Venezuela Appoints New Electoral Council

Venezuela's National Assembly appointed a new National Electoral Council this past week, the first appointed in accordance with the 1999 constitution. The naming of the new council was highly anticipated in light of the possiblity of another opposition electoral boycott.

Caracas, Venezuela, April 30, 2006—For the first time since the passage of Venezuela’s 1999 constitution, Venezuela’s National Assembly appointed a National Electoral Council in accordance with the procedures set out by the constitution. The five primary and ten substitute members were appointed well after midnight on Friday, replacing the electoral commission that Venezuela’s Supreme Court had appointed last year.

Opposition leaders expressed their unhappiness over the new council, saying that its members are biased in favor of Chavez. The council (CNE) will be responsible for organizing the next elections, which will be for President, on December 3 of this year.

Venezuelans had been awaiting the election of the new CNE with great anticipation because the opposition made the institution the focus of its concern, placing tough conditions on a new CNE for its participation in the upcoming presidential elections. According to opposition leaders, the previous two CNEs, which the Supreme Court had appointed, were too biased and could thus not be trusted to run clean elections.

Prior to the final vote on the new CNE members, National Assembly (AN) President Nicolas Maduro said, “We will choose qualified men and women.”

The five principal members are Tibisay Lucena, the only one to have been a member of the previous CNE, Janeth Hernandez, who was nominated by the universities, Germán Yépez, who was nominated by the “citizen power” (Attorney General, Comptroller General, and Human Rights Defender), Vicente Díaz, and Sandra Oblitas, who were both nominated by civil society groups.

The final vote took longer than expected, though, because opposition representatives, which is not represented in the AN due to its boycott of the last parliamentary elections, demanded that some of the new CNE members be allied with them. “The opposition believes it can claim and obtain quotas within the electoral power,” said a representative from the pro-government party PPT, according to the Venezuelan daily Panorama.

Panorama also reported that President Chavez preferred to have only CNE members who were unaffiliated with the earlier CNE, so that the opposition would have one less excuse to boycott the presidential elections. With Lucena’s repeat as CNE member, though, a very experienced electoral expert was re-appointed, despite Chavez’s urging to the contrary.

Yesterday, the new CNE elected Tibisay Lucena, who has a Ph.D. from the New School in New York and who has been involved in the CNE since its founding in 2000, as CNE President. She thus replaces Jorge Rodriguez, who had announced he did not want to be on the new CNE, so as not to give the opposition an excuse to reject the new body.

Lucena said, in her first press conference as CNE President, the new CNE would work, “at full speed, with all motors running and untiringly to comply with the agenda of openings and dialogues,” referring to meeting with various political groupings of the country.

Lucena also highlighted that 60% of the body’s members are women, which is the highest percentage of any branch of government in any country of Latin America. “This says much about the deepening of participation and equality in this country,” said Lucena.

Opposition leaders reacted strongly against the new CNE, saying “nothing has changed,” as Henry Ramos Allup, the Secretary General of Acción Democrática, the former governing party, put it.

Similarly, Presidential candidate Teodoro Petkoff said the AN, “did not comply with its obligation of achieving a balanced body in which one and the other can have confidence.” According to analysts, at least three of the CNE directors are sympathizers of the pro-Chavez camp.

William Ojeda, another presidential candidate of the party One Single People, though, said that one would have to wait and see what decisions the new CNE makes before judging it.

Also, a representative of the opposition NGO Sumate, which says it is an electoral watch group, said, “We will wait for the [new CNE] to respond to the expectations of Venezuelan society, including those that are pro-government and those opposed to President Chavez.”

According to Venezuela’s 1999 constitution, the CNE, or electoral power, as it is also known, is a fourth branch of government, independent of the other three. There is also a fifth branch, the “citizen power,” which consists of the Attorney General, the Comptroller General, and the Human Rights Defender.

The last two CNEs had been appointed by the country’s Supreme Court because the National assembly, which was almost evenly divided at the time, could not reach a 2/3 majority for appointing the council. The Supreme Court thus stepped-in in mid 2003, to name the CNE. It named new members in early 2005, when one of its members resigned and another took a post as Supreme Court judge. With pro-chavez forces controlling the National Assembly since the December 2005 parliamentary elections, the appointment of a new CNE was on the top of its agenda, so as to bring the CNE under full constitutional compliance.