¿Es necesaria una reforma electoral en Venezuela?
Jesús Castellanos Vásquez. Licenciado en Ciencias Políticas y Administrativas (UCV). Especialista en Comunicación Organizacional (UCAB) y Magister en Gestión y Políticas Públicas (U. de Chile). Candidato a Doctor en Ciencias, mención Ciencias Políticas (UCV). Profesor de la Especialización de Procesos y Sistemas Electorales de la UCV.
Seguramente muchos de quienes leen el título estimarían aconsejable una modificación sustancial de las reglas de juego electoral en Venezuela asumiendo, a tono con los nuevos esquemas conceptuales (Freidenberg y Dosek 2015; Romero 2015; Tuesta Soldevilla 2015; Jacobs y Leyenaar 2011), que las reformas deben ir más allá de los cambios legales en el corazón del sistema electoral, a saber, circunscripciones, candidaturas, votación y fórmula, por citar los más conocidos. Ante ésto surgen múltiples interrogantes: ¿Qué tipos de reformas deben hacerse? -¿Quiénes?, ¿Qué bases legales deben cambiarse?, ¿Cuándo debe reformarse? ¿Qué materias deben reformarse? y más complejo aún, ¿Es suficiente solo reformar?
De inicio sostenemos que en Venezuela las transgresiones a la transparencia y justicia de los procesos electorales trascienden a las normas. Las violaciones a la integridad electoral, presentes desde hace más de una década y cada vez más graves y evidentes, se han originado no sólo por las debilidades del marco normativo, sino también y quizás más importante, por la inobservancia e incumplimiento de la base legal vigente. Urge, no obstante, y a la luz del restablecimiento de la institucionalidad democrática, reformar de manera prioritaria algunas materias. He aquí nuestra propuesta, advirtiendo que seguramente existen múltiples lecturas al respecto.
¿Qué tipos de reformas deben hacerse? ¿Quiénes?
Si bien las reformas electorales tienden a asociarse directamente con modificaciones de leyes, no es menos cierto que no sólo a ellas se limitan. En tal sentido, además de los cambios a ser efectuados por la Asamblea Nacional también podrían sumarse los producidos por el Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) en lo referente a las normas sub-legales de su competencia, e incluso, decisiones de otros órganos del Estado como el Tribunal Supremo de Justicia.
¿Qué bases legales deben reformarse?
Es incuestionable la pertinencia de modificar no sólo la norma rectora de las elecciones, la Ley Orgánica de Procesos Electorales (LOPRE) (2009), sino también a la misma Constitución de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela (1999), además de la que define el funcionamiento del Poder Electoral: Ley Orgánica del Poder Electoral (2002), la Ley de Partidos Políticos, Reuniones Públicas y Manifestaciones (1964) y el Reglamento General de la Ley Orgánica de Procesos Electorales (2013), entre otras.
¿Cuándo deben reformarse?
A pesar que la respuesta ideal pudiera ser de inmediato, reconocemos que inclusive por el mismo mecanismo de modificación algunas podrían efectuarse, de existir voluntad política e institucional, de forma relativamente rápida, véase, por ejemplo, Leyes Orgánicas y Ordinarias o el Reglamento General de la LOPRE, mientras que para el caso de la Constitución es necesario más tiempo pues requiere adicionalmente de consultas populares, sean para enmiendas, reformas generales o, la instalación de una Asamblea Nacional Constituyente (no la actual, la cual fue elegida de forma inconstitucional y antidemocrática el 30 de julio del año pasado). Lo que sí debería quedar claro es que son varias las materias a ser modificadas con el propósito de alcanzar en el futuro elecciones integras, justas y transparentes.
¿Qué materias deben reformarse?
Antes de la Elección Presidencial 2018.
