Ahead of Sunday’s hotly contested Venezuelan parliamentary elections, VA talked with George Azariah-Moreno, a political anthropologist and former advisor to the country’s National Electoral Council (CNE). An expert on the Venezuelan electoral system, Moreno addresses a range of issues, including the Organization of American States’ (OAS) allegations of fraud, the disqualification of dissident chavista party Marea Socialista from running, Venezuela’s evolving electoral landscape, as well as possible scenarios for Sunday’s vote.
The new general secretary of the OAS, Luis Almagro, recently released an open letter to CNE President Tibisay Lucena calling into question the fairness of Venezuela’s December 6th parliamentary elections. Can you discuss the politics behind this latest round of allegations concerning the impartiality of the country’s electoral system, which has otherwise been praised by Jimmy Carter as the “best in the world”?
This is a familiar story. Ever since the OAS endorsed the unsuccessful coup against Chavez’ democratically-elected government in 2002, spearheaded by Venezuela’s business elites, it was apparent that this organization had largely become a tool for Washington to exert its influence over the broader region. It nonetheless insists on claiming the democratic moral high ground, despite its unashamed double standards, such as its tinkering in Haiti. More recently, it hailed Mexico’s elections as a “triumph of Mexico’s democratic system”, despite the assassination of a number of candidates both leading up to the elections and afterwards. It’s not difficult to imagine what treatment it would offer Venezuela under similar circumstances.
The absurd 18-page length and personal nature of Almagro’s letter to the CNE President should be enough to lay bare his bias, apart from offering an unadulterated litany of the Venezuelan opposition’s common complaints, which boil down to one thing: “leveling the playing field” to restore the power that was once theirs by default, while condemning Venezuela’s democratic revolution to oblivion, by directly and indirectly eroding its social progress and neutralizing the threat it has posed to neoliberal hegemony. This is certainly unfortunate coming from a former cabinet member of a progressive government such as Uruguay’s, and it’s just as well that Pepe Mujica has publicly “parted ways” with Almagro over this.
When surveying populations for disease, epidemiologists have often noted how the rich report being sicker than the poor. This should not surprise us. The master complains about his pillow while the pauper stoically sleeps on the floor. Something similar applies in politics, where democracy for the rich is quick to find fault with any number of isolated elements, which are then picked out as matters of principle, while conveniently losing sight of the bigger picture.
With the landslide popular approval of the 1999 Constitution and the creation of an independent ‘electoral branch’ of government, Venezuela’s new electoral system replaced a rancid elections regime, which allowed the main establishment parties to cozily rotate power – as per the infamous ‘Punto Fijo’ pact – in the interests of an ever-narrower and intertwined group of Venezuelans. This was some time ago, but it’s important to understand where we’re coming from. That sham democracy -– which incidentally the OAS never really had a problem with –, excluded large portions of the population from the country’s political system and something simply had to give. In response, since its inception the CNE has greatly expanded polling stations to previously underserved areas and virtually doubled the number of registered voters, working hard to include millions of previously disenfranchised citizens, particularly poor, indigenous and afro-descendent communities. This is no mean achievement, but it doesn’t stop there.
During the Fourth Republic, it was taken for granted that political party representatives – who were also in charge of manually counting the votes at polling stations – often manipulated the tally sheets in keeping with local party pacts, thus undermining the sovereign will of voters. As a result, trust in the electoral body was low among citizens, which was reflected in the worst voter turnouts seen in Venezuela since World War II, in the early 90s. The progressive introduction of electronic voting by the CNE has been key in cementing the new system’s credibility, by automating previously manual procedures, where political contenders often suspected fraudulent practices, while undergoing constant improvements ever since, in order to ensure the greatest possible transparency of electoral procedures, both by availing of advanced electoral technology and by performing increasingly exhaustive audits on the system in all its phases, with all political actors involved – indeed in direct response to their concerns. This ongoing human and technical effort is what President Jimmy Carter referred to as the world’s best electoral system.
But it has also arguably been a victim of its own success, in seeking to safeguard the will of voters, with political actors who do not stand to benefit from its rigorous controls and transparency occasionally opting out of auditing procedures altogether, even launching accusations of fraud and resorting to violent denial, yet validating results when these are in their favour.
A classic example was opposition leader Henrique Capriles’ challenge to the 2013 presidential election results, which narrowly but conclusively gave Nicolás Maduro victory, just as Capriles had narrowly won the governorship of Miranda state under the exact same system the previous year. While at least 54 percent of ballot receipts are always randomly audited on polling day, he absurdly claimed the fraud lay in the remaining 46 per cent, despite the statistical impossibility. When the CNE conducted a full audit of the results, he shifted his attention to the voter logs, claiming there had been multiple voting – a charge that was further disproved – in what can be seen as an insatiable “shifting goalpost” strategy.
Unfortunately, these kinds of claims do add up and have an undeniable impact on public opinion beyond the facts, both internationally and domestically, feeding on part of the population’s necessarily limited knowledge of the system’s more technical features (where political party technicians are involved but not the public at large), which makes it sufficient to simply sow doubt, not to mention those who are happy to take such claims at face value, all of which builds up to a priori judgments on the system’s functioning.
As expected, the Venezuelan opposition has for some time been laying the groundwork – and Almagro’s letter is just an expression of this – to once again challenge the results of the imminent parliamentary elections if these are not to their liking, by aggressively discrediting the system on all fronts. This may ironically, or perhaps purposefully, keep some of their own voters at bay. Having already trialed the violent challenge of results when they do not make the mark, and with an emboldened radical faction following the 2014 ‘guarimba’ protests, they could well have a similar card up their sleeves.
