On Tuesday of this week, Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly announced that a ‘snap’ presidential election would be held this April and shortly after this announcement, President Nicolás Maduro confirmed at a public rally that he would be seeking another six-year term. Presidential elections in Venezuela have traditionally been held in December and the decision of the Constituent Assembly to bring the election forward at such short notice appears to be part of a wider government strategy of electoral manipulation to ensure that they remain in power. The actual date of the election in April has yet to be set.
The announcement has been condemned by both the US State Department in Washington and the Lima Group, comprising the foreign ministers and representatives of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Saint Lucia.
In a highly controversial move, President Maduro created the constituent assembly by decree in July, primarily for two main reasons; firstly, to transform the institutional structure of the Venezuelan state, and secondly, to sideline the opposition dominated Congress that has proven such a thorn in Maduro’s side. In the last legislative elections in December 2015, the government lost their majority in Congress to the opposition alliance. Although the opposition won enough seats for the all-important two thirds majority, some political machinations managed to prevent the super-majority taking their seats, by barring three opposition legislators due to alleged election irregularities.
Since then, Venezuela has been mired in a deep and protracted political and economic crisis. In order to provide some respite from this crisis, the Venezuelan government and members of the opposition have spent the last three months meeting in the Dominican Republic to thrash out a set of electoral procedures that would be acceptable to both sides, including reform of the National Electoral Council, CNE (Consejo Nacional Electoral). Announcing a presidential election at such short notice before any agreement has been reached however, suggests that the government is abandoning this process.
This does not augur well for the fairness and competitiveness of the scheduled presidential elections. We have written before on this blog, particularly with reference to Venezuela, about electoral or competitive authoritarianism, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002. These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much-weakened variety.
This announcement seems to be straight out of the competitive authoritarian handbook and the election in April will most likely follow the script of recent gubernatorial elections from October of last year, where the governing coalition of Nicolás Maduro eventually won 18 states of the 23, with the opposition coalition MUD (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática), taking the remaining five. These gubernatorial elections had long been subject to political manipulation. The CNE had prevaricated about when, and indeed if, these elections would be held. Initially slated to be held in December 2016, they were pushed back until mid-2017. In May 2017, the elections were scheduled for December 2017, before the electoral council announced a date in October. During the elections themselves, numerous problems arose. For example, at the last minute, 273 voting centres were relocated, largely from areas where the MUD is strong, for security reasons, and some ballots continued to carry the names of defeated primary candidates.
The big question of course is whether Maduro can win this snap election, even with the concomitant manipulation of the process. In the midst of the political and economic turmoil, Maduro’s approval rating has fallen to about 30 per cent. The gubernatorial elections however, and the decision of the newly elected opposition governors to wear allegiance to the Constituent Assembly, has caused a rupture and in-fighting within the opposition coalition. For Maduro, this might explain the decision to hold the elections so soon. Carpe diem.