Can Venezuela Salvage an Electoral Agreement?

Recent days have seen several major blows to the hope of naming a new, credible National Electoral Council (CNE) in Venezuela that can oversee free and fair elections. But despite recent setbacks, there may be a slim window of opportunity to forge a last-ditch electoral accord that establishes a CNE with broad recognition and support.

On June 5, the Supreme Court (TSJ) issued a ruling declaring that the National Assembly was in “legislative omission” due to a failure to advance discussions in the Comite de Postulaciones, the committee that has a constitutional mandate to name new rectors to the CNE. The ruling came just one day after members of the “National Dialogue Roundtable”consisting of minority opposition parties that have attempted to set up their own parallel dialogue track with the Maduro governmentpresented an appeal to the TSJ asking the court to oversee the creation of a new CNE. 

As Venezuelan elections journalist Eugenio Martinez has pointed out, the appeal contains valid criticisms of representation schemes that previous CNEs have adopted in past elections, but in practice the decision to submit the complaint to the TSJ represented a major setback in the political crisis. Given that the TSJ has become a rubber stamp for Maduro, that it technically considers the opposition-controlled National Assembly to be in “default,” and that it has declared the legislature’s decisions to be invalid as a result, this was widely considered  a thinly-veiled push to box out the mainstream opposition majority from conversations about a new CNE. 

But while the TSJ ruling strikes a clear blow to efforts to negotiate a new, credible, CNE, it is also true that such negotiations have lost momentum in recent months. When the Comite de Postulaciones was first convened earlier this year, and when it advanced in February by naming civil society members who would oversee the CNE nominations process, this marked an important step forward

The most promising feature of the Comite de Postulaciones was its representative nature: its members included lawmakers of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV), all major opposition parties, as well as some of the co-opted breakaway faction under Luis Parra. And while the latter faction contests the leadership of the National Assembly, conflicts over the legitimacy of the committee were avoided by the decision from both Parra and National Assembly President Juan Guaido to recognize the body simultaneously.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Venezuela, however, the work of the Comite de Postulaciones began to slow. At first, opposition leadership blamed the lack of progress in the committee on the lockdown. When questioned, however, members of the committee offered a mix of excuses about why they could not advance, some of them contradictory. Some admitted that they could conduct their work through videoconference, even while others insisted meetings must be held in person

In the face of this lack of progress, civil society organizations such as CEPAZ, the Observatorio Global de Comunicación y Democracia, and Observatorio Electoral Venezolano organized  a public advocacy campaign calling on the Comite de Postulaciones to resume its constitutional responsibility and move forward in the process, but their calls were not met by a resumption of activity.  

The opposition leadership’s reasoning for slow-walking the Comite de Postulaciones’ activities may be more political than logistical. The mainstream opposition coalition has emphasized that legislative elections, while constitutionally mandated to be held in late 2020, will not solve Venezuela’s problem. Since Guaido claimed the interim presidency in January 2019, he has insisted that Maduro resign and cede power to a transitional government that can oversee presidential elections. Naming a new CNE to oversee legislative elections, let alone participating in them, could come with a political cost for Guaido and his coalition, which would have to implicitly recognize that their efforts have so far failed. 

Despite the incentives against negotiating a CNE deal inside the Maduro government and among the opposition, it may not be entirely impossible. Since the TSJ ruling, Guaido has admitted that he has maintained communication with the Maduro government over the issue, hinting that negotiations are ongoing. As a sign of this, on the evening of June 10 the TSJ issued a follow-up decision in which it recognized and “positively valued” the work of the members of the Comite de Postulaciones, and instructed the committee to present a list of pre-candidates for the new CNE in a 72 hour window. 

While this announcement may represent a potential window of opportunity, it raises questions about due process. As Acceso a la Justicia has noted, there are a number of steps the Comite de Postulaciones would have had to follow before creating such a list, including publishing the methodology of its criteria, which it has not done. Thus, even if the committee were to present a list of names to the TSJ it is unclear that this would comply with electoral law. 

Ultimately, any electoral deal moving forward would also be complicated by the fact that the opposition has strong reasons to doubt whether, even if the committee presented a list of acceptable names, the TSJ would name the new CNE based on this list.