La Asamblea Nacional Constituyente, convocó una elección presidencial con fecha no posterior al 30 de abril. Tras una primera convocatoria, el CNE estableció la elección para el 22 de abril; el evento fue reprogramado para el 20 de mayo y se incorporaron las elecciones de diputados regionales y concejos municipales. A la fecha de publicación de este artículo se manejaban nuevos cambios. Todo esto evidencia que frente a las actuales condiciones es imposible garantizar la integridad de dicho evento. Con el objeto que se cumplan los parámetros mínimos sin desconocer a la Constitución en lo que concierne a la prohibición de modificar la ley electoral seis meses antes del proceso, consideramos vital, por una parte, corregir el comportamiento sesgado y visiblemente parcializado del Consejo Nacional Electoral, -una designación de su directiva conforme al mandato de ley sería lo más recomendable-, y por la otra, ejecutar a la brevedad: 1) Eliminación de la obligación de residencia legal en la inscripción y votación de los venezolanos en el extranjero definidas en la LOPRE y su Reglamento, y sanciones a quienes obstruyan el voto en el exterior; 2) Fijación normativa de la convocatoria con un lapso expreso previo a la elección; 3) Incorporación en Ley de la observación electoral Internacional, sustituyendo al acompañamiento electoral internacional y, de la observación electoral nacional y darle un mayor peso a ambas en el monitoreo electoral; 4) Mayores regulaciones en cuanto al uso de instituciones, recursos y/o funcionarios públicos en la campaña electoral, incluyendo los espacios televisivos en medios de comunicación del Estado; 5) Regulación de la precampaña electoral ; 6) Eliminación de la figura de la inhabilitación administrativa en la Ley de la Contraloría General de la República y del Sistema Nacional de Control Fiscal (2010); 7) Actualización de los procesos de inscripción y renovación de los partidos políticos en la Ley de Partidos Políticos, Reuniones Públicas y Manifestaciones (1964) y; 8) Obligación de ubicar a los Centros de Votación en institutos educativos.
Y con más tiempo…
Es fundamental aprobar una ley de financiamiento público a las campañas electorales en concordancia con la exigencia de la Sentencia N° 780 de la Sala Constitucional del Tribunal Supremo de Justicia de mayo de 2008. Otras materias más difíciles de modificar también deberían ser revisadas en la Carta Magna, v.g, la eliminación del voto militar para cargos de elección popular y la reelección indefinida, perjudiciales en cualquier dinámica republicana, así como la unificación de los registros civil, de identidad y electoral bajo la competencia del CNE, incorporación expresa del financiamiento público en campañas electorales y de los partidos políticos y, el establecimiento del mecanismo de designación del órgano rector del Poder Electoral cuando no se pueda obtener el quorum reglamentario (revisión de la omisión legislativa).
Finalmente, ¿Es suficiente solo reformar?
Sin duda no, aunque creemos que las reformas son imprescindibles y que las mismas constituyen el primer paso en la dirección correcta hacia la restitución del orden democrático en Venezuela. Esperemos que estas líneas contribuyan en tan ardua tarea.
Is an electoral reform necessary in Venezuela?
Jesús Castellanos Vásquez. Licenciado en Ciencias Políticas y Administrativas (UCV). Especialista en Comunicación Organizacional (UCAB) y Magister en Gestión y Políticas Públicas (U. de Chile). Candidato a Doctor en Ciencias, mención Ciencias Políticas (UCV). Profesor de la Especialización de Procesos y Sistemas Electorales de la UCV.
Many of the readers of the above title will probably recommend a substantial change in the rules of the game for Venezuela’s electoral system. They assume, in line with new conceptual schemes (Freidenberg y Dosek 2015; Romero 2015; Tuesta Soldevilla 2015; Jacobs y Leyenaar 2011), that those reforms should go beyond legal changes at the heart of the electoral system, that is, districts, candidacies, voting and formulas, to name only the most well-known ones. This generates many questions: What type of reforms should be implemented? By whom? What legal bases should be changed? When should these reforms take place? What areas should be reformed? And even more complex of a question, is it enough to just carry out a reform?
We maintain that the transgressions against transparency and justice in the Venezuelan electoral processes exceed the regulations therein. Violations to the integrity of the electoral process have existed for over a decade and become more serious and evident by the day. These violations have arisen not only due to weaknesses in the regulatory framework but also, and perhaps even more important, due to the lack of observation and lack of compliance with current laws. Notwithstanding, it is imperative to reform some areas with urgency, especially in light or restoring democratic institutions. Below is our proposal to address this situation, and we caution our readers that there are probably many different interpretations of it.
