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Primary elections in Venezuela: the government against the citizens

Photo: Miguel Zambrano – DW

Venezuelans have been severely limited in the exercise of their right to express themselves politically through the vote. In different ways, the process of devaluing the vote has been prolonged and has manifested itself in various ways.

Indeed, we have already mentioned in this space how the lack of separation of powers has allowed the executive branch to limit the capacities of the legislative branch, the judicial branch and the National Electoral Council (CNE).

Thus, the restrictions began when the ruling party’s proposal included in Article 124 of the Organic Law of Electoral Processes, which establishes that only voters who have “residence or any other regime that denotes legality of permanence outside of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, was approved. This, obviously, contradicts what is established in the Constitution, which guarantees the right to vote in the terms established in its article 64 to: “All Venezuelans who have reached eighteen years of age and who are not subject to civil injunction or political disqualification.”

In the current situation, new challenges have arisen for those who aspire to rescue the vote as a fundamental tool for the exercise of their political rights. In 2012, the opposition sectors decided to hold a primary election to choose the presidential candidate who would face Nicolás Maduro. For this, it requested the technical support of the CNE and this body put at the service of the election a significant number of voting machines distributed throughout the country. As a result of this process, a unitary candidate was elected, voter confidence in the electoral system was reinforced and, ultimately, a participation of around 17% of the Venezuelans registered in the electoral registry was obtained. This figure, by the way, constitutes a milestone for the highest turnout in a primary election in the world.

In 2023, the opposition sectors have once again decided to hold a primary election that allows the election of a unitary candidate with a view to the 2024 presidential election. On this occasion, the traits of authoritarianism have manifested themselves in an even more evident way than in the past. To the request presented to the CNE by the National Commission of Primaries, the body in charge of carrying out the process, asking for its support in terms similar to what happened in 2012, the entity offered no response, and later this gap was complemented with the surprise resignation of the president and other members of its board. In this way, the body has suspended de facto all consideration of the requested support, which would have fundamentally facilitated the carrying out of a process that, by not having the technical and logistical resources of the CNE, increases its difficulties exponentially.

For its part, the Electoral Registry to which we referred in a previous analysis, has not yet carried out any national operation to offer citizens the possibility of registering and voting, which, for those who reside abroad, is impossible to do, despite being contemplated in the law. For this reason, a first step taken by the National Commission for Primaries was the creation of a registry of Venezuelans abroad, independent of the registry managed by the CNE. Thus, according to the electoral body, the Venezuelans qualified to vote in the 2012 elections were approximately 100,000, and by 2023 there were around 120,000 registered. When it is estimated that the number of Venezuelans abroad reaches 7,239,953 people, according to the Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, of which more than 4 million are of voting age, the minuscule number of registered voters is evidence the refusal of the CNE to allow the right to vote for those who are abroad. The registry designed by the National Commission of Primaries, which simply allowed citizens registered to vote in Venezuela to modify their place of residence abroad in order to vote (exclusively in the primary election) in their new place of residence, managed to register in only a few weeks, 215,642 voters, although the verification period is pending for thousands of others who have not completed the process.

Thus, the National Commission for Primaries has decided to continue the process despite the extreme precariousness of resources, reducing the number of voting centers and carrying out manual voting. At this stage, however, a new obstacle arises that threatens the process. Indeed, the government, acting as a whole through the Office of the Comptroller General of the Nation, has used the mechanism of political disqualification of opponents for decades. For this reason, the European Parliament, on Thursday, July 13, approved a resolution on the subject in which: “it strongly condemns the arbitrary and unconstitutional decision to prevent the candidacy of María Corina Machado, Leopoldo López, Henrique Capriles and Freddy Superlano, among other candidates, and the interference of the Maduro regime in the electoral process”.

However, the government onslaught continues, through the presentation of an appeal before the Supreme Court by a pro government politician who demands the prohibition of holding the primaries since disqualified candidates will participate in it. Thus, the power illegally disqualifies the candidates, to then introduce before a Court that is submissive to it the request to prohibit the holding of the election. In this way, a pattern of political persecution is configured, through disqualifications that are the product of an administrative process, without trial and without defense.

Given this context, the repeated call of the international democratic community to hold free elections must be seen in perspective, since it is not a matter of evaluating the neatness of voting on election day, but of the entire process prior to the elections that is putting up different barriers from all the branches of public power controlled by the government.