Venezuela has officially banned opposition parties from running in next year’s presidential election – at least, according to the Western media. The news is everywhere, and the headlines say it all:
Venezuela presidential election: Nicolas Maduro's government blocks opposition candidates from competing – The Independent
3 opposition parties in Venezuela blocked from elections – ABC News
In the name of democracy, Venezuela bans the opposition – The Economist
Venezuela: President Nicolas Maduro blocks opposition parties from presidential poll – DW
The same story was also printed by the New York Times and The Washington Post, so it must be true, right? It certainly seemed so in reading on.
“Venezuela's pro-government constitutional assembly on Wednesday effectively stripped three of the country's most influential opposition parties of the right to participate in next year's presidential election,” reads the lead, as it appears at the New York Times. However, the first cracks in the story appear almost immediately, when the author (AP) elaborated, “The all-powerful assembly passed a decree requiring the parties to reapply for legal status after boycotting mayoral elections in early December.”
The question, therefore, is whether or not being forced to “reapply for legal status” actually constitutes a "ban". To find out, let’s look at the wording of the National Constituent Assembly’s (ANC) decision.
“To participate in the national, regional or municipal electoral processes, political organisations must have participated in the immediately previous elections of the constitutional period at the national, regional or municipal level,” the ANC stated, as reported by the opposition-aligned El Nacional.
What does this mean?
So the overall idea is that for each election, generally speaking each party is required to register and meet a set of basic requirements. Generally, this process is waived for parties that participated in a previous election, so long as they got at least 1 percent of the vote. Under the ANC’s new rule though, parties will need to go through the reapplication process if they didn’t participate in the “immediately previous” election. So, let’s say if you boycott a single election, you need to go through a ton of paperwork to run in a future vote.
Clearly, the move is aimed at opposition parties that boycotted Venezuela’s recent municipal elections. These include three of the largest member parties of the main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD): Democratic Action (AD), Popular Will (VP), and First Justice (PJ).
“If they refuse to participate in an election … [they] must be validated again,” said ANC head Delcy Rodriguez.
Whether or not this is a reasonable measure is up to you to decide. There’s an argument to be made that any impediment to participating in democracy (whether as a voter or candidate) should be condemned. On the other hand, the opposition does have a bad habit of running only in elections it thinks it can win, while simply boycotting any it expects to lose. This isn't just a sore loser strategy; rather, it's a cynical show aimed at delegitimising and attacking Venezuela’s democracy.
Either way, we're still left with that one question: does the ANC’s apparent solution make things better or worse? At the very worst, is it effectively a ban on opposition parties, as the mainstream media seems to claim?
How tough are the validation requirements?
To understand whether or not the ANC's decision constitutes a ban on opposition parties, we need to look closer at the application process. In order to reapply to run in an election, a party needs to show it has the support of at least 0.5 percent of voters. This requirement can be found in the Law of Political Parties, Public Meetings and Demonstrations (Chapter II, Article 10).
Earlier this year, the National Electoral Council (CNE) clarified that for nationwide elections, parties need to meet the 0.5 percent threshold across at least 12 states. The party itself is free to choose whichever states it wants, so long as it can meet the voter threshold.
At this point, it’s worth noting this requirement isn’t particularly onerous by international standards, such as those of the US. For example, in California a party only needs the support of 0.33 percent of registered voters to qualify to appear on the ballot. However in Florida – which has a population nearly two-thirds the size of Venezuela – the threshold is significantly higher, at 5 percent. Nonetheless, nobody is claiming Florida is a dictatorship, are they?
But what about in the Venezuelan context?
We’ve actually seen this story before. At the start of this year, the CNE sparked a similar controversy when it announced all parties that failed to obtain 1 percent of the vote in the last elections would have to undergo the reapplication process.
Despite being criticised by the opposition, the sprawling bureaucracies of MUD parties like VP, AD and PJ had no problems maintaining their legal status during that re-verification drive. So at this point, there’s no reason to believe they won’t be able to do the same ahead of the 2018 presidential election.
The real problem with the registration process
In other words, all media outlets that described the ANC’s decree as a “ban” on “opposition” parties were, without doubt, simply wrong on a basic factual level. On the contrary, for major parties like VP, AD and PJ, it seems the new requirements shouldn’t have any real impact on them (at least for now). That’s not to say the ANC or Maduro administration won’t try to throw some obstacles in their way as the election draws closer. Indeed, with the 2018 vote set to be Venezuela’s most important election since 2013, I personally wouldn’t be particularly surprised to see plenty of underhanded shenanigans from both the PSUV and the MUD.
However, none of this is to say the ANC’s latest decree won’t have its victims. Just like the CNE re-verification drive of early 2017, the ANC’s decree could disproportionately burden smaller political parties, including those on the left. During the registration process earlier this year, parties were given just a 48-hour window to collect their signatures. For larger, well-established parties with nationwide support networks, plenty of funding and bottomless pools of volunteers, this process was easy – but not so for smaller parties.
“In Libertador (Caracas) it’s necessary to mobilise 20,000 people to be able to reach the threshold… That’s 1200 people per hour,” said the secretary general of the leftist party REDES, Juan Barreto at the time.
Arguably the staunchest critics of the re-verification drive were supporters of the Communist Party (PCV). Once a close ally of the PSUV, the PCV has argued the CNE’s requirements were an attack on privacy that could lay the groundwork for future political persecution.
“This involves fundamental risks for our militants, we are talking about handing over the confidential information of militants who belong to a party which has been persecuted throughout history,” Oscar Figuera, secretary general of the PCV, explained back in March.
In response to petitions by smaller parties on the left and right, Venezuela's Supreme Court eased the registration requirements, ruling in April that votes garnered in the previous election would count towards the 0.5 percent threshold.
Nonetheless, since then the CNE has undermined the ability of small, typically leftist parties and candidates to freely run on a handful of occasions For evidence of this, look no further than the ongoing controversy in Lara state, where the CNE has point-blank refused to acknowledge a grassroots Chavista candidate’s victory in the recent municipal elections on the orders of the ANC. Or just read our interview with another grassroots candidate, Eduardo Saman, whose name didn’t even appear on the ballot.
“It’s a situation which takes [the CNE] five minutes to rectify, but there is no desire to make that change, [rather] to generate confusion,” he told VA.
As Saman’s case illustrates, the CNE, PSUV and state apparatus as a whole are side-lining the grassroots left and critical Chavistas. Serious revolutionaries are simply being denied the opportunity to retake the reigns of Venezuela’s socialist project and save the country from Maduro’s incompetence and the opposition’s terrorism.
Rather than being a blanket-ban on large opposition parties, the CNE and ANC’s actions could actually end up undermining Venezuela’s revolutionaries and making it harder for grassroots candidates to stand against both the PSUV and MUD. However, this is an issue the mainstream media has absolutely no interest in. Instead, the international media would rather parrot MUD press releases and bemoan how difficult it is to be a US-backed right-wing stooge in a country that is majority Chavista.
The reality is that everyone from the international press to Maduro and the MUD are unified in their endorsement of the simplistic us-versus-them, PSUV versus MUD narrative. Any tidbit that supports this binary narrative is put on a pedestal, while the complexities of grassroots participation in the revolution go ignored. Why? Because power concedes nothing without a demand. If Venezuela's revolutionary process is to be salvaged, it’s up to those without power to demand concessions, keep the pro-imperialist reactionaries out of power, and tackle the revolution's internal rightwing.