What type of reforms should be implemented? By whom?
Although electoral reforms tend to be directly associated with changes to existing laws, they are not limited to only that. In addition to the changes implemented by the National Assembly, the National Electoral Council (CNE by its initials in Spanish) can also implement changes regarding the sublegal regulations under its purview, and even decisions by other government entities such as the Supreme Court of Justice.
What laws should be reformed?
It is certain that not only laws governing elections and the Organic Law on Electoral Processes (LOPRE) (2009) should be reformed, but also the following: The Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (1999), the Organic Law of the Electoral Power (LOPE) (2002), the Law on Political Parties, Public Meetings and Protests (1964) and the General Regulation of the Organic Law on Electoral Processes (2013), among others
When should these reforms take place?
Although the ideal answer should be immediately, we acknowledge that timelines may differ. Some reforms, such as reforms to Organic Laws and Ordinary Laws or to the General Regulation of the LOPRE, may be implemented quickly through normal amendment mechanisms if there is enough political and institutional will. Conversely, reforming the Constitution requires more time as it involves popular referenda for amendments, general reforms or installing a new Constitutional Assembly (not the current one, which was elected unconstitutionally and in a non-democratic way on 30 July 2017). One thing is clear, there are several areas that must be reformed so as to have trustworthy, fair and transparent elections henceforth.
What areas should be reformed?
Before the 2018 presidential elections
The National Constitutional Assembly called a presidential election to be held no later than 30 April. After that first call, the CNE set the election for 22 April, but the event was rescheduled for 20 May and elections for regional legislators and municipal councils were added. As of the date this article was published, more changes were being proposed. This makes it evident that the current conditions make it impossible to guarantee the reliability of this event.
With the goal of reaching minimum parameters, while staying within Constitutional boundaries, concerning the ban on modifying the electoral laws six months before the process, we believe it is vital, on the one hand, to correct the CNE’s slanted and visibly partisan behavior of the—the best course of action would be to designate its leadership pursuant to law—and, on the other hand, implement as soon as possible the following actions: 1) eliminate the requirement that Venezuelans living overseas have legal residence to be able to register and vote, as defined in LOPRE and its regulations, and impose penalties to those who obstruct voting overseas; 2) set the rules for the call for elections with a set period of time prior to the election; 3) add to the legal framework international observers that replace international observers to accompany elections, as well as domestic observers, and give both groups of observers a greater weight in the election monitoring process; 4) enact more regulations concerning the use of institutions, resources and/or government officials in electoral campaigns, including television advertisement in State-owned media outlets; 5) enact more regulations regarding electoral campaigns; 6) eliminate the legal concept of administrative suspension in the Law of the Republic’s Comptroller General and the National Tax Control System (2010); 7) update the registration and renewal processes for political parties in the Law on Political Parties, Public Meetings and Protests (1964); and 8) set a requirement to locate voting centers in schools.
And with a bit more time…
It is essential to enact a law of public financing for electoral campaigns that meets the requirements of the May 2008 Ruling No. 780 imposed by the Constitutional Committee of the Supreme Court of Justice. There are other topics in the Carta Magna that are more difficult to change but should also be reviewed, for example the elimination of military votes for positions elected through popular vote and lifetime reelection terms, both of which are detrimental in any type of republican dynamic, as well as the unification of civil registries, national identity card registries and electoral registries belonging to the CNE, the immediate implementation of a mechanism to designate the entity that will govern the Electoral Power when the necessary quorum cannot be achieved (revising the legislative omission).
Finally, is it enough to just reform?
Undoubtedly, the answer is no, although we believe that reforms are essential and they are the first step in the right directly toward restoring Venezuela’s democratic order. We hope these words contribute to such a challenging task.
ESTABLISHMENT AND DISMANTLING OF THE VOTING GUARANTEES SYSTEM IN VENEZUELA
By Griselda Colina and Hector Vanolli
Griselda Colina. Comunicadora Social egresada de la UCV. Actualmente es Directora del Observatorio Global de Comunicación y Democracia. Entre 2010 y 2015 ocupó la Coord. de Proyectos de la oficina del Centro Carter en Venezuela. Co- autora del manual de monitoreo de medios del Centro Carter, así como del Informe de Libertad de Expresión de Freedom House 2012. Colina fue parte del staff local de la Misión de Estudio del Centro Carter en Venezuela para los procesos electorales presidenciales de 2012 y 2013. @griscolina
Héctor Vanolli. Es licenciado en Comunicaciones Sociales por la Universidad Católica de Salta (UCS), tiene una maestría en Relaciones Internacionales y Comunicación en la Universidad de Boston (BU) y ha sido scholar de la Fundación Fulbright y la Fundación Ford en los Estados Unidos. Se desempeñó como Representante Permanente del Centro Carter en Venezuela entre 2005 y 2014. Anteriormente, se desempeñó como Especialista en la Unidad para la Promoción de la Democracia (UPD) de la Organización de Estados Americanos (OEA) en Washington DC.
The automation of the Venezuelan voting system in 2004 came with a series of extraordinary security measures aimed chiefly at encouraging the population to trust the electronic voting system.
Said measures came about within a framework of acute political polarization and confrontation, as well as growing partiality by the electoral agency. For this reason, these measures have played an essential role in maintaining social peace. By giving the different actors in this process reliable mechanisms to certify voting results, the system of voting guarantees created since 2004 has guaranteed the trustworthiness of the counting and tallying system. Further, in some cases, such as in 2007 and 2015, it has even led to some voting victories by the opposition.
Paradoxically, during this same period of time, the Venezuelan electoral agency announced a dramatic change of course that would transform it in a matter of a few years into the main promoter of lack of trust in Venezuela and, starting in 2015, into the entity facilitating and consummating electoral fraud.
This article analyses the role of the National Electoral Council (CNE, by its initials in Spanish) in the process of establishing and subsequent dismantling of the system of electoral guarantees in Venezuela, as well as consequences this process has had on the rupturing of the constitutional order and the ensuing chaos and illegality that plagues the nation.
The use of an automated voting system in Venezuela goes back to 1972 when the then-Supreme Electoral Council incorporated electro-mechanic machines to the voting process to print official tallies of votes (see Informe Capel). The decision to transform the positions of governor, mayor and councilman into popular vote positions in 1989 (instead of being appointed by the central government) paved the way so that starting in 1992 Venezuela would take solid steps towards adopting one of the most sophisticated automated voting systems in the continent.
This trend would reach its pinnacle in 2004 when the recently created CNE contracted with the company Smarmatic to automate all of the phases in the voting process. This process finished eight years later when the voter finger print identification system was incorporated, also known as the Integrated Authentication System (SAI, by its initials in Spanish).
Due to the intense political polarization and a generalized feeling of distrust toward the electoral government agency, it was extremely challenging for the CNE to achieve comprehensive automation of the voting system. The CNE, following a suggestion by Smartmatic, and aiming at strengthening people’s trust, approved as the main transparency guarantee a feature in voting machines that prints a receipt known as “proof of vote” after voters have cast their electronic ballots. This allows double verification. First, it allows voters to confirm that the automated voting system has accurately registered their voting selections. Second, once the receipt is deposited in a ballot box (or “backup box”) set up for that purpose, it allows polling supervisors and witnesses from different political organizations to verify that the results from the cast ballots match the results from tallying the voters’ proofs of vote. As an additional guarantee in the process, proofs of votes are printed on special paper that has watermarks and security ink and are identified by a non-sequential code.
This process became known as “on-the-fly audit” (the technical name is Citizens’ Audit, Phase I) given that this is a second verification done after voting has been closed and in front of representatives from political parties, observers and citizens in general.
After the presidential recall referendum, this set of guarantees was complemented by a group of additional protocols. The CNE, under pressure from opposition political groups and under scrutiny from the international community, agreed then to require that cast ballots are printed and given to the witnesses and prosecutors present during the voting process before they are sent by the machines to the tallying center located in the CNE headquarters. It also required polling supervisors and representatives from the different political parties to sign the ballot boxes that harbor the cast ballots. Likewise, the CNE agreed to keep the voting machines unplugged during the voting process so as to assuage the fear of those signing the ballot boxes that data would be surreptitiously transmitted during the voting process. More importantly, in 2006, the CNE announced it would increase the percentage of ballot boxes to be audited during the “on-the-fly audit” from a small percentage initially to over 50 per cent.
