With no election date set, Venezuela’s political conflict drags on

The ruling Maduro government has offered up 27 potential dates for voting day, while the body that is actually in charge of announcing the elections has remained silent. Democratic guarantees have not yet been established between the government and the opposition

El presidente de la Asamblea Nacional de Venezuela, Jorge Rodríguez
Jorge Rodríguez, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, in Caracas on February 28, 2024.Miguel Gutierrez (EFE)
Florantonia Singer

The path to the 2024 Venezuelan presidential elections remains uncertain. This past Wednesday, February 28, the government — led by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), founded by Hugo Chávez, who governed Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013 — has proposed 27 potential dates for election day. These dates were compiled by members of the political, business, academic and religious sectors who took part in an unusual consultation process promoted by the National Assembly, the legislative body controlled by President Nicolás Maduro, who has ruled since 2013.

In reality, however, this consultation hasn’t taken any specific step on the path towards elections. It’s the National Electoral Council (CNE) that must set the electoral calendar. Still, the events that took place this past Wednesday have helped the government exert control over the political agenda.

The opposition coalition — which signed an electoral commitment with the Maduro government in Barbados last summer — is running former right-wing legislator María Corina Machado as its candidate, after choosing her in primaries. However, her candidacy has been disqualified by the Supreme Court, while the opposition was left out of the consultation process to determine potential voting days.

Jorge Rodríguez — president of the PSUV-controlled National Assembly — was the spokesman for the Maduro government at the Norway-sponsored negotiations last year. He now suddenly says that the proposal from last week is even broader than the Barbados agreement and should replace it. “The vast majority [of the Venezuelan population] is represented here,” he proclaimed, at the event on February 28, in which 150 people signed a document — with a red cover, the same color as that of the ruling party — which will be delivered to the CNE.

The government and its aides have continued with their strategy of creating an opposition tailored to their needs, according to several critical voices. Rodríguez highlighted that they managed to convene 85% of the country’s political parties to propose a date to hold the elections and to discuss “electoral guarantees.” These involve regulations for traditional media and social media, so as to ensure equal advertising exposure to all candidates. Representatives of various opposition parties — such as Democratic Action and Popular Will — were convened to sign the document, but their boards of directors were purged in recent years by the Maduro-controlled judiciary, which replaced them with pro-government figures. In Venezuelan political jargon, the illegitimate members of these boards are referred to as “scorpions.”

“In my view, this agreement is the development of the [2023] Barbados agreement and replaces it. In other words, the Barbados agreement is a subset of this whole new agreement, which is much broader,” Rodríguez shrugged. This is despite the fact that members of the Unitary Platform — the big-tent opposition coalition — were not present at the signing of the document on Wednesday.

Last week, the opposition delegation delivered a document to the mediators and the government delegation, in which they denounced 33 violations of the previously-signed commitments. For instance, in the Barbados agreement, it was established that the presidential elections would be held in the second-half of 2024. The document included proposals that ranged from the last week of March to December. The ruling PSUV, however, hasn’t publicly presented its date. “We’ve decided to [offer up] all the dates proposed by all the factions that participated in this round of dialogue,” Rodríguez noted. In addition, the government spokesman has stated that — over the next 12 months — regional and municipal elections will also be held, in addition to the federal legislative ones.

Specialists in electoral matters maintain that at least six months are needed from the official announcement of elections to be able to comply with all the audit processes and to produce sufficient materials, such as ballots and booths. Other key aspects — such as the updating of the voter registry — should occur even sooner.

Nearly eight million Venezuelan migrants live beyond the country’s borders. And, despite the fact that many of them have permanent residence elsewhere, they continue to be left in limbo, unable to register or vote from abroad. Any kind of formal registration is made even more difficult in the numerous countries from which the Venezuelan government has withdrawn its diplomatic representation.

“How does a Venezuelan vote in the United States? They can’t, because we’re not allowed to have electoral representation. How does a Venezuelan vote in Argentina? If we send the electoral material [to Buenos Aires], the crazy person can steal it. There’s no way to guarantee that the psychopath won’t do something like that,” Rodríguez commented, in reference to far-right President Javier Milei, using the newly-elected Argentine’s leader’s volatility to justify the obstacles to voting abroad.

Last October, in Barbados, the Venezuelan government also agreed to have international observers monitor the elections, from institutions such as the European Union and the Carter Center. Their participation requires sufficient advance notice. But on the point regarding respect for the opposition coalition’s internal political processes — and on the point regarding the lifting of political bans that have been imposed on certain opposition candidates, such as María Corina Machado — the agreements have foundered. The government has blocked Machado’s participation and seems determined not to give in on that aspect. A ruling by the Supreme Court of Justice also annulled the results of the 2023 opposition primaries that saw surprising voter turnout (more than two million Venezuelans) amidst logistical difficulties, with the organizers of the process under investigation by the Attorney General’s Office.

Over the course of February 2024, the scandal caused by the arrest of the lawyer and activist Rocío San Miguel — and the subsequent expulsion from the country of members of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights — once again raised alarm bells about the stagnation of the Venezuelan political crisis. The elections are crucial for Maduro to lift the weight of illegitimacy that he has been carrying since 2018, when he was re-elected in an early election, in which a large part of the opposition candidates were disqualified. The 2024 elections are also crucial for the opposition and for the Venezuelans who aspire to open up a window to political change in their country.

After 11 years in power, Maduro continues in his role as the candidate, despite the fact that most polls show him with an approval rating at or below 20%. And Machado is continuing her campaign stops around the country, in the hopes that she will still be allowed to compete. In the coming days — according to Rodríguez — there will be news about the date of the elections.

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