Venezuela, elections despite everything

On the 21st November, Venezuela held municipal and regional elections. For the first time in 15 years, the European Union sent an election observation mission, which included a delegation of nine MEPs from the European Parliament, with me as a representative of the Greens/EFA group.

It was a controversial mission right from the start. The right-wing groups in the European Parliament, mainly the EPP and the ECR – of which the Spanish PP and Vox parties are members – in keeping with their hard line on everything concerning Venezuela, questioned it immediately, and at the last minute decided to boycott it by withdrawing any representation, thus setting an unfortunate precedent for European election observation missions.

There were two main reasons for the EU’s decision to accept the Venezuelan National Electoral Council’s invitation to send the mission, once the Council had accepted the conditions under which all EU election observation missions are deployed: on one hand, because the opposition, which had decided to contest the elections again after having withdrawn in 2018, also asked us to be there; and on the other hand, because there have lately been certain signs of openness, such as a more plural make up of the Electoral Council, with two of the five members identifying with the opposition, that in principle made electoral competition possible. As members of a civil society organization we interviewed told us, the conditions for the elections were not ideal, but they were the best Venezuela had seen in recent years, including the context of nascent talks in Mexico between the opposition and the government, mediated by Norway, although currently suspended because of the Saab Affair.

Today’s social, economic and political reality in Venezuela is extremely complex. Despite having the largest known oil reserves in the world, according to the figures – undoubtedly distorted by the hyperinflation of recent years – it is the poorest country in Latin America. According to UNHCR, over 5 million people have had to emigrate in search of a better life. The average monthly income is just over two US dollars. This situation has come about after more than 20 years of Chavista policies and because of a particularly exacerbated political conflict since 2016, but also due to international sanctions, especially by the US, which have seriously harmed the country’s economy making it very difficult to export crude oil or by blocking migrants’ remittances. However, with the recent dollarization of the economy – the dollar is the de facto currency there, while the official bolivar has become a virtual currency – and the deployment in the country of the UN World Food Programme, which had long been blocked by Maduro, the situation is showing initial, timid symptoms of improvement.

The ballot has been electronic in Venezuela since 2004. A few months ago, the system underwent a thorough audit and the general opinion is that it offers solid technical assurances, i.e. it does not lead to fraud. However, in addition to the technical voting procedure, the political and institutional context in which these elections were held must also be appraised.

A year ago, in December 2020, parliamentary elections were held characterized by a virtually unanimous boycott by the opposition, with a very low turnout of just 30%. The result was that Chavismo regained control of the legislature which it had lost in the 2016 elections when the opposition won a clear victory that it used to try to oust Maduro, proclaiming Juan Guaidó as interim president and entering a turbulent period marked by an apparent dual institutionalization, with large citizen mobilizations and serious episodes of violence and repression which the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has recently decided to investigate.

With all the power back in the hands of the pro-government faction, including the heavily politicized judiciary, and given that in recent years the attempts at overthrowing the government had failed despite powerful internal mobilization and the support and pressure of much of the international community – Guaidó had been recognized as the legitimate president of Venezuela by some 60 states, including the US and most EU members and the European Parliament – a good part of the opposition has now opted for the electoral path to try and gain minor niches of power and to reach the 2024 presidential elections in better shape and more united. Not because they believe that now the conditions are ripe for one hundred percent free and fair elections – in fact the entire opposition accuses Chavismo of ventajismo or opportunism, i.e. applying tactics such as intervention of parties by the politicized justice system, coercion through the so-called “homeland card”, and the continuing social assistance and abuse of public resources for electoral advantage – but for citizens to regain confidence in the voting mechanism so as to one day bring about a change of government that can be effective and acknowledged by all.

Finally, the results of the 21st November elections, which mobilized barely 42% of the electorate, resulted as always in different readings. The Chavistas, who won in 20 of the 23 states – although in the state of Barinas, where the count gave a very narrow victory for the opposition, the judiciary has forced repeat elections – read them as a clear consolidation of their power. Despite division, beginning late and thus failing to make a strong campaign, the opposition managed to win a significant number of mayors – almost 120 of the 335 being contested – and interpreted the elections as a first step towards rebuilding the opposition and the end of Chavismo.

On the Tuesday after the elections, the EU observation mission presented a preliminary statement with the main conclusions on the development of the campaign and election day. On one hand, we have been accused by the reactionary right of legitimizing authoritarianism with our presence and our report. On the other, Maduro himself accused us of being spies. But the EU’s presence in these elections was not to legitimize anything or spy on anyone: it was to help reinforce the difficult and incipient path of political dialogue, both internally and externally, in a country that desperately needs agreement and consensus to get out of the chasm it is in.

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