Venezuela’s two presidents: evidence for choosing sides

Miguel Angel Lara Otaola

Miguel Otaola is Head of Office (Mexico and Central America) for the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). He has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Sussex in the UK.

As demonstrated in a previous EIP blog on the May 2018 presidential contest in Venezuela, published by José Ignacio Hernández G on 30 May 2018, the election showed clear evidence of being rigged.

On 10 January 2019 Nicolas Maduro was sworn in for a second term as president of Venezuela. He obtained 67.7% of the vote in the May 2018 elections. Maduro hailed the electoral process as impeccable and claimed elections were constitutional and legitimate. For him and his supporters, democracy had triumphed. In parallel, both opposition candidates argued the process was marred with irregularities and denounced elections as undemocratic, rejecting its results. Others shared this view. The Organization of American States, for instance, called the election the ‘biggest election fraud in Latin America’.

On 23 January 2019, only two weeks after Maduro’s swearing in ceremony, Juan Guaidó, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, proclaimed himself interim president and called for free and fair elections to restore democracy. US president Donald Trump officially recognized Guaidó – and not Maduro – as the country’s president. Similarly, a majority of American countries including Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica and Peru called Maduro a dictator and supported Guaidó. A second group of countries - Bolivia, China, Cuba, Russia and Turkey - recognized Maduro and argued that Venezuela’s right to self-determination was under attack. Maduro dubbed this a ‘return to the 20th century of gringo interventions and coups d’état’

One position, two presidents

Two presidents. One elected as president in a controversial election, the other formally president of the National Assembly. One talking of foreign intervention to undermine him, the other calling for the organization of a free vote to determine the rightful winner. Both claiming to defend the will of the people and democracy itself. Both cannot be right. History shows many atrocities have been committed in the name of democracy. After all, North Korea is a Democratic People’s Republic and East Germany was officially known as the Deutsche Demokratische Republic. In practice, of course, both regimes were far from this ideal.

So who is making the more legitimate claim? The underlying issue is the way that the 2018 elections were conducted. More specifically, were they legitimate or not? Was this vote free and fair? To answer this we have to look at a) the context where the vote is organized and b) the integrity of the vote itself. To answer this I draw on my own research on electoral integrity in the Americas as well as leading indices on the quality of democracy and elections, by International IDEA and the Electoral Integrity Project. Only hard evidence can provide an answer.

Measuring Freedom and Fairness

First, the context. International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy Indices are based on a broad definition of democracy and therefore not only evaluate whether a country holds ‘free and fair’ elections. They also consider other key aspects such as the extent to which access to political power is competitive, respect for fundamental rights, the extent that government power can be checked by the judiciary, parliament and the media and an impartial administration.

The indices use a 0.0 to 1.0 scale to illustrate fulfillment of each of its components. Looking at Venezuela, there has been a steady decline in all components since 1998 – the year Hugo Chavez was first elected into office. In this period, representative government, fundamental rights, checks on government and impartial administration have declined significantly. This translates into an increasing centralization of power in the executive, attacks on the opposition, control of the media and an encroachment upon key institutions namely the Judiciary and Congress. Constant attacks on the National Assembly and the staffing of tribunals with loyalists are clear examples. Figure 1 illustrates the decline in the attribute representative government (which considers aspects such as having an elected government and free political parties), going from 0.71 in 1998 to 0.33 in 2017. While Latin America experienced the ‘Third Wave’ of democracy, Venezuela clearly went in the opposite direction.

Figure 1. Representative Government, Latin America and Venezuela. 1975 – 2018.

Miguel 1.png

From bad to worse

In this context, it is hard to organize a free and fair election. Nonetheless, to analyse this I rely on the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) Index. This index draws on a survey completed by experts which are asked about the quality of elections on eleven sub-dimensions including electoral laws, electoral boundaries, voter registration, campaign media, vote count and electoral authorities. Since 2012, 5,534 experts have provided information on 312 elections held in 166 countries around the world. The overall Electoral Integrity score ranges from 0 to 100.

As outlined in my research, Venezuela’s PEI index has steadily declined, going from a score of 54 for the 2012 election, to 39 in the 2013 election. The 2018 process where Maduro was elected scored 27 points. As a result, the latest PEI release (Version 6.5) places Venezuela at the lowest end of the electoral integrity scale for 2018. Its closest competitors are Iraq (with a score of 32), Malaysia (33) and Djibouti (34).

Looking at individual attributes, Venezuela’s 2018 election also performs poorly. ‘Electoral laws’ scores a dismal 12 with evidence of bias in favour of the governing party and unfairness towards smaller parties. ‘Electoral authorities’ gets 19 points, revealing a National Electoral Council (CNE) which does not act impartially. ‘Electoral procedures’, the logistical backbone of a free election, scores 16. The list goes on: the rest of the indicators are equally low and Venezuela scores significantly lower than the regional average in all of them (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Venezuela’s 2018 presidential election. Performance vs regional average.


Guaidó’s (much) stronger case

In short, the May 2018 Venezuelan presidential election fell short of international standards for conducting free and fair elections. Not only was the integrity of the election extremely low, but their legitimacy was further affected by the banning of popular opposition candidates, such as Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo Lopez. Moreover, key developments such as the dissolution of the National Assembly in 2017 and the repression of civilians by security forces during the 2017 protests make one thing clear: It is Guaidó, a democratic leader who is calling for internationally supervised free and fair elections, and not Maduro, a dictator who barely keeps a democratic façade, who should be regarded and recognized as Venezuela’s president. In that regard, the evidence is crystal clear.