Is There an Opening for International Observation of Venezuela’s Legislative Election?

David Smilde

The Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Uruguayan Luis Almagro, announced late last week that he was seeking to visit Venezuela to talk to all sides of the political struggle there. High on his agenda will be the issue of international observation of the December legislative election.

Ten days ago the National Electoral Council finally announced the date of the poll, December 6. CNE President Tibisay Lucena also announced that they were inviting the Union of Southern Nations (UNASUR) to “accompany” the elections.

Venezuela has not had actual international observation since 2006. Since then only national groups have been able to actually observe, in other words, have had independent access to the entire process including the data, and have been therefore able to do a quick count. International groups have been restricted to “accompaniment” which includes being able to witness the process the day of the elections but without independence of access and movement.

This model worked well for several electoral processes from 2007 to 2012. However, in the 2013 contested elections, its weaknesses showed. With no independent access to the results, International accompaniment missions came up with quite differing interpretations. UNASUR’s mission quickly congratulated the Venezuelan people for their civic participation and asked all political actors to recognize the CNE’s results. The OAS, in contrast, recommended the CNE heed calls for a complete audit and recount. The Carter Center, for its part, emitted a press release calling on all actors to respect the existing legal framework but start a discussion on how to ensure fair campaign conditions.

Indeed lingering doubts about the 2013 election as well as the troubled renewal of new electoral authorities in 2014 have generated a dramatic decline in the CNE’s approval ratings.

The one CNE rector not strongly associated with the government, Luis Emilio Rondón recently suggested that international accompaniment should be expanded to include other organizations and a more robust engagement with the elections.

“Regardless of whether it is called accompaniment or observation, the fundamental point is for there to be international teams with technical capacity and experience in elections, present during the entire process to increase credibility and confidence in the arbiter and the process as such.”

Rondón’s statement is important because the electoral law and accompanying regulations (see Título XIV) do not actually stipulate a fundamental difference between accompaniment and observation other than to say the first is international and the second is national. It leaves the actual regime of accompaniment and observation to be interpreted by the CNE for each election.

Almagro’s announcement itself represents a change from the hands-off approach to Venezuela taken by former OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza. Amalgro said, “for us this is fundamental. We believe it is important for Venezuela. We believe it is important for the hemisphere.” This is only the most recent of Almagro’s statements of the OAS’s willingness to observe the elections.

The European Union also expressed its willingness to participate in observing the Venezuelan elections and work with other international organizations. “The European Union is prepared to explore with the National Electoral Council, as well as with Unasur and the OAS what would be the best way to contribute to inclusive, credible and transparent elections.”

One group that will be neither accompanying nor observing in December is the Carter Center. The organization that has most carefully monitored the Venezuelan electoral process over the past twelve years is in the process of closing its Venezuela program (see its report on the 2013 election here).