A New Election Referee? Sizing Up the 2015 Electoral Context

Michael McCarthy

With Venezuela entering the peak of its summer, August 15-September 15, politics is at a low-intensity mobilization point. But, we are most likely observing a lull in street mobilization. During this period of relative calm, a great deal of maneuvering is taking place as both the government and the opposition turn towards the 2015 Parliamentary elections.

A major issue shaping the context for these elections is the possible naming of three new rectors to the five-person Electoral Authority (CNE). As reported by the Carter Center and the UCAB Project on Electoral Integrity, the multifaceted process of naming replacements for the three rectors’ whose periods in office officially lapsed April 28, 2013 is moving, but at a glacial pace.

The National Assembly is the center of action for the nomination process. A Congressional Committee made up of six pro-government and five pro-opposition deputies, and which will eventually include participation from ten individuals associated with civil society organizations, successfully held some deliberations on the topic. However, the slow pace of the process raises a familiar question: to what extent will political differences constrain efforts to renew the CNE and make it into the Professional-based model outlined in the Constitution?

A meaningful consideration for answering that question is the June 2013 Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for the current CNE to remain in place through the Parliamentary election.

Under the logic of “administrative continuity,” the same rationale underpinning then-Vice President Nicolas Maduro’s transition to interim President after President Chávez’s death, the Court ruled the CNE must continue to exercise its institutional role until the Congress agrees on three new rectors.

Two-thirds of the Congress must agree on the new rectors and with the current correlation of forces at 100 pro-government and 65 pro-opposition (3 of whom are not affiliated with the opposition’s MUD organization), stalemate on appointing rectors is a realistic possibility. If stalemate does in fact continue, then we can anticipate that the same CNE, widely interpreted as split 4-1 in favor of the government, will oversee the next election.

If the Congress does reach an agreement as to naming three new rectors or if the same CNE is in charge of the Parliamentary elections, what are the implications?

In the event a new CNE team is assembled with time for the officials to make changes to the rules of the game for campaigning, the Capriles-led opposition could receive a momentum boost. A new CNE would be a small but significant trophy for Capriles and sectors of the opposition promoting elections as the main road to political change in the country.

Such a development would not necessarily be a setback for sectors of the opposition seeking to ratchet up street mobilization to once again raise the costs of repression for the government. But it would place them a bit on the defensive.

A new CNE would not necessarily be a bad outcome for Maduro or Chavismo more broadly. The chances a new CNE revamps the rules of the game for media spots and campaigning or changes its generally hands off approach to sanctioning pro-government candidates’ blurring of the lines between public and political are low.

From another standpoint, moreover, a new CNE would give Maduro an opportunity to go on the offensive about the democratic nature of the electoral system. In other words, the government can manage the effects of the bad scenario and possibly even shape them to its favor.

A status quo outcome of the same CNE officials overseeing these elections would not help the Capriles-led opposition’s efforts to stimulate interest and participation in the Parliamentary elections. After Capriles effectively denounced the 2013 Presidential election as fraudulent, the CNE took a hit in terms of the public’s approval of its institutional performance.

Within opposition circles, a repeat of CNE officials could raise the question Capriles is trying to avoid, what is the point of participating? Such questioning fits within more radical sectors of the opposition’s criticism that the government is closing off institutional access and reducing political space.

A status quo outcome of the same CNE presents the government with the stability it likely covets given the highly turbulent first quarter of 2014. A stable CNE would seem to be in the government’s interest since it implies the electoral institution’s upper level management would stay in their posts.

Just as happened in 2010 before the last Parliamentary elections, redistricting could happen again. Redistricting helped the government’s candidates more than it helped opposition candidates. By law, redistricting (gerrymandering in effect) will have to take place six months before the scheduled election date.  

In light of the opposition experiencing major tensions in its alliance structure and Maduro coming out of his party Congress in a fairly stable position, the outlook is fairly positive for the government even in the best potential scenario for the pro-election faction of the opposition.

A major caveat is in order, however.

The economic situation shows few signs of improving rapidly or dramatically. What is more, even if reforms are made, it could grow worse before it gets better. In this respect, the elections are still a risky prospect for a government lacking a very well liked leader or as strong an organizational structure it wielded during the apex of chavismo—2007-2009.

When Venezuela comes out of its vacation break in late September, the tone set on the street and by developments in the National Assembly will give us a renewed sense of which of the above scenarios seems more likely ahead of the 2015 elections.  

Michael McCarthy is a professorial lecturer at Johns Hopkins-SAIS.