An Unlevel Playing Field: Venezuela’s Regional and Municipal Elections

  • Peter Stansbery
A few people sit at desks to monitor elections in Venezuela

On Sunday, November 21, 2021, in unfair conditions, Venezuela’s ruling socialist party swept regional and municipal elections, winning 20 out of 23 gubernational offices across the country and a vast majority of the 335 mayorships and over 2,700 local councillorships on the ballot. The election process was marked by scattered reports of irregularities and the lowest voter turnout in two decades at 41.8% —approximately four million voters out of the 21 million of the Electoral Registry live outside the country due to the migration crisis.

To help analyze the results and conditions of these elections, IRI Senior Program Associate Peter Stansbery interviewed Miguel Angel Lara Otaola, an electoral integrity and justice expert and Senior Democracy Assessment Specialist in the Democracy Assessment Unit at International IDEA.

Given your technical expertise, what elements should be considered to ensure an accurate evaluation of the electoral process on November 21?

There is a general framework used to evaluate the integrity and quality of elections, which draws from international treaties, instruments, and agreements. It considers the entire electoral process—before, during, and after elections—and is made up of 11 components and 49 indicators. Components assessed include but are not limited to legal framework, electoral procedures, registration, campaign media and finance, and the voting process. Like a chain, if one of these components breaks by not meeting international standards, then the electoral process was not held with integrity. Finally, the evaluation must consider the entire political context. For instance, in this case, Venezuela has a history of unfair elections, scoring a 26 out of 100 on the Electoral Integrity Project’s index during the 2018 presidential elections, placing them at the bottom of the scale in the region.  

Ahead of the elections, improvements were made to the electoral process in Venezuela, spurring members of the Venezuelan opposition to participate for the first time since 2017. The Nicolas Maduro regime allowed two independent officials to be on the five-person National Electoral Council (CNE) and international observers made their first mission in 15 years. However, Venezuela still has a long way to go to recover its electoral institutions. What are the main areas that need to be improved to ensure free and fair elections?

The playing field must be leveled. The day of the election may be free and fair, but the entire electoral process must be balanced. In Venezuela, some key areas that must be improved include:

Without fixing these irregularities, opposition forces would not stand a chance, making almost elections in the country almost meaningless.

What can we expect from electoral observation missions’ findings?

According to sources, leading up to and on election day the observation missions conducted their work without major obstacles, which guaranteed a fair and comprehensive evaluation and empirical and nuanced recommendations and findings. In terms of content, the mission will say that there have been some improvements and election day was okay with irregularities, but they will argue that the playing field was not equal due to overwhelming government propaganda, harassment of democratic actors and legal barriers, among other imbalances. The reports will conclude by saying the missions celebrate the process and call on the government to improve transparency and guarantees for the opposition.

When analyzing abstention, how should we take into account the four million voters living abroad?

Abstention was high for several reasons. One, the opposition was divided with one side calling on people to vote and the other calling for abstention. Two, after 22 years with the current regime and unequal and rigged elections, many citizens do not trust political and electoral institutions in the country. Three, the opposition has been boycotting elections for the past three years, which means not only did they not participate but they were not engaged politically, limiting their ability to articulate a message and mobilize citizens. Four, the opposition acted late by deciding at the end of August 2021 to participate, further restricting their access to resources and media coverage ahead of the vote. Finally, it is very likely that those four million voters overseas would have voted against the ruling socialist party.

What are the lessons to be learned by political parties after an electoral process with so many irregularities and systematic issues?

Opposition political parties must learn to push aside their differences and prioritize participating together until free and fair elections are established and the regime is no longer in control. As seen in this election, without a unified front, votes are dispersed among the different participating opposition candidates, making it challenging to defeat the ruling party. This strategy has worked recently in countries, such as Mexico, Czech Republic, and Hungary.  

Do you have any other recommendations for how democratic actors should analyze these elections?

Democratic actors must analyze these elections with a grain of salt, understanding that it was a super low turnout, and the ruling party did not allow free and fair competition. Although there were many improvements this year in the process, there is still a long way to go and if the playing field is not leveled, we cannot consider elections in Venezuela to be free and fair.


Disclaimer: This interview was held on November 23, 2021. Since then, on December 2, the Nicolas Maduro regime ousted international observers a week before their scheduled departure. He dismissed them as spies following the release of a preliminary report. Additionally, on December 3, Venezuela’s supreme court disqualified opposition candidate Freddy Superlano, who was leading the vote count, claiming he should not have been on the ballot because of an administrative sanction imposed in August. These last events support and validate the criticisms and pertinent recommendations of the electoral observation missions.

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