Sunday , June 16th , 2024  

Venezuela’s Opportunity for Democracy

Credit: Jimmy Villalta/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

By Inés M. Pousadela
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Jun 10 2024 – Venezuela’s 28 July presidential election could offer a genuine chance of democratic transition. Despite an array of challenges, the opposition is coming into the campaign unified behind a single candidate. Many Venezuelans seem prepared to believe that voting could deliver change.

But the authoritarian government is digging in its heels. The opposition reasonably fears the election could be suspended or the government could suppress the opposition vote. Large-scale fraud can’t be ruled out.

All credible opinion polls show that authoritarian president Nicolás Maduro, in power since the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013 and seeking a third term in office, is highly unpopular. But his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) extensively controls the state apparatus. Electoral authorities aren’t neutral and the election system is riddled with irregularities. A recent decision by the government-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) excluded from voting over five million Venezuelans who’ve emigrated.

If the opposition defeats the PSUV at the polls, the government will only accept the results if the costs of repression outweigh the costs of withdrawal. This means some form of exit guarantees will need to be agreed. An agreement to coexist would also be needed for a transition period that could last several years, during which PSUV supporters would continue to hold important positions and the party would need to be given the chance to reinvent itself as a participant in democratic processes.

Civil society in resistance mode

Venezuelan civil society has long played a key role in promoting democracy and defending human rights. But civic space has increasingly been shut down, with activists and journalists routinely subjected to threats, harassment, intimidation, raids, arrests, detention and prosecution by courts lacking any independence.

Many civil society organisations (CSOs) and media outlets have closed and others self-censor or have changed their focus to avoid reprisals. Numerous journalists, academics and activists have joined the exodus to other countries.

The government give repression legal cover through a barrage of laws and regulations, supposedly on grounds such as the defence of sovereignty and the fight against terrorism. Many of these, starting with the 2010 National Sovereignty and Self-Determination Law, sought to restrict access to funding to financially suffocate civil society.

In 2017, the state introduced the Constitutional Law Against Hatred, for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence, known as the Anti-Hate Law, imposing heavy punishments, including lengthy jail sentences, for inciting hatred or violence through electronic means, including social media. The law leaves the definition of what constitutes hate speech to the government-aligned courts.

In 2021, the government passed an International Cooperation Act that includes a mandatory register of CSOs and an obligation to provide sensitive information.

The government has doubled down ahead of the election. In January, the National Assembly approved the first reading of a draft law known as the Anti-NGO Law, which would prohibit CSOs from engaging in vaguely defined ‘political activities’. The National Assembly is also currently discussing a law against fascism, aimed at banning and criminalising ideas, expressions and activities it deems to be ‘fascist’.

A united opposition

Over the years, the opposition has found it hard to present a unified front and a credible alternative. But this has changed in the run-up to the 2024 election, with the opposition agreeing to select a single presidential candidate.

María Corina Machado emerged as a consensus candidate with over 90 per cent of the vote at the October 2023 primary election. More than two million people were said to have taken part, defying threats from the authorities, censorship and physical attacks on candidates.

In an attempt to regain the initiative, the government sought to stir up nationalist sentiment by activating its dispute over Essequibo Guiana, a large territory in Guyana claimed by Venezuela. In December 2023 it held and predictably won a consultative referendum on the issue.

A week after the opposition primary, the Supreme Court suspended the process and results. In December, Machado filed a Supreme Court writ, but instead the court ratified her disqualification. So on 22 March, three days before the deadline for candidate registration, she announced 80-year-old academic Corina Yoris-Villasana as her replacement.

The government couldn’t find any excuse to disqualify Yoris, so instead it blocked the registration website. Right up to the deadline, the automated system had selective technical issues that affected opposition candidates.

Following an international press conference in which Machado denounced the manoeuvre, support came from two unlikely allies, the leftist governments of Brazil and Colombia. The CNE eventually authorised a 12-hour extension to register its candidates.

As a result of further negotiations in April, all registered opposition candidates withdrew apart from one. The compromise candidate was former diplomat Edmundo González Urrutia, a moderate few could object to.

International community’s role

Some countries, notably European Union (EU) members and the USA, have supported the Venezuelan opposition and urged the government to respect human rights and hold free and fair elections.

Anything the USA does is open to the accusation of imperialist interference, but the EU has been able to supply a credible set of proposals on how to hold fair elections. Recommendations of its report following 2021 regional and municipal elections included strengthening the separation of powers, abolishing disqualifications, holding a public voter education campaign, allowing balanced media coverage, repealing the Anti-Hate Law and ensuring enough properly trained and accredited polling station officials are available on election day.

However, the EU’s role in the upcoming election remains in doubt. After the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning Machado’s disqualification, the National Assembly leader said the EU wouldn’t be allowed to do election observation.

A key step in the right direction was taken in October 2023, just ahead of the primary, when government and opposition representatives met in Barbados and signed an agreement on the right of political organisations to choose their presidential candidates, an electoral timetable and a set of procedural guarantees.

The day after the signing of the Barbados Agreement, the US government eased its oil and gas sanctions but warned it would reinstate them if the government didn’t honour its commitments; in April 2023, it brought them back. The Venezuelan government immediately breached the agreement’s first point, as it initiated legal proceedings against the opposition primary.

Upon the signing of the agreement, the US Secretary of State also said that political prisoners were expected to be released by November. Five were immediately freed, but many more remain behind bars. Their release is a key opposition demand ahead of the election.

Two months before the big day, everything hangs in the balance. The unofficial campaign is well underway. Machado and González are touring the country, promising orderly and peaceful change. The government has launched an aggressive smear and disinformation campaign against González. Relentless harassment follows Machado wherever she goes. Local activists are routinely arrested following opposition rallies in their area.

There are surely many more twists and turns ahead. The Venezuelan government is used to ignoring international criticism, but it’s harder when calls to respect the democratic process come from leftist Latin American leaders. They can play a key role in urging Venezuela to let genuine elections happen and accept the results. The logic of democracy is that sooner or later Maduro will have to go. It would be wise for him to start negotiating the how.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

 


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