Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights

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Domestic and International Observation Reports on the April 14th Elections

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

Two reports by international observation missions of the April 14, 2013, presidential elections have now been issued: The Instituto de Altos Estudios Europeos(IAEE) released its report in June, and the Carter Center released its preliminary report at the beginning of July. In May, a report by the local Observatorio Electoral Venezolano was also issued. Here we review the main points and recommendations made by the three reports.

The IAEE had participated in an “accompaniment” mission in the presidential elections of October 7, 2012. Regarding the April 14 elections, the Institute maintains that the “absence of the elected President; confusing information on the different and contradictory stances adopted to solve [that absence]; the discordant orders between the will of Chávez Frías, the Constitution, and the Law; and the reiterated changes of the constitutional and legal rules of the game” all added to discontent and suspicion that existed “before the elections, which were prompted by the elimination of international observation and the confidential character (“not public”) of the written report by the groups that participated in the Consejo Nacional Electoral’s (CNE) international accompaniment missions” (p. 2).

According to the report, “This legal distrust and the loss of confidence in institutions and the electoral process produce among citizens the fear of an eventual suspension of democracy and the rule of law. This is accentuated by the confrontation between the two sectors that divide Venezuelan society” (p. 2).

The IAEE declares that they will “depart from the ‘confidentiality’ of the report of international accompaniment demanded by the CNE, considering that the confidentiality requirement is an obstacle to the IAEE’s objectives of providing the government and Venezuelan citizens with information to promote good judgment by which they can advance towards the strengthening of democracy and good governance by fortifying citizen participation, accountability, and transparency of public acts” (p. 3).

The IAEE provides a series of “hypotheses and scenarios” in its report that add up to a fairly critical assessment of the government and the CNE. The IAEE argues that the current scenario is one characterized by “legal distrust and citizens’ unrest, either because of the acceptance of Nicolas Maduro Moro’s candidacy, the acceptance or not of his electoral victory, the contradictory answers to the petition of auditing the voting results, [and] the holding of the opposition, and especially its candidate, responsible for any negative occurrence that may alarm the public, among other things” (p. 5). 

“On the other hand,” the IAEE report continues, “in an effort to provide continuity for the government with a new leader and new challenges, and above all with the firm purpose of keeping power at all cost and to make the legacy of Hugo Chávez prevail, we observe an open and reiterated violation of the norms and procedures, which lead to rising suspicions of a suspension of the rule of law. The institutions of the state have lost their neutrality, they infringe upon the guarantees of free and fair exercise of laws and citizens’ obligations, and they leave citizens helpless and democracy empty of its essence” (p. 5).

The Carter Center has a long history of observing Venezuelan elections. The report clarifies that for the April 14 elections, the Carter Center did not deploy a comprehensive observer mission but only a “small accompaniment delegation.” However, the Carter Center draws from its previous experience and its continued study of the Venezuelan case. Its report is much more detailed and complete than the IAEE’s report, including not only an assessment of the actual election day, but extensive historical contextualization, comparisons with previous elections, results of content analysis of candidates’ discourse, and results of media monitoring carried out by the Center.

The report closely reviews the automated voting process and concludes: “As the high turn-out and many opinion polls demonstrate, the Venezuelan population, and the political parties and candidates in general, have confidence in the performance and integrity of the automated touch-screen voting machines. As the post-election ‘citizen verification’ audits of 100 percent of the voting machines demonstrated, the automated system functioned as expected in recording the votes cast, transmitting and counting them on April 14” (p. 79).

But in its conclusions, the report also mentions, without endorsing them, the three main complaints by the opposition:

First, “There was not agreement, however, about the quality of the voting conditions and guarantees that every registered voter is able to vote one time, and only one time. In stark comparison to the October election, when the Capriles campaign and the MUD opposition coalition questioned the conditions of competition, after the April election they also questioned the conditions of voting, a heightened criticism that went to the heart of the system’s legitimacy” (p. 79).

Second, the report observes that there were “widespread complaints about inequities in campaign conditions in terms of both access to financial resources and access to the media, which were similar to those from the October election. Consequently, the theme of ‘ventajismo’ (use of government resources for electoral advantage) became a theme in the April elections as in the October and December elections” (p. 79).

Third, the report mentions pre-electoral debate on the legitimacy of Maduro simultaneously serving as interim president and candidate: “There was a heated controversy over the legal context of the extraordinary period from December 2012 to April 2013, requiring a number of decisions by the Supreme Court to interpret the constitution in the wake of President Chávez’s illness and passing. While the decision to permit Nicolas Maduro to serve simultaneously as interim president and candidate for the presidential elections was challenged by legal scholars, Henrique Capriles Radonski, supported by the MUD, nevertheless decided to participate in the April 14, 2013, presidential elections” (p. 79).

