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Call for presidential election in Venezuela amid arrests an disappearances

Photo: Crisis Group

In Venezuela, for decades the presidential election day was held in the first week of December of the year in question, so that the inauguration of the elected ruler would take place in the first week of January, a period that allows the liaison commissions to do their job, as established by the constitution. This institutional design has been arbitrarily altered by Nicolás Maduro, who, in 2018, through a National Electoral Council subordinated to the executive branch, determined the date of the presidential electoral act for May of that year. This decision, motivated by the needs of Maduro’s presidential campaign, brought with it a constitutional outburst: the winning candidate, president-elect, would have to live with a sitting president for eight months.

Now, with a view to the election in 2024, Maduro has repeated the operation, setting the electoral date for July 28, so this period of coexistence between the incumbent president and the elected president would last six months. This is intended to make it difficult for opponents to configure their teams to defend the vote and make the alliances required for an election, among others.

On the other hand, the president of the national assembly illegally in elected 2020, Jorge Rodríguez, has announced that there will be no voting abroad in those countries with which the executive branch does not maintain diplomatic relations, which deprives millions of Venezuelans, primarily those in Argentina and the United States, of the right to participate in the election. This decision has been announced by a political actor and not by the National Electoral Council (CNE in spanish), in a kind of public confession that shows that, in the Maduro government, the political overwhelms the institutional. The CNE, for its part, gladly abides by the imposition, ignoring that its real duty is to make every effort to motivate, increase, facilitate and expand citizen participation in the election. Thus, its duty is to urge the executive to generate actions leading to the establishment of consular relations, or some other ad hoc mechanism, in order to guarantee the right of voters abroad.

On the other hand, the CNE does not clearly define what the requirements are to access the electoral registry (RE in spanish) abroad for those countries in which it could be activated. It is known that the Maduro regime has established unconstitutional conditions for voting abroad, so that citizens who vote in Venezuela are asked fewer requirements than those who are abroad, who must additionally demonstrate that they are legally established in the receiving country, and there are no clear and uniform mechanisms to prove this. This is serious, since it could assign the decision to determine who can exercise a constitutional right to the authorities of another State, as well as the fact that it is openly discriminatory to create one type of requirements for nationals in the territory and another for nationals abroad.

But the barriers to a free and fair election do not stop there. Arbitrary arrests are one of Maduro’s preferred mechanisms to remove uncomfortable opponents from circulation and spread terror in political parties and civil society, and Maduro does this through unfounded accusations of terrorism, conspiracy and treason that he channels through the illegally appointed attorney general, always attentive to the wishes of the ruling party he belongs to.

This trend has worsened, first, with the simultaneous detention-disappearance of three regional leaders of María Corina Machado’s campaign command on January 23 in three states of the country, followed on February 9 by the detention-disappearance of the coordinator of the non-governmental organization Citizen Control, Rocío San Miguel. More recently, on March 9, Emil Brandt, coordinator of Machado’s party in the state of Barinas, was arrested. All of them have been detained without their condition and location being known for several days. Finally, the leader of the Causa R party in Monagas state, Whilfer Piña Azuaje, was arrested and has been missing since March 11.

To this harassment we must add the central element of Maduro’s strategy to remain in power: the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ), also subordinate to the executive branch, has indicated that María Corina Machado, who was elected with an overwhelming vote in the primaries held by the opposition to choose its presidential candidate, is disqualified from running for public office. The court’s statement lacks any sense of legality, and only repeats one of the strategies most used by Maduro, who has repeatedly disqualified political leaders and even political parties. We must not forget that the TSJ reconfigured the composition of the Venezuelan opposition by imposing new directorates of political parties, displacing their leaders, thus creating an opposition tailored to its needs, which is the one that was now called for “consultations” to decide the date of the presidential election.

This is the climate in which the elections in Venezuela are prepared. It is relevant to highlight that, in the Barbados agreements, signed by the government and the unitary platform representing the opposition, the commitment is established to carry out an “invitation to agreed technical electoral observation missions, including the European Union, the Panel of Experts Electoral Organizations of the UN, the African Union, the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organizations and the Carter Center…” However, the date established for the election does not allow for the planning or deployment of electoral technicians that require correct and thorough electoral observation, which reduces the chances that the aforementioned organizations will be able to meet the commitment.

Thus, the disqualification of the opposition presidential candidate, María Corina Machado, the arrest and violation of the human rights of numerous leaders of her party, the setting of a date that clearly hinders the deployment of electoral observation and the arbitrary detention of activists of civil society like Rocío San Miguel, constitute alarming evidence that the presidential elections in Venezuela are being designed with total disregard for the democratic criteria that distinguish a free and competitive election.

All of the above shows how essential it is that the international community not only understands the seriousness of the current situation of Venezuelan democracy, but also contributes to the defense of internationally accepted electoral principles and maintains an active vigilant attitude regarding upcoming developments in the country.