Will elections save Venezuela?

Will elections save Venezuela?
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Venezuela’s government, presiding over an abysmally failing state, announced presidential elections to be held before April 30, 2018. On the face of it, this should be good news. The political opposition and international community have been clamoring for early presidential elections to resolve the political and economic crises engulfing the country since oil prices fell in 2014 and widespread protests led to thousands of detentions and over 130 deaths in the summer of 2017. But at closer look, the announcement is not good news for several reasons.

First, the unilateral announcement of these elections by the government is a slap in the face of internationally-facilitated talks between the government and opposition that began in the Dominican Republic in December, precisely to negotiate fairer electoral conditions. No agreement had yet been reached, so this announcement appears to be a cynical ploy to call snap elections, put the opposition in disarray and continue the government’s grip on power.

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The talks themselves also aimed to open a humanitarian channel to aid the people suffering from hyperinflation and a severe shortage of food and medicine, restore the authority of the legitimately-elected National Assembly, and lift the U.S.-imposed debt sanctions impeding the government from borrowing money to bolster its moribund economy.

 

Entering an election campaign without also agreeing on these other points will be a distraction, prolonging the suffering of the people and likely to torpedo the negotiations completely. The government will continue to seek loans from benefactors such as China and Russia to ramp up spending on subsidized bags of food and salary bonuses in the run-up to the election, only to put the heavily indebted economy at further risk.

Second, elections under current conditions will lack integrity. The electoral body overseeing them has lost any semblance of fairness after it oversaw the election of an unconstitutional super-body, the National Constituent Assembly, with inflated numbers in July 2017. The election council also ignored evidence of ballot-box fraud in the October 2017 governor elections and required opposition political parties to enter a laborious process to renew their registration, while at the same time affirming the government’s dubious disqualification of the most prominent opposition presidential candidates.

The political opposition thus has a tough choice to make: participate in the announced elections under daunting conditions and try to eke out a victory, or boycott and risk handing power to the government without a fight for another six years. I have argued that participation is merited even in unfair, tainted elections as a means to move back towards democracy. In general in authoritarian regimes that still hold elections, it’s better to participate than to hand all power to the government without a fight.

Full opposition participation in the regional and local elections last fall could have forced the government to compete and allowed civil society monitoring to document and denounce continued abuses to press for improved electoral conditions in the Dominican Republic negotiations. Instead, the opposition parties split over abstention versus participation, and the government won resounding victories in both elections.

Presidential elections, however, without any changes in the conditions, will represent the ultimate gamble of the government to stay in power with some modicum of legitimacy it expects to be awarded by the international community. The gamble is not an irrational one by the government. It counts on an electorate resigned, hungry, without confidence that elections will be fair or will make a difference in their lives, to either abstain or vote for the government in exchange for a promise of a bag of food. Meanwhile, the organized political opposition is riven with personal ambitions and competing strategic directions, and has not yet presented a unity candidate who could galvanize the confidence and support of a large sector of those fed up with the economic mess.  

Historic models of countries moving to overcome severe divisions do not appear likely scenarios in Venezuela. These include Nicaragua in 1990 when a unified and broad-based opposition defeated the Sandinista revolutionary government in internationally monitored elections, or Chile when the Left and the Center united to defeat the Pinochet military government and its Rightist allies, also in 1990 elections. Neither has Venezuela produced a Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk capable of negotiating for the good of the country, as these two did to end apartheid in South Africa.

Thus the international community needs to step in to help: the European Union should follow the lead of the Lima Group of 14 hemispheric governments and the United States to make clear that elections that are not transparent, open to all parties and with credible international monitoring will lack legitimacy and not be recognized. The EU, Canada and the United States — the main countries who have imposed some form of sanctions on individual officials or the government’s ability to obtain more credit — should make clear the conditions under which they would lift or suspend those sanctions. Sanctions are intended to modify behavior, but the targets need to know what they need to do in order to have those sanctions suspended.

Finally, the Dominican Republic negotiations need to be revived and part of a larger effort. The facilitators of the talks should be in dialogue with those managing the sanctions to link the conditions for suspending sanctions to the agenda of the talks. Broader forms of mutual guarantees are also more likely to generate movement toward change: government officials need to be assured there will not be a witch-hunt if they should lose or give up power. The widespread corruption and human rights abuses lead many in the opposition to demand severe punishment.  But some form of transitional justice that will allow all but the most grievous offenders to have an option for alternative justice mechanisms conditioned on reparations to victims and promises of non-repetition will reduce the fear leading many to cling to the current government holding onto power.

Elections without minimal guarantees and devoid of the larger humanitarian problems facing Venezuela will only prolong the suffering.

Jennifer McCoy is Distinguished University Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University and co-author of “International Mediation in Venezuela.” Follow her on Twitter @jlynnmccoy.