Additionally, the CNE had already accomplished a comprehensive audit of the entire system as the main security guarantee. The six original technical audits were progressively supplemented by more audits until the number reached 19 audits in 2013. The last audit added to the process was the so-called Post Audit of Voters’ Data, also known as the Audit to Prevent Duplicity of Fingerprints, which was specifically designed to detect cases of multiple votes or voter identity substitution (see Blog E-LECTOR).
Paradoxically, the stage for creation and strengthening of the system of voting guarantees that characterized the Venezuelan automated voting system during the 2000s coincided with a period of gradual but inexorable transformation of the CNE. This transformation turned the agency into an arm of the executive branch whose main function came down to maintaining the current government in power at all costs.
The National Electoral Council was created in 1999 by the new Bolivarian constitution as an autonomous agency, and it was charged with guaranteeing the “organization, administration, management and overseeing” of voting processes based on the principle of “independence, impartiality, autonomy and non-partisanship,” as well as “transparency and speed,” in all tasks relating to popular elections and referenda.
Sadly, except for CNE’s actions in the first few years of its existence, the electoral agency did not honor at any time the principles of autonomy and independence that were so solemnly set forth in its birth certificate. On the contrary, starting in 2003, while under the leadership of Francisco Carrasquero, the Venezuelan electoral agency began a dramatic and unprecedented change that quickly transformed it into an active actor of the political battle in favor of pro-government political forces.
This situation gave rise to a series of severe institutional distortions that in time would deeply transform the country. It also led to other serious consequences, including depriving the Venezuelan society from the critical role played by an electoral agency as an arbiter during conflict resolution situations. The CNE became an actor with an interest in a particular result, which contributed to what in Venezuela is known as “institutionalized opportunism.” Said institutionalized opportunism is a situation where all the state agencies agree to support the pro-government candidate in every election in an arranged, open and systematic manner.
Despite this panorama, the system of electoral guarantees did not only make possible for opposition forces to win some important elections, it also gave the different political actors reliable mechanisms to verify election results. The opposition could only lose an election based on the overwhelming inequality that plagued electoral competition, but never based on manipulating or altering voting figures. This status quo took a dramatic turn after 2015.
The very fine red line
On 6 December 2015, opposition forces inflicted perhaps the most important election defeat on the Chavismo since Hugo Chavez rose as president in 1999. The opposition won 110 National Assembly representative slots in the 2015 parliamentary elections, thereby obtaining a qualified or absolute majority that allowed it to select or dismiss, on prior approval by the Supreme Court of Justice, members of the CNE, and approve enabling laws and motions to censor ministers and the vice president, among others. The Government, knowing that this situation would mean the end of the “revolution,” moved quickly. Pro-government members of the outgoing National Assembly carried out a last-minute stratagem that allowed the Government to not recognize four members elected to represent the indigenous sector, three of which were members of the opposition. By doing this, the Government did not only prevent the existence of a qualified majority in the National Assembly, it also left this entity in Amazonas state without representation (see Amazonas).
What happened in that election signaled the CNE’s behavior in future elections. From that moment on, the CNE abandoned any pretense of being neutral and actively impeded or made difficult any chance for the opposition to make any political progress. This process led, among others, to the partial annulment of the National Assembly elected in 2015 through a spurious election in 2017 of the National Constituent Assembly. The latter was a supra-constitutional entity that took on parallel parliamentary functions.
Between 2016 and 2017, the CNE engaged in a long list of very serious violations. The agency, among others, 1) prevented the opposition from requesting, pursuant to constitutional provisions, the activation of a mechanism known as the presidential recall referendum, 2) delayed without any justification the process to legitimize national political organizations, which, pursuant to regulation, should have taken place after the 2015 parliamentary elections, 3) delayed for almost a year the elections for governors and members of the regional legislative councils, 4) eliminated from the latter process, with no explanation, the renewal of positions for members of said regional legislative councils, and 5) with regard to municipal elections, announced elections for only 335 mayors, thereby ignoring without any justification whatsoever the elections for representatives to Municipal Councils and the elections for the metropolitan mayors of Alto Apure and Caracas.
The CNE’s extraordinary transformation would end in 2017 when the agency crossed the very fine red line that separates opportunism from manipulation of the numbers. This happened for the first time during the unlawful elections that created the National Constituent Assembly. The electoral entity did not only openly and carelessly violate rules and principles regarding the organization and management of elections, it also manipulated the numbers, as the company providing the automated service Smartmatic denounced. Said company stopped providing services in Venezuela after that statement (see Smartmatic).
The CNE once again crossed the fine red line during the 2017 regional elections when it fraudulently prevented opposition candidate Andres Velasquez from taking power in Bolivar state’s government. Furthermore, following directions from the executive branch, the CNE did not recognize the results of the popular vote for Zulia state during the same elections, in which opposition candidate Juan Pablo Guanipa was elected (see Guanipa).
The Venezuelan case demonstrates, as any other example in the Western hemisphere, that in order to maintain legality, coexistence and social peace, neutral voting institutions must exist. The history of the country in the past 15 years would perhaps have been different if Venezuela had had an impartial voting agency that resisted the authoritarian attacks by the government in the early stages of the regime’s consolidation.
The transition into democracy in Venezuela poses a two-fold challenge. First, democratizing the nation requires the creation of an independent CNE that serves citizens and the constitution. On the other hand, it is important that both political parties and citizens in general demand that the voting guarantees achieved in the past are preserved while the first challenge is overcome.
The Venezuelan automated voting system has a series of important strengths that the different actors in the democratic system must demand and take advantage of while putting aside the inequality of the current eco-electoral system.
Politics, Democracy and Participation
Consultor político-electoral, residenciado en Caracas. Dimitris tiene estudios de Doctorado en la Universidad de Bath (Inglaterra) y Maestría de la Universidad East Anglia (Inglaterra). Ha sido investigador invitado al IESA Business School, ha sido consultor para organizaciones internacionales como el Centro Carter, Capel, Noref. En Venezuela ha colaborado con organizaciones nacionales como el OGCD entre otros.
Does it make sense to write about politics, democracy and citizen participation in a country that most analysts describe as an autocracy or worse yet, as a dictatorship?
The next paragraphs will answer this question by tackling arguments that range from how important democracy is for Venezuelans as a political system, to how the current formal institutions operate, to citizen participation in defining their political destiny in the past year.
Democracy as a sine qua non for Venezuelans
Most of the population in Venezuela is convinced that democracy is the best form of government. This feeling is reflected by polls conducted over the years and by high voter turnout rates. The well-known regional polling service Latinobarometro explains the “Venezuelan paradox” as a high percentage of Venezuelans who favor a democratic regime (78%) that is not matched by the political reality of recent times nor the assessments carried out by the country’s experts. Latinobarometro concludes that although “Venezuelans support democracy, they are not satisfied with it, and only 25% of them believes the government governs for all people.”
The dichotomy between citizens’ preference for democracy and what they experience even has to do with the use of certain words in the political lingo. Terms that are generally positive, such as democracy, participation, human rights and dialogue, have been part of party-driven propaganda to legitimize projects and actions that are minimally democratic.
This makes it difficult to connect these words with their real meaning and with the concepts they represent for citizens. For this reason, while Venezuelans still show a strong preference for ‘democracy’ as an abstract term over any other type of political system, at the same time most of the population seems to not be satisfied with the current political regime.
Although the Constitution and political actors of the current government insist on using the official term “participatory democracy,” real actions have led the system to a path of authoritarianism and exclusion that have in turn led to questionable popular support. This reality demonstrates that the population and its government are not speaking the same language and, worse yet, that both democratic practice and political communication are deteriorating.
The current state of democracy in Venezuela
Analyzing the state of democracy in Venezuela requires differentiating between formal political institutions and actual democratic practice in citizens’ daily lives. Based on this, in general the concept of democracy includes two approximations to the role of citizens within a democratic regime. The first approximation is that citizens would express themselves through representatives; the second one is participation, defined as direct action by citizens in the political sphere. Both approximations are not mutually exclusive, but varying types of democracy give different weight to each one.
In classical democracy, participation maximizes the citizens’ role. In ancient Greece, participation was more than a right; the “political person” was different from the common citizen; the political person handled his own home and had a duty to help govern the community of homes known as the polis. According to Pericles, “a man who is not interested in politics and only handles his own affairs is an idiot,” (from the Greek word ‘idiotis,’ a person who only handles personal affairs).
On the other hand, in a representative democracy, rulers are elected to represent their constituents and act on their behalf. This type of government must comply with a series of minimum guarantees to continue being a democracy. These guarantees include constitutionality, free and regular elections with universal suffrage, freedom of assembly and association for civil society, and equality of basic human rights. Additionally, it is essential that citizens are informed about the different proposals that allow them to make a decision on their votes, thus the system must guarantee the free flow of information.
Venezuela is currently experiencing a systematic violation of the Constitution, and a blatant restriction of citizens’ rights to participate in politics, to be informed and to have their will respected. The two events that best reflect these violations are when the government prevented a recall referendum in 2016 against the president, a referendum that is guaranteed in the country’s constitution, and the violations of regularly scheduled elections as explained in the Magna Carta. Similarly, there have been multiple violations on citizens’ human rights and an increase in the violation of the right to be informed via multiple restrictions to news channels and censorship and self-censorship throughout the country’s media outlets.
Closing some channels, opening others
Paradoxically, whereas the rights that enable a representative democracy are being increasingly restrained, the country has also seen the strengthening of direct action from citizens. Although it looks like an oxymoron, citizen participation in Venezuela in 2017 demonstrated a significant capacity for resiliency that is inversely proportional to the behavior of formal institutions (political parties, government branches, etc.).
Between April and August 2017, thousands of citizens protested daily for four months. The protests in Venezuela demanded social and political changes. Similarly, citizens, along with the MUD coalition, organized a referendum in July 2016 that international observers assessed as a “relevant political event, organized away from voting institutions due to pluralism spaces being closed and based on the conditions for institutions to develop tasks, duties and responsibilities.”
Citizens’ direct action throughout 2017 had a pendulum relationship with the leadership and role of political parties in Venezuela, especially opposition parties. This relationship was characterized by political parties being at the forefront in some organizational or political agenda actions, attempts by political parties and their leaders to co-opt citizens during the protests, and autonomy from citizens in decisions and actions that they participated in.
The distance between citizens and political parties has deepened since the 15 October 2017 elections. This is due to the salient deterioration of the structure of political parties stemming from their lack of leadership and vision, from low credibility in the promises they make, and from society’s inherent dynamism. This increased distance resulted in a deepening of the crisis amongst opposition parties, who decided not to send candidates to the December 2017 election. It also resulted in many independent candidates who had had a presence in civil society and social movements in the country.
This demonstrates that a part of society is not happy with how the State is operating nor with the current power relations in politics and amongst political parties, and that it seeks direct participation in the administration public affairs. Direct action and citizen participation, based on proactive acts and democratic and inclusionary principles, is a positive development in democracy because people can represent themselves, get involved in political processes and enable social changes by their own means. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King used direct action protest as a way to achieve human rights and social justice.
Dialogue, understanding and fair elections
The political reality in Venezuela demonstrates that democracy is neither a stable nor a monolithic phenomenon. Democracy has the same dynamics as society itself, which has evolved throughout the centuries and is a fluid relationship amongst society, institutions and the political situation in each country.
The Venezuelan political system, formally called participatory, in practice behaves as a representative system and demonstrates a salient setback towards a regime that is more excluding and repressive. This has led many citizens to direct action away from formally-established institutional channels.
Notwithstanding, direct action and citizen participation as an emergency, reactionary plan to arbitrary acts by institutions is not a viable government alternative for a nation, nor does it suppose the only safe way for “the people” to assume power. Representation and participation must co-exist and feed each other to achieve a functioning modern society.
In Venezuela, at this moment, the foundations of a representative democracy are being obliterated despite an increase in citizen participation, and these foundations are necessary to have a well-functioning political system. The country needs to recover its own institutions and the only way to achieve this is through dialogue, understanding, respect and, of course, free and fair elections.
Traducción cortesía de Irene Liscano