Why the Venezuelan Elections Matter

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The upcoming Venezuelan parliamentary elections on December 6 are taking place in a complicated political scenario.

Venezuela has been going through a very important social and economic transition ever since Hugo Chávez’s death and the subsequent transition of power to Nicolás Maduro. According to Datanálisis, a trusted Venezuelan polling site, 90 percent of the population is dissatisfied with the current situation, and Maduro’s approval rating this year is only 21 percent. In recent elections during the Chávez period, presidential job approval was the closest indicator of electoral results. For these legislative elections, polls suggest that the opposition will get over 60 percent of the votes.

What is driving the political upheaval in Venezuela? Among the most compelling factors are Venezuelans’ economic and security concerns. Shortages of consumer goods are endemic; it is expected that economic output will shrink 10 percent this year and inflation will grow more than 190 percent. Venezuela’s homicide rate has doubled since 2007, and it is now 18 times greater than in the United States. People in Venezuela miss feeling safe in their streets, they are unsatisfied, and they are taking that sentiment to the ballot.

As such, there is much at stake in these elections, and many ponder whether they will be free and fair. Speculation surrounds possible fraudulent use of the electronic ballot system, but it has been considered reliable and heavily audited in the past. This time around, there is real concern about the impartiality of the electoral system in Venezuela. The National Electoral Council (CNE) is packed with representatives of the governing party and has lost credibility as an impartial institution. A recent study by the Andrés Bello Catholic University and IDEA International found that by 2015, 63.8 percent of Venezuelans did not trust the CNE. Doubts about vote secrecy also hover over the upcoming election results; 63 percent of citizens polled do not believe their vote will be secret. Voter distrust of the electoral system could influence their electoral behavior.

In this scenario, it would be best for an international electoral observer to assess the legitimacy of the results, but both the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union have been denied participation. When the OAS was denied participation as an electoral observer, Secretary General Luis Almagro sent a letter to Tibisay Lucena, President of CNE, expressing his concern about unfair electoral advantages: the use of public resources for pro-government electoral campaigns, uneven media access, confusing voting cards, and disqualification of political figures. A letter from 157 lawmakers from the United States, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Peru also urged Maduro to allow observers to monitor the vote. He rejected the offer, calling it an attempt to undermine his socialist system. Only an “electoral accompaniment” mission from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has been granted access, though this role is unlikely to give UNASUR leverage to challenge the electoral process.

Despite the certainty of the polls in favor of the opposition, the outcome of these elections, in true Venezuelan fashion, is unpredictable, and it is unclear whether Maduro will resort to fraud or violence to prevent an opposition victory. The situation in Venezuela, however, has been unambiguously changing since before the passing of Chávez. Oil prices have dropped, inflation has skyrocketed, and government officials are under scrutiny for corruption and drug trafficking scandals. Recently, opposition leader Luis Diaz was shot and killed at a rally, where he shared the stage with Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. These acts of political violence and oppression have raised alarm in the international community. Of special concern is the potential for mass unrest and street protests if the results are deemed illegitimate.

If the polls are indeed correct and the opposition is victorious, these legislative elections could be fundamental for a new Venezuela. The new National Assembly would likely provide a diverse platform for democratic debate and truly become a representative institution for dialogue and decision-making. Furthermore, more opposition representation could open political space for improved foreign relations with neighboring countries, such as Colombia, and the United States.

Any post-election scenario will be a critical moment in the country.  Venezuelans trust democratic processes and voting power to overcome their differences. However, if the electoral process is neither comprehensive nor legitimate, Venezuelan citizens could be dragged into a more polarized and confrontational situation, encouraging more circumstances of violence. No matter the outcome, Venezuela’s transformation does not end on December 6, 2015, and the international community should not turn its head once the elections are over.

Verónica Colón-Rosario is the Program Associate for the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center. Verónica previously worked with Telefónica Internacional USA.