Venezuela Weekly: A New Electoral Council, but for Which Elections?

If Venezuela has dropped out of the international news it is largely because the most important battle for political power is happening in Caracas: negotiations over the election of a new electoral council (CNE) and legislative elections in 2020.

Since 2017 the unpopular Maduro government has found a way to win elections without stealing them outright. By having an electoral council that openly demonstrates bias and generates rejection among the population, it can divide the opposition among those who promote abstention and those who mobilize participation. In 2017, after having cancelled the recall referendum on the most specious of reasoning, and after holding an unconstitutional election of a new constituent assembly, it called governor’s elections for October 15. The opposition leadership went all out mobilizing for these elections and polls suggested they would win big. However they lost big, largely because of abstention.

Thus for the opposition, selection of a new CNE is seen as a sine qua non for any further electoral participation, and has been a key element of negotiations this year. The day after Norwegian-mediated negotiations were suspended on September 15, the government announced a new round of negotiations with representatives of minority opposition parties, including the naming of of a new CNE directorate. Faced with the possibility of a selection and replacement process occurring without their participation, the majority opposition faction of the National Assembly has now embraced the possibility and is putting together the process of naming a new CNE. To do so they have named their own participants and received confirmations of participation from the government. Elections expert Luis Lander suggests that if there is a political agreement, there should be no difficulty in naming a new CNE.

But the situation presents a clear risk for the government as polls suggest that with a new electoral council, electoral participation would be massive and would certainly sweep the Socialist Party out of power. If history is a guide, if the selection process comes close to naming a new, more balanced directorate, the Supreme Court (TSJ) will declare the National Assembly in contempt and assume the naming of a CNE (read here how this worked out in 2014). This will, in turn, ensure abstention by a big enough sector of the population to ensure an electoral win.

But while there is currently a consensus among the opposition and the government regarding the naming of the CNE, there is a significant difference in what this is for. The government suggests it is in order to call for legislative elections while National Assembly President Juan Guaidó has said it is only for presidential elections. Legislative elections are constitutionally stipulated for 2020 and they put the opposition in a catch-22. If they participate they implicitly recognize existing institutional powers. If they do not, they could lose their only remaining institutional power which, while not recognized by the Maduro government, is recognized by their allies around the world. Even if these allies support their decision to abstain, what would be the source of their legitimacy after their constitutional mandate finishes at the end of 2020?

International Pressure

  • The International Contact Group (ICG) on Venezuela issued a statement calling for “credible, representative and serious negotiation” and announcing that the European Union’s Special Adviser for Venezuela Enrique Iglesias, will return to Caracas to have meetings with all the relevant stakeholders.
  • The Maduro government and minority opposition parties negotiating with it rejected the ICG statement. Nevertheless, they left the door open to meetings with the ICG.
  • Guaido’s interim presidency received some backing from two new Central American governments. El Salvador decided to expel from the country the diplomatic representatives of the Maduro government. The next president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, announced his intention to break off all the diplomatic relations with Maduro’s government when he takes office on January 14.
  • However, Maduro received some good news with the election of Alberto Fernandez in Argentina. Fernandez’s first trip abroad was to Mexico where he talked of reviving the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which had been promoted by Hugo Chávez and other leftist leaders as an alternative the Organization of American States. “Mexico and Argentina have in front of them the opportunity to promote the repositioning of Latin America in the world,” he said.

Humanitarian Emergency

  • The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, visited Venezuela from November 4 to 6 and held meetings with actors both from the government and the opposition, and representatives of NGOs.
  • Latin American, European, and U.S. representatives of the Catholic NGO Caritas consider what is happening in Venezuela a humanitarian drama and not only a political crisis.
  • Civil society organizations have warned that they are receiving complaints related to distribution problems and water scarcity in Caracas.

Sanctions

  • The U.S. government imposed sanctions on more Maduro government officials but also issues a number of licenses for US companies working in Venezuela.
  • Maduro blamed U.S. sanctions for severely affecting the government’s “CLAP” food program, saying they are the reason the government has not been able to import the necessary food products.
  • Ten members of the Maduro government have appealed to the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxemburg to nullify the sanctions imposed on them through the European Council.

Migration

  • IDB Invest, the private sector arm of the Inter-American Development Bank, is working with partner companies to try to provide banking services to Venezuelan and other migrants in the region, including loans to micro-enterprises.

Violence

Economy

  • Bloomberg reported that hundreds of millions of dollars in cash have been shipped from Russia to Venezuela from May 2018 to April 2019, helping Venezuela evade U.S. sanctions.