Fortunately, the legitimacy of Venezuelan elections also stems from its inbuilt ‘co-responsibility’: the way it reaffirms confidence in everyday citizens who directly exercise electoral functions, whether at polling stations or throughout the preparation for each electoral process. In particular, poll workers are randomly selected from the voter rolls, regardless of political affiliation, rather than appointed by political organizations, whose witnesses are equally present at every step of the process.
The CNE has not only faced the usual right-wing challenges to its fairness and legitimacy. This time, it faces criticism from the left, with Trotskyist party Marea Socialista crying foul over a prohibition against their running on the ballot as a party independent of the PSUV-led Great Patriotic Pole (GPP) coalition. Can you shed light on this dispute and what it means for left-wing politics in Venezuela?
I was personally disappointed that Marea Socialista did not make it to the ballot. It may have offered a helpful outlet to frustration among some in Venezuela’s left, who in fact seek to hold the government to account on principles, in order to safeguard its revolutionary course, particularly against corruption, while potentially serving as a buffer of sorts against right-wing attacks. Clearly, in any ideological battle, whoever is better able to engage with a variety of viewpoints, take on criticism and enlist diversity has the advantage. Sadly, smaller parties in general have a hard time making the threshold to compete in elections in Venezuela today, which does bring back memories of how the Punto Fijo pact worked to exclude minority parties, until Chavez – himself leading a new independent political movement – was able to break through an unfair and decadent system. This should serve as a warning not to replicate the mistakes of the past, as well as an invitation to innovate beyond the straightjacket of conventional representative democracy, which as a system is bound to reproduce similar outputs over time and ultimately undermine the potential for revolutionary change, all of which is easier said than done, of course. The PSUV-led Great Patriotic Pole may trust they are well on their way towards achieving this ideal, while the communal experiment retains enormous promise.
In my opinion, the opposition’s boycott of the 2005 legislative elections played a key part in bringing about today’s intractable political climate, where it is also no secret that Venezuela’s branches of government are only nominally independent, in the classical liberal-democratic sense so vehemently cherished by government opponents. This is obviously a taboo issue for the Bolivarian government, as well as for the opposition, who would rather hide their hand in the matter, although some of its more germane voices acknowledge this to be their “original sin”; recognizing that they could not contemplate being continually beaten at a game they were always supposed to win, and so preferred to opt out of the democratic process altogether.
By doing so, they left the National Assembly – which appoints representatives to the different branches of government by a two-third majority, precisely to ensure they command respect across party lines – completely in the hands of the governing coalition. Following the 2002 coup, the 2003 oil boycott and the 2004 recall referendum, the Bolivarian government understood it as a free run to advance the revolution, including through the passing of several progressive laws. But it was doing so without an opposition, which unhelpfully cemented certain tendencies to sidestep difficult debate and engage with constructive criticism, even internally. When offered something for free, it may seem absurd to refuse the opportunity, but here there was inevitably a cost. Regardless of the opposition’s return to parliament in 2011, a unilateralist culture had taken hold, for which many are now quick to blame the government in a vacuum.
Monocultures are always more vulnerable to decay. Inclusion and genuine debate among all progressive forces in their rich diversity is vital to the revolution’s renewal and resilience, beyond a politics of retribution.
In the midst of a severe economic crisis that is hitting Venezuela’s popular classes- the traditional base of Chavismo- the hardest, many analysts are expecting low turnout that could hurt the GPP’s chances. What are your predictions for possible electoral scenarios?
The worsening economic situation over the past two years will be a decisive factor, but the popular classes have been through many such trials in the past and largely understand that their revolution, which has given them dignity and much else over the past 16 years, is at stake. Unlike the middle classes, they are happy to endure the discomforts of the battlefield, so to speak, to ensure that what has been achieved is not lost, and will continue to fight for this whatever the outcome of the election. While disenchantment with the government is widespread, its traditional supporters are unlikely to give their vote to the opposition.
To compare like with like, if we look at the 2006 and the 2013 municipal elections, this gives us an indication of how political forces have evolved over the past few years. In contrast to the past, when an expansion in voter registration was assumed to benefit Chavismo, what we see is that support for Chavismo has remained relatively constant, just above 5 million voters between both elections, despite over a million new voters being registered to vote during that period. This does not necessarily translate into huge support for the opposition, which saw its share increase only by around 400,000 votes. On the other hand, undecided or ‘neither nor’ voters grew by over 700,000 during the same period.
Given the attacks against the electoral system by the opposition, many of its voters may wonder why they should vote at all, especially those less strongly decided. I believe it is unlikely the opposition will win a majority of seats in parliament, let alone an absolute majority. However, given all the fuss made in 2010 about their having won 48% of the vote nationally (or even the 'majority' of votes, according to misguided claims, which included the then independent PPT vote), yet obtaining far fewer seats than the government, a worrying scenario would be for the opposition to win conclusively more votes nationally but still obtain fewer seats in parliament, which could potentially set the stage for another violent challenge to the election results.
The reason the opposition was quick to recognize the results of the 2013 municipal elections is that they lost both in terms of the total number of votes nationally (which they had intended to leverage as a 'plebiscite' against the government), as well as the total number of municipalities.
What are the possible implications of Macri's victory in Argentina for the electoral outlook in Venezuela?
I think the immediate result will be to rally the opposition’s core supporters to vote, in spite of their distrust of the electoral system, but this will not necessarily extend to undecided voters, who may not be overjoyed with Macri’s attacks against Venezuela and his threat to expel it from Mercosur, as well as the undeniable setback he represents for South American and broader South-South integration.