezuelan civil society has shown its strength, providing the necessary evidence to validate concerns voiced by the OAS, the United Nations, and foreign governments.

Lastly, and most importantly, the Venezuelan people have demonstrated their resilience in the face of electoral manipulation and intimidation tactics. While there is a generalized lack of confidence in the country’s democratic institutions, 65 to 70 percent of the 19 million registered voters are expected to exercise their most fundamental democratic right, reflecting an enduring belief in the power of elections.

Remarkably, public opinion surveys identify Venezuela as one of the most politically tolerant countries in the Americas, despite consistent efforts by Maduro, National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello, and other high-level officials to propagate the idea that those who criticize the government are conspiring against the nation. This may be among the most telling signs of the PSUV’s waning influence. Thus, while the elections alone will not transform Venezuela, they could mark a necessary first step on a long path toward a brighter future.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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