The Venezuelan Presidential election was held on May 20, 2018. According to the results announced by the electoral authority (the National Electoral Council), approximately six million voters decided to reelect Maduro, with a turnout of 46%, the lowest in the Venezuelan democratic history.
This is an example of a contentious election. The majority of the Venezuelan political opposition decided not to participate, considering the illegitimacy of the presidential election. While several players in the international community, such as the Latin American countries gathered in the Lima Group, the United States, the European Union and the Human Rights Inter-American Commission, denounced the presidential election as rigged and fraudulent.
The illegitimacy of the elections is reflected by low turnout. In 2013, Maduro was elected President with 80% participation – almost double the 2018 turnout, according to the result provided by the electoral authority.
The violation of electoral integrity standards
The 2018 presidential election is contentious due to the violation of basic standards of electoral integrity. Based on the Electoral Integrity Project’s The Year in Elections 2017, Mid-Year Update Report, Venezuela scores low on the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Index at 45 (the index ranges from 0-100).
During Hugo Chávez´s presidency (1999-2012) Venezuela conducted several elections creating the illusion of a strong democracy. But this was not the case. Chávez created a political regime based on a concentration of power that allowed him to co-opt the Supreme Tribunal and the National Electoral Council. An example of this was the 2004 recall referendum procedure that was manipulated by Chávez to assure his victory.
Problems were aggravated when in January 2018 the illegitimate national Constituency Assembly decided to convene an early presidential election. The single-party assembly was installed in a clear violation of the Venezuelan Constitution. In any case, according to the Venezuelan Constitution, elections must be called with at least six months’ notice.
The national constituency assembly decided to ban the participation of several opposition political parties, including “Mesa de la Unidad Democrática”, which is the coalition party that won the 2015 congressional election. In addition, several political leaders were banned, while others were prosecuted or are in exile. The right to participate in public affairs and to be elected was violated.
The National Electoral Council’s Directors were appointed by the Supreme Tribunal, and not by the Venezuelan Congress, as established in the Constitution. This facilitated its politicization, as was demonstrated during the 2016 recall referendum against Maduro, which was blocked by the Council.
The right to equal opportunities to vote and universal suffrage was violated due to several inconsistencies in the electoral register. This included issues for Venezuelans living abroad: only an estimated hundred thousand Venezuelans were able to comply with the electoral register, a basic requirement to vote.
Freedom of opinion and expression has been violated, particularly, since the Constituent Assembly approved an “anti-hate law”, that established ill-defined crimes punished with prison up to twenty years. Criticizing the Government can be considered a hate crime and therefore a criminal offense.
Corruption was also a problem in the election. Several critics stated that the Government used social programs to coerce voters, in violation of the Anti-Corruption Law. For instance, Henri Falcon (Maduro’s main opponent in the election) denounced that Maduro used the “fatherland card” –required to access medicine and food provided by the Government- to coerce voters.
Standards of rule of law have also been violated. Since the installation of the Constituent Assembly, the Venezuelan Constitution was abolished. In addition, the Supreme Tribunal acts with a clear bias toward the Maduro regime. For instance, in December 2015 the Supreme Tribunal “suspended” three deputies of the opposition. More than two years later, the Supreme Tribunal has not issued a final decision.
As a result, abstention could not be deemed as the cause of Maduro’s “victory”. On the contrary, abstention is the consequence of fraudulent actions that allowed Maduro’s reelection.
What to expect now?
Venezuela is facing its worst economic and social crisis with a complex humanitarian emergency combined with hyperinflation. Maduro´s regime has taken actions that exacerbate rather than lessen the economic crisis, for example, the recent expropriation of Kellogg’s facilities.
The May election will not help to solve this crisis. On the contrary, as they are contentious elections, they could increase the Venezuelan predicament. As was concluded by the Electoral Integrity Project Director, Pippa Norris, “failure to observe international standards of electoral integrity will strengthen the risks of fatal electoral violence”. This risk, with consideration to the Venezuelan State fragility, could have catastrophic consequences.
José Ignacio Hernández has a Law degree from the Catholic University (Venezuela), and a Ph.D. degree from the Complutense University (Spain). He is a Law professor at the Central University and the Catholic University (Venezuela), and a Visiting Fellow, at the Center for International Development (Harvard). He is also a Visiting at the Jean Monnet Chair, Castilla-La Mancha University (Spain).