Venezuelan Elections Briefing II: Arbiters and Overseers

[We have updated this post to include the rollout of Guachiman Electoral, a digital, citizen monitoring initiative.]

Michael McCarthy and David Smilde

In our previous post we looked at some of the vulnerabilities of Venezuela’s elections. In this post we look at the social and political actors that will be watching over the elections in varying capacities that might provide some degree of confidence in the process.

Since 2007, the Venezuelan electoral system operates according to a “national stakeholder” model  in which national actors from political parties and civil society have moved to the fore while invited international groups are restricted to lending symbolic support.

In this model, losers’ consent—major parties accepting the process and respecting the results—is the standard for assessing the credibility of the election. This standard has serious risks when there is not full confidence in the system, as demonstrated in the case of the 2013 Presidential elections when opposition candidate Henrique Capriles claimed he had lost by fraud.

Since 2007 international observation has been replaced by a model of “accompaniment.” While the actual electoral law is quite flexible, it is specified before each election by the CNE.

In past elections this accompaniment has achieved very little in terms of generating confidence in the system, largely amounting to the presence of witnesses from the Union of Southern Nations (UNASUR) without technical capacity or autonomy to provide an independent evaluation of the process.

There was considerable optimism earlier this year that perhaps the CNE would allow for more robust international electoral missions. Organization for America States (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro lobbied hard for the OAS to be invited. There was also discussion of the possibility of the European Union observing the elections. However, the CNE does not seem to have seriously considered either option, inviting only UNASUR.

During September and October the name of Nelson Jobim was being discussed as the person UNASUR had named to head its mission. Jobim has considerable expertise in elections and was seen as having the potential to assuage UNASUR skeptics. However, by the end of October Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal had withdrawn from the UNASUR mission saying it had not received responses regarding the guarantees it requested, including Jobim serving as Mission Chief.

On November 6, UNASUR and the CNE finally came to terms. The agreement was immediately applauded by opposition leaders. However, this seems to have been a result of their desire to keep radicals on board with the elections rather than on an actual evaluation of the agreement. While it appears to have slightly expanded capacities for independent movement and public statements after the elections, for the most part the agreement is the same as those of 2012 and 2013.

Of course the shape and direction these missions take also depends on their leadership. An assertive and independent head could carryout a rigorous mission within the existing agreement. However, former Dominican Republic president Leonel Fernandez is someone who has been close to Chavismo in the past, which reduces perceptions that he will exercise such independence.

It should be pointed out, however, that even in the past, individual members of the UNASUR missions reported to the press incidents they personally observed inside the polling places (See 2013 Carter Center Report, p. 69).

The CNE’s hindrance of significant international observation has led to frustration in the hemisphere. Last week Luis Almagro sent a forceful letter to CNE President Tibisay Lucena, laying out a long list of problematic political conditions and unaddressed weaknesses of the electoral system. This was followed by letter signed by 157 legislators from across the Americas—including the United States Senate—echoing the sentiments in Almagro’s letter and calling for international observation.

On November 16, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and the Universidad Católica Ándres Bello released a report on electoral conditions (see preliminary report here, and PDF presentation here) and making four urgent recommendations: that the CNE make absolutely clear that the vote is secret, that it guarantee equality of campaign conditions by preventing state resources from being used in favor of pro-government candidates, that robust international observation be permitted, and that the state of exception on the border be lifted. It ended suggesting “if there’s a will, there’s time.”

Indeed these elections are more problematic than previous elections insofar as public confidence in the National Electoral Council has seriously declined. Polls from this year show 64% of respondents expressing distrust. This is likely the result of their failure to do due diligence to opposition complaints in the contested April 2013 election, in addition to the questionable grounds on which three CNE rectors received their posts in 2014.

Currently, there are four rectors that are pro-government, two strongly so, two moderately so, and one member who is close to the opposition. They are likely to favor the government throughout the electoral process and do not seem like they are in a strong position to successfully mediate a contested election.

All of this suggests that domestic observation and oversight will be more important than ever before.

Venezuela’s political parties are playing an important role in observing the entire electoral process. So far the opposition’s observational effort, headed by Vicente Bello, has participated in and signed-off on 13 of the 23 audits of the system that will be carried out (see here as well).

The parties obtain a great deal of their information on election day from poll place witnesses—individuals who are permitted to be at the polling place all day long to monitor the process and record irregularities. This was the source of the list of 3200 incidents the Capriles campaign put forward on April 14, 2013. They are also there for the audit of paper ballots which can be used as a check on the electronic vote tally.

In some voting centers, for example, in small polling places located inside government-built housing or in Communal Council offices located in Chavista strongholds, opposition parties witnesses are likely to face inhospitable conditions. However, the opposition is sending messages that its witnesses will not be intimidated even if harassment of them takes place. In the 2013 elections, the opposition claimed to have 90% coverage of voting centers.

There are a number of highly-competent non-governmental organizations working on electoral issues in Venezuela and they have mobilized teams of electoral observers to places they choose. Observatorio Electoral Venezolano is the successor of Ojo Electoral which was founded in 2004 and has carried out observation in most elections since then, including successful quick counts in 2012 and 2013. The directors of OEV are Luis Lander and Ignacio Avalos.

The Electoral Observation Network of the Asamblea de Educacion has also carried out successful observation efforts at a high level of technical sophistication. The Director AE is Jose Domingo Mújica. AE suffered an attack from armed gunmen at its headquarters on election day in April 14, 2013 which undermined its effort.

Both OEV and AE are credentialed domestic observers that have access to the audits and independent access to polling centers on election day. This election they have received almost double the number of credentials as in past elections, facilitating their work. They have also been able to participate in all audits of the system.

In addition to facilitating the International IDEA mission, the Centro de Estudios Politicos of the Universidad Católica Ándres Bello is engaged in qualitative observation and assessment of the electoral system and is part of the Electoral Integrity Project of Harvard University. The Director of the CEP-UCAB is Benigno Alarcón.

The Observatorio Global de Comunicación y Democracia is an organization created by former consultants from the Carter Center and is currently carrying out a media monitoring effort.

Perhaps the most important innovation in domestic observation is Guachiman Electoral (”Electoral Watchman”) which uses crowdsourcing software to register citizen complaints of electoral abuses.

Despite a generally bleak context for broadcast and print media, there are a number of reliable electronic sources. Eugenio Martinez is Venezuela’s most sophisticated and reliable journalist writing on electoral issues. He works for El Universal but also publishes pieces with Prodavinci.com which is a space for high quality critical political commentary.

Efecto Cocuyo is run by two of Venezuela’s most respected journalists: Luz Mely Reyes and Laura Weffer. Rivas was the editor of the 2012 electoral coverage for Venezuela’s largest newspaper Ultimas Noticias. For the election they have created Cocuyo Electoral which focuses on electoral coverage.

Overall, the national stakeholder model seems appropriate for a context in which there is a broad agreement on the rules of the game and confidence in electoral institutions. For the same reasons it seems ill-suited for a conflicted context like contemporary Venezuela, where robust international observation could go a long ways towards generating that confidence.

Nevertheless, there is considerable strength in Venezuela’s domestic efforts at observation and oversight. In the final post in these series we will be focusing on the agreements that have been achieved between the opposition and the CNE in recent months.