International Eyes on Venezuela Ahead of October 15 Vote

As Venezuela prepares to hold elections to choose 23 state governors on Sunday, regional and international actors are attempting to make clear to Venezuela that they are watching the vote closely, while remaining committed to advocating for a peaceful, democratic solution to the crisis. Importantly, countries in Latin America have sent a clear message that they will not recognize the Constituent Assembly (ANC), regardless of the results.

Although the specific conditions of the October 15 vote, such as the lack of independent electoral observers, has been questioned, the international community has chosen not to write off the elections as a futile exercise. Instead, it is focusing on the election as an important test of both the Venezuelan government’s attitudes towards elections in the wake of the likely fraudulent Constituent Assembly (ANC) vote, and of the opposition’s ability to mobilize voters at the polls.

As David Smilde has noted, there are signs that the government has committed irregularities in the process, including a last minute shuffle of poll centers, and the lack of international observation groups with significant access (as opposed to accompaniment missions like that of the Council of Latin American Electoral Experts) is a concern. And there is the fact that the electoral authority has separated the gubernatorial election from (largely Chavista-controlled) state legislatures in a bid to shield itself from losses. Nevertheless, it appears that Sunday’s vote will take place with the most important controls in place.

Depending on turnout (polls suggest likely voter participation has increased), MUD candidates may be poised to take 19 of 23 governors’ races. While these candidates, once in office, will face obstacles in state legislatures, and their decisions will be subject to the all-powerful ANC, a win of this scale would nevertheless be an important symbolic victory for the opposition.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government has been doing its best to showcase the regional elections as proof of its commitment to electoral democracy, and trying to use the vote to legitimize the ANC. On October 11, President Maduro claimed that anyone who voted on Sunday would be “voting for the Constituent Assembly, recognizing the power of the ANC,” and said that all of the governors elected would have be sworn in by the body, making themselves “subordinate” to it. In a press conference on Friday, MUD campaign chief Gerardo rejected this, saying that even Chavista governors would be illegitimate if they were sworn in by the ANC instead of state legislatures, as dictated by law.

In repeated public statements in the lead up to the vote, Chavista figures have also tried to paint the opposition as hypocritical for claiming the government is a dictatorship while also participating in elections. This week ANC-appointed Attorney General Tarek William Saab even extended this to those who go to the polls on Sunday, saying: “Those who say that there is a dictatorship in Venezuela should abstain from voting, not participate in campaigns, or pay for spots on the radio and in the press. If they do, they are legitimizing Venezuelan democracy and recognize that we are a free country.”

Regional governments in Latin America have rejected this. Both the presidents of Colombia and Peru have issued statements explicitly saying that voting in the regional elections does not mean supporting the ANC, and reiterating their rejection of the legitimacy of the ANC no matter the results on Sunday.

This position will likely be mirrored by the rest of the 12 countries of the Lima Group, which on October 5  issued a joint declaration urging the government and electoral officials to act with transparency and in accordance with the country’s 1999 constitution and current election laws.  The group also called on authorities to allow the substitution of candidates on the ballot who are no longer in the running following the opposition’s primary election, which the CNE subsequently refused to authorize. Since then, Lima Group member states such as Colombia, Peru, Canada,  and Chile have issued follow-up statements of their own, variously expressing concerns about the CNE’s recent actions and stressing the importance of free and fair elections as a manifestation of popular will.

The European Union has also been following developments in Venezuela ahead of the election. Media reports suggest that the bloc has reached a “preliminary agreement” to impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials, but according to AFP, there is an interest by member states to wait until after elections are held. A working group is set to release more details on the sanctions regime on October 17. While these sanctions will be targeted, and with a limited economic impact, they are nevertheless significant. The threat of EU economic sanctions appears to be one of the motivations for the Venezuelan government’s participation in the recent—apparently stalled—talks with the opposition in the Dominican Republic.

At the United Nations, High Commissioner on Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is continuing to place pressure on the government by studying the possibility of crimes against humanity having occurred in the country. On October 13, Al Hussein met with dissident former Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega, to discuss this issue, as well as the regional elections vote, according to El Nacional.

The United States has also made clear that it will be watching the elections Venezuela. On September 12, U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert issued a declaration saying that the government “calls on the regime to hold free and fair elections.” The statement also called on the government to permit independent electoral observation, and questioned the integrity of the election, citing CNE actions like: “closing voting centers in opposition strongholds; manipulating ballot layout; not providing for a complete, independent auditing of vote tabulation software; and a pattern of politically-motivated, arbitrary disqualifications of opposition leaders and candidates.”

Speaking at an event in New York the day before, Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon—who has been an important defender of behind the scenes diplomacy and support for meaningful negotiations in Venezuela inside the State Department—also addressed elections in Venezuela. Shannon called for electoral authorities to allow the Venezuelan people to “speak and decide.” In likely a reference to the brewing EU sanctions, he also called on the European bloc to “do more” to target officials responsible for violating democratic norms in Venezuela.

Correction: The first version of this post incorrectly said there are no independent observation groups for Sunday’s election. There is indeed no international observation. But there is one domestic group that was credentialed to observe the election: Asamblea de Educación.