The Carter Center report concludes with a series of observations and recommendations that relate to the pre-election day campaign conditions, the most important of which are: to clarify regulations governing the participation of public officials and civil servants in campaign activities, which relates to the issues of ventajismo, and to ensure greater campaign equity, including equal access to media, limit on the number of cadenas and inauguration of public works during the campaign period.

It also makes some technical recommendations, such as: clarifying the role of the paper receipts, an issue related to the recount petitions by the opposition; providing more information on the biometric identification system, an issue that has been noted to cause delays in voting lines during election day; improving the quality of the voting experience, as in relation to the issue of undue pressure on voters and the issue of credentials for party witnesses; and auditing and updating the electoral system.

The Carter Center report also make two recommendations related to the institutional framework: to clarify the constitutional modifications of 2009 that have been subject to divergent interpretations and to appoint electoral authorities, given that the terms of three of the current five rectors expired at the end of April 2013: “According to Article 296 of the Venezuelan constitution rectors are appointed by a two-thirds vote by the National Election Council for seven-year terms. These proposed rectors should come from nominations made by civil society, law faculties of national universities, and the Citizen Branch of government. It further specifies that these rectors should be persons without ties to political organizations. Yet, given the current standoff in the National Assembly, it is highly unlikely the necessary two-thirds vote will occur. It is urgent that this situation be normalized by reaching inter-party agreements to guarantee an independent, impartial election authority” (p. 83).

The OEV is an independent NGO created more than a year ago with the purpose of electoral observation. It previously participated as an observer in the presidential elections of October 7, 2012, and the regional elections of December 16, 2012. As a local institution, it was granted credentials for “observation” rather than just “accompaniment,” as was the case for international institutions. As a result, OEV was able to field a network of voluntary observers in the majority of the states of Venezuela during the April 14 elections.

The report by OEV makes reference to three major election issues: the organization of the electoral process, the electoral campaign previous to the elections, and the polemic after the announcement of the results by the CNE.

Organization of the Electoral Process: The report expresses concern over the composition of the ruling directory of the CNE, maintaining that “the CNE should be conformed according to a formula that dispels all suspicions over its political inclination” (p. 7). The report mentions the suspicion that the date of the elections was chosen to favor the official candidate, but also praises the CNE for having been able to organize national elections in such a short period. At the same time, the CNE is praised for having strengthened the electoral registry, but criticized for not having incorporated new voters for the April 14 election, instead having used the same registry as for the October 7, 2012 elections. Finally the report expresses concern over the lack of appropriate simulations and auditing processes before the elections, but says this was justifiable given the short period of preparation.

The electoral campaign: The report claims that both candidates carried out a “proselytizing campaign” well before the official campaign period had begun, thus contravening the electoral law. But OEV also says that proselyting activities were “much more intense” by the official candidate, “who also acted as Interim President and, from that position, had an advantageous position to promote his campaign” (p. 11). The report later particularly emphasizes the incumbent’s advantage as a matter of grave concern, and mentions the loopholes the current electoral law provides for circumventing restrictions on the use of public funds and public media by candidates.

The OEV briefly mentions as a cause for concern the declarations of the then Defense Minister expressing support of the Armed Forces for the official candidate, and the silence of the CNE regarding this issue.

The polemic after the announcement of the results: The OEV recognizes that the CNE carried out the appropriate auditing and citizens’ verification of 54% of the electoral tables as required by the law. However, OEV makes a point that that is very similar to the petitions lodged by the opposition after the elections: “the result has not been subject to a detailed scrutiny and the only objective of the audit has been to confirm that the voting system functioned according to what is expected from an automated system, but without being able to detect if there has been usurpation of identity of electors, double voting, or deceased persons in the registry. The only way to check these irregularities … is an auditing process that contrasts the finger prints, the voting books, and the voting acts” (p. 15).

The report concludes with three main recommendations for future elections: technical improvements on election day to preclude irregularities; changing the composition of the CNE to guarantee neutrality; and improving the legal framework to close the loopholes that allow for incumbent’s advantage, especially in the use of public resources and media.

The most critical of the three reports, the IAEE’s report, speaks of “rising suspicions of a suspension of the rule of law,” and of a “democracy empty of its essence.” But none of the three reports openly speaks of an electoral fraud.

The three reports do express concern over the issue of ventajismo, or incumbent advantage during the electoral campaign, which we published a post on during the campaign.

The OEV and the Carter Center both argue that close attention needs to be paid to the composition of the CNE ruling body in order to ensure neutrality. The Carter Center mentions that the terms of some of the rectors have expired and that provisions need to be made to elect new ones, but expresses concern over the uncertainties in legal interpretations as how to do this.

Apart from minor technical recommendations for improvement, all three reports recognize and praise the technical capabilities of the CNE and its capacity to organize and carry forth clean electoral processes. However, they also express concern over the consequences of a close result such as the one produced by the April 14 elections. The OEV is explicit in recommending a full auditing that includes fingerprints and electoral books.

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