Mid-October Venezuela Briefing: Governor’s Elections and International Context

The regional elections are shaping up to be quite interesting and could provide a water-shed moment.

As expected, the campaign has been marred by the customary use of state resources to support pro-government candidates, as well as serious irregularities such as the opposition coalition (MUD) not being allowed to use its party name, and the CNE’s refusal of substitution of candidates after the opposition’s primaries. This makes it likely that some percentage of votes for the opposition will go to candidates that are no longer in the running.

There has also been a reduction and relocation of voting centers and voting tables, as well as some changes in identification procedures. Asamblea de Educación will be the only domestic observer. The Observatorio Electoral Venezolano was not given a credential this time around, but will still be carrying out unofficial observation. There will be an international “accompaniment” mission by the Council of Latin American Electoral Experts. Unlike observation missions, accompaniment missions do not have independent access to polling centers nor to the raw electoral data.

Nevertheless, in contrast to the Constituent Assembly election, the most important audits and controls are in place and we are headed to an election that seems like it will have considerable participation. Getting people to turn out for a vote less than three months after the CNE was convincingly accused of fraud, has understandably been a hardsell. However, recent polls show voter intention surging and data that look at who is going to turn out show that it currently favors the opposition (see slide 12). The opposition seems sure to win at least half of the governorships and could win twenty of the twenty-three contests.

The real test will come after the election as the government will either face a very different map with at least half of the governorships in the hands of the opposition, or will have to carry out some inelegant political maneuvers that will likely carry significant political costs. For example, it could have the ANC electorally disqualify several opposition candidates the day before the election. Or it could declare specific parties illegal, or obliging governors to recognize the ANC.

In addition, for the first time ever the governor’s elections have been separated from the state legislative councils’ election. This provides the government with a sort of security blanket as the legislative councils, most of which are Chavista, can provide serious impediments to a governor’s efforts.

One reason the government has pushed forward these elections is to get out from under the international repudiation it has received for its election of the ANC which was not only constitutionally illegitimate, but marred by fraud. Indeed, if they hold a semi-legitimate election that leads to opposition figures taking their position in governorships, it will inevitably reduce the resonance of the term “dictatorship” when applied to Venezuela.

The same is true of efforts at dialogue. The government has announced that the Santo Domingo dialogue will be taken up again next week, after the elections. This has been denied by the opposition. The government perceives that having a dialogue with the opposition will strengthen its international acceptance (for example, see here what Maduro claims Vladimir Putin said to him). It is probably right in that perception, as international actors tend to take a wait-and-see approach when there is dialogue in process.

International pressure has continued but for the most part in uncoordinated fits and bursts. The Lima Group represents the most interesting development in the past two months. A group of twelve important Latin American countries denouncing a situation in a neighboring country and refusing to recognize an (in this case fraudulently) elected body has scarce precedent.

The Lima Group made a statement supporting the attempt at dialogue in the Dominican Republic in September. In October they also called on the government to play by the electoral rules. There are plans for the Lima Group to meet in Canada this month, although so far no date has been set.

Luis Almagro’s efforts to take Venezuela to the International Criminal Court seem to have come to a screeching halt with accusations against Luis Moreno Ocampo, who Almagro put in charge of the investigation. However, the hearings got wide coverage in Venezuela and the echo provided by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein gave some added punch to the possibility of Venezuela leaders being tried for crimes against humanity. This likely got their attention.

There have been claims from both the opposition and the government that the parallel Supreme Court named in July, will be sworn in at the OAS. We also know that the Secretary General Almagro has invited the mayors who are being judicially pursued. It is not clear what this will amount to but is clearly a way to keep attention on Venezuela.

Venezuela continues to be on Donald Trump’s map. In fact one recent report suggests it is one of his priorities. Interestingly, as I suggested in this interview, the issue of Venezuela is one of the few points of agreement that Trump has with Latin American leaders as he has: diminished support for the Colombian peace process, pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and wants to build a wall between the US and Mexico. None of these are popular positions in the region.

In late September Trump added Venezuela to his existing travel ban, effective October 18. While this is supposedly about the failure of Venezuelan officials to maintain proper identification-management and sharing standards, the US has its own means of carrying out these tasks. Thus some analysts have speculated that Trump may have put Venezuela on the list so that it could no longer be called a “Muslim ban.” While the prohibitions supposedly only target government officials and their families, the proclamation also says that “nationals of Venezuela who are visa holders should be subject to appropriate additional measures to ensure traveler information remains current.” This could have a widespread impact on Venezuelans wanting to travel to the US, starting next week.

At best, Trump’s unilateral actions could provide a “bad cop” foil that allows Latin American countries to play the “good cop” role—indeed it is interesting that the US has not tried to become part of the Lima Group. More probably, Trump’s actions end up complicating the efforts of Latin American countries by pushing them off message and increasing domestic opposition to criticisms of the Maduro government. At worst, Venezuela could become an easy focus for a troubled presidency, as I warned some time ago.

So far the Trump Administration’s “debt sanctions” seem to have done little more than strengthen Venezuela’s ties to Russia and China. Maduro has vowed to continue to pay Venezuela’s debt and has sought to restructure its debt with Russia. He visited the Russian Federation last week and met personally with Putin, without much apparent success. But it seems like both China and Russia have an interest in there being an alternative, friendly county in the hemisphere and will likely seek to keep the Maduro government viable (this was one of the key topics of this discussion at the Woodrow Wilson center, as well as the WOLA symposium on September 29).

[Correction: a previous version suggested that mayor of the Capital District was up for election. Only the 23 state governors are being elected.]