On December 6 Venezuelans will head to the polls in a decisive election that will determine the composition of the nation’s National Assembly. While President Nicolas Maduro has done his best to prevent an opposition victory – gerrymandering districts and monopolizing the airwaves – several polls have shown widespread dissatisfaction with the current ruling party. Unlike most elections, December 6 will not be about the direction voters wish their country go in. Rather, it will be a test of Venezuela’s electoral and institutional integrity as Maduro will surely continue to undermine any semblance of democratic process in Venezuela while he is in power.
On December 6th, Venezuelans will head to the polls in a decisive election that will determine the composition of the nation’s National Assembly. While President Nicolas Maduro has done his best to prevent an opposition victory – gerrymandering districts and monopolizing the airwaves – several polls have shown widespread dissatisfaction with the current ruling party. Unlike most elections, December 6th will not be about the direction voters wish their country go in. Rather, it will be a test of Venezuela’s electoral and institutional integrity as Maduro will surely continue to undermine any semblance of democratic process in Venezuela while he is in power.
The political suppression and illegal electoral practices have been further complicated by an economy that is quickly deteriorating. According to the IMF, Venezuela is projected to experience a deep recession in 2016, with a contraction of 10 percent. The inflation rate will hit near 160 percent and its black market exchange rate will hover around 830 bolivars per dollar. The economic problems are further exacerbated by the decline in international oil prices, with petroleum exports representing over 96 percent of the country’s export earnings. Finally, arcane foreign exchange controls have led to a scarcity of basic food items and medicines, leading to daily lines for Venezuelan citizens to purchase the little remaining supplies.
In the face of this winter’s election of discontent, President Maduro has responded with a typical mix of political repression and excessive jingoism. The president has jailed several opposition leaders (Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma, along with others), while disqualifying other members of the opposition from running for office. In addition, he has manipulated the nation’s judiciary system, intimidated journalists, and precipitated widespread clashes between opposition demonstrators and armed civilian groups of government supporters. He has also doctored territorial disputes with Colombia and Guyana, stoking nationalistic fervor while also declaring unwarranted states of emergencies in the municipalities along those borders, limiting the opposition’s electoral chances in those regions.
President Maduro clearly recognizes the threat of a democratic victory by the opposition Democratic Unity Round (MUD) party, and has vowed to continue the Bolivarian revolution in the face of the electoral results. While the United Socialist Party will control all organs of the state, President Maduro has suggested that he may bypass the National Assembly election results, and “govern with the people in a civil-military union.” The implications are enormous, especially for a region that has grappled with military dictatorships in the past and has made enormous sacrifices to develop democratic values and the rule of law in Latin America.
Such provocations have garnered the response of Luis Almagro -- Secretary General of the Organization of American States -- who sent a letter to President Maduro raising alarm about the fairness of the upcoming vote. Regional leaders responded in kind as well, with a group of 157 lawmakers from the United States, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Peru urging President Maduro to allow international observers to monitor the vote to ensure its authenticity.
The upcoming elections will be a decisive test for the electoral integrity and strength of the national democratic institutions, particularly the National Electoral Council (CNE). Despite the challenges, there are various steps which the CNE could take to ensure a fair election next month. First, the CNE should launch a campaign publicizing the secrecy of the vote to remove the misconception that people will be catalogued by the government. Second, the CNE should guarantee fair conditions throughout the upcoming electoral campaign, and remove rules that favor the administration when campaigning. This would include suspending the state of emergency in the border state municipalities, and allowing opposition political organizations to campaign. In addition, the European Union and OAS electoral observation missions should be strengthened and allowed to operate without facing harassment.
Looking ahead, the contentious political climate in Venezuela will be compounded by the various domestic economic and social problems. Despite the challenges, Venezuelan democracy must endure and give the people the opportunity to choose which leaders should navigate the tumultuous crises facing Venezuelan officials. To disregard the electoral results in the name of the Bolivarian Revolution would be an affront to the sacrifices made by previous democratic leaders in Venezuela and the rest of Latin America, not to mention potentially disastrous for the Venezuelan people.