Crisis & Critique: New CNE, New Political Scene?

VA columnist Ociel López looks at some of the ramifications and reactions surrounding the naming of the new electoral authority.

The National Assembly’s appointment of a new National Electoral Council (CNE) leadership is an unexpected ray of light in Venezuela’s dark political situation.

Until a few days ago, many of us thought that the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) – which did not have to negotiate with any other legislative fraction because of its qualified majority – would appoint a CNE leadership intrinsically connected to the most bureaucratic sectors of its party structure.

We also expected the opposition to disqualify any new CNE as “illegitimate,” as it has done in recent years with every PSUV decision.

Nobody imagined that the new CNE leadership would include opposition figures who have previously declared themselves as abstentionists or electoral boycotters.

But that’s what happened.

The two principal CNE rectors belonging to the opposition (out of a total of five) come from currents with significant electoral weight that, until now, toed the abstentionist line dictated by Venezuela’s radical right.

On the one hand, Enrique Márquez, who was also appointed to be CNE vice president, comes from the opposition A New Era (UNT) party which is a member of the G4 coalition: the four largest opposition parties which boycotted recent elections.

Likewise, the appointment of engineer Roberto Picón as CNE rector is surprising. Picón, in addition to being a businessman, is an electoral advisor for the opposition and designed the Democratic Unity Roundtable’s (MUD) successful 2015 election strategy. The government imprisoned him for six months in 2017 on charges of rebellion, treason, and theft of military objects. His political origin is unobjectionable not only because he is part of the opposition, but because he is, actually, radical opposition. The abstentionist sector cannot accuse him of betraying their cause or of being part of a moldable opposition which can be bought by the government, as it did previously with anyone occupying institutional spaces.

Both figures, as principal rectors, suggest that strong opposition currents are likely to participate in the upcoming elections and will abandon the insurrectionary path commanded by Juan Guaidó and his right-wing Popular Will (VP) party – at least as their only policy.

The silence of the majority of opposition parties regarding these appointments suggests that they are evaluating the move. VP is the only such party that has condemned it.

However, these opposition groups are not the only ones to provide surprising reactions to the new CNE leadership. There have been other unexpected comments.

International impact

It was previously unthinkable that the European Union (EU) or US government would back the CNE appointments (or at least not question them). It was also unthinkable that they would call to strengthen a peaceful and democratic solution to the national crisis for the first time in years. But they have done just that.

Julie Chun, spokeswoman for the US State Department, set a moderate tone concerning the appointments, and left the legitimacy of the new CNE in “the hands of Venezuelans,” explicitly supporting a “negotiated solution.” However, she did reiterate that other steps towards holding “free and fair” elections would be needed.

Peter Stano, principal spokesperson for the EU’s European External Action Service (EEAS), said that the appointment of the new CNE is a “first step and part of a process.”

The absence of maximalist demands such as the resignation of President Maduro, the establishment of a parallel government, the recognition of another president or the threat of intervention from the rhetoric of both officials can be described as a considerable change in position. Instead they accepted, or tolerated, the agreement between government and opposition actors. These statements from the EU and US government can be seen as part of a new approach to the Venezuela issue – a shift away from the Trump administration’s narrative.

Although current US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has recently reiterated his intentions to continue to “pressure” the Maduro government and has formally recognized the interim administration of Juan Guaidó, he preferred not to comment on the CNE appointment. That is significant if we consider that Guaidó himself came out rejecting the new CNE as “illegitimate.”

For his part, the new president of the US’ House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Gregory Meeks, even went as far as commenting that, in his opinion, Maduro has offered various signs of greater openness. Not only does Meeks recognize the designation in the CNE, but also the release (to house arrest) of six US executives who were part of the new CITGO board of directors [Venezuela’s US-based oil company seized by the Trump administration and placed under Guaidó’s control in 2019], and the incorporation of Venezuela into the UN food assistance program. For this reason, the congressman proposed lifting sanctions and opening dialogue with the Venezuelan president, something that breaks the consensus between Democrats and Republicans to carry out an aggressive policy against the Venezuelan president.

But when?

Any way out of the crisis is going to take time. In the meantime, the agreement between opposition sectors and the government must remain steadfast despite the predictable attacks from its enemies, both within the opposition and also within Chavismo. These attacks are more vehement when no quick solution is in sight.

The next presidential election must be held, according to our constitution, in 2024, and that seems a long way off. That is coincidentally the same year as the next US presidential elections will be held.

Although President Maduro has reminded people of the constitutional possibility of calling a recall referendum that could take place as of 2022, the institutional strength of the ruling party, as well as the current weakness of the opposition, suggests that this option and all of its many legal twists and turns is unlikely to be successfully carried out.

It should also be considered that the appointment of the new CNE leadership, based on a “political agreement” as Maduro has himself recognized, could also imply a change in the image of Chavismo.

The government, defeated in the legislative elections of 2015 and with the economic blockade which began in 2017, ended up entrenching itself. This entrenchment came also due to accusations thrown against it and an international effort to overthrow it by violent means through actions such as Operation Gedeon (2020) or the attempted putsch on April 30, 2019, as well as the recognition of Guaido’s interim administration by some 50 countries at the time. All this brought more sectarianism and bureaucratization to the government apparatus that was just trying to survive.

Therefore, the appointment of the new CNE leadership may raise the expectations of grassroots Chavismo. While the entrenchment of the ruling party has distorted the participatory mechanisms initially proposed by Chavismo, political openness could also come with a re-oxygenation of popular demands for democratization and popular power that have been totally annulled of late.

In an electoral scenario with the active participation of the opposition, Chavismo will have to open channels of dialogue with social movements and the bases that have critically supported the government or even disaffiliated from it of late.

If all the actors involved follow this route, Venezuela will move towards political and economic stabilization, international recognition of the winners in the elections, and reduce the high abstention that has turned a country with huge political mobilization into one where only an increasingly small sector of society participates. This route, however, is fraught by attempts at sabotage by radical sectors, especially from the opposition which has already cried foul about the CNE appointments.

From Crisis & Critique we hope that the electoral dialogue that just began will also come with a revival of grassroots democracy and dialogue with popular organizations. We will continue to analyze all this in upcoming installments.

Ociel Alí López is a Venezuelan researcher who has published numerous written and multimedia works. He is dedicated to analyzing Venezuelan society for several European and Latin American media outlets. He is co-founder of the alternative state television station Avila TV in 2006. He is the recipient of the CLACSO/ASDI research prize and the Britto Garcia literature award.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.