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Venezuela: Rulings Threaten Free and Fair Elections

Pro-government Supreme Court Co-opts Opposition Parties, Electoral Authority

Nicolas Maduro, sitting at desk second from right, speaks with Supreme Court President Maikel Moreno at the Supreme Court before giving his annual presidential address in Caracas, Venezuela. January 31, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

(Washington, DC) – Venezuela’s Supreme Court is demonstrating its lack of independence by appointing government supporters to leadership positions in three opposition parties and to the National Electoral Council, Human Rights Watch said today. In doing so, it is undermining Venezuelans’ rights to free and fair elections and freedom of association.

On July 7, 2020, the Supreme Court suspended the leadership of the opposition political party Voluntad Popular, to which the National Assembly president Juan Guaidó belongs, and appointed supporters of the Nicolás Maduro administration to lead it. The court also held that the new leadership could use the name and logo of Voluntad Popular in the upcoming parliamentary elections. In a series of rulings in June, the Supreme Court similarly orchestrated the takeover of two other opposition political parties, Acción Democrática and Movimiento Primero Justicia, replacing their leadership with Maduro administration supporters.

“When a judiciary that answers to Maduro decapitates opposition political parties that represent dissenting voices, it undermines the rights of all Venezuelans, dispensing with even the pretense of a democratic process,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Venezuelans’ right to vote for their preferred candidates requires a free and fair election in which all parties and candidates have a reasonable opportunity to present their ideas to the electorate.”

On July 1, the Venezuelan authorities announced that they will hold legislative elections on December 6 to fill 277 seats in the National Assembly, increasing the total number of seats by 110, from the current 167 seats. The move appears to be a first step toward packing the legislative branch.

In June, the Supreme Court suspended opposition leaders of Acción Democrática and Movimiento Primero Justicia, contending that they had breached their respective statutes regulating the election of party authorities and had denied members various political rights. Some members of both political parties claimed that the suspended leaders had changed the parties’ regional, municipal, and local authorities “at their will.” The ruling on Voluntad Popular is not yet available on the Supreme Court’s website.

In each of the two available rulings, the court used almost identical language, appointing an ad hoc board of directors to “restructure” the parties and ruling that new leaders will fulfill “the managerial and representative functions of the organization” and designate “regional, municipal, and local authorities.” The ruling allows the new leadership to use “the electoral card, the logo, symbols, emblems, colors and any other concept of the organization for political purposes” and to modify the party’s internal statutes. The court announced that it was applying similar measures to Voluntad Popular.

The Supreme Court appointed José Gregorio Noriega, Guillermo Luces, and Lucila Ángela Pacheco to head Voluntad Popular. Noriega is a legislator who was expelled from the party after being implicated in bribing other legislators to vote against Guaidó as president of the National Assembly in January. Luces was also expelled after voting for a government supporter, Luis Parra, to lead the National Assembly in the same contested election, which led to the creation of a parallel pro-government National Assembly leadership. Both Parra and Noriega have been recently sanctioned by the European Union and the United States. Pacheco is a former legislator from the government party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

Primero Justicia is now chaired by José Dionisio Brito, who had been expelled from the party amid corruption allegations and had also supported Parra’s election. Acción Democrática is currently chaired by Bernabé Gutiérrez, whose brother is a member of the newly appointed National Electoral Council.

A similar case is pending before the Supreme Court, asking it to remove the leadership of Un Nuevo Tiempo, the only one of the so-called G4 parties that oppose the Maduro administration that the court has not yet taken over.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s attorney general has asked the Supreme Court to declare Voluntad Popular a terrorist organization, arguing that it has sought to destabilize the Maduro government. This case is currently pending before the Supreme Court’s Criminal Chamber. Voluntad Popular’s leader, Leopoldo López, has been the subject of an arbitrary and politically motivated prosecution since 2014.

The court’s appointment of pro-government politicians to lead Venezuela’s opposition parties severely undermines the ability of dissenting voices to participate in the electoral process, unjustifiably restricting its members’ human rights to freedom of association and expression, Human Rights Watch said. The new leadership’s ability to use logos, symbols, and emblems from the opposition parties also threatens basic rights to information and political participation, as it creates a serious risk of misinformation and deception of voters who have associated those images with the opposition parties’ ideals.

The right to associate for political purposes, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has said, not only entails the right to associate freely without interference from public authorities, but also the freedom “to seek the common achievement of a licit goal, without pressure or interference that could alter or change their purpose.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights “considers that the right to vote and to participate in government includes the right to organize parties and political associations that, through the free exchange of ideas, prevent a monopoly on power[.]” Similarly, the Inter-American Democratic Charter establishes that “The strengthening of political parties and other political organizations is a priority for democracy.”

Governments – including courts – may only restrict political rights if it is lawful to do so and necessary and proportionate for a legitimate purpose. The Supreme Court’s rulings did not analyze whether these criteria were met. The Venezuelan Constitution provides that political parties’ governing bodies and candidates running for office are to be selected in internal elections in which party members should participate. For the court to address a dispute about the election of party leadership by imposing its own hand-picked choices is not lawful, necessary, or proportional.

On June 12, the Supreme Court selected all five members of the National Election Council, despite constitutional provisions establishing that the National Assembly, currently the only opposition-led institution that acts as a check on executive power, should do so. All appointed members of the Council are government supporters, including two former Supreme Court justices who have issued several rulings favoring the government. Three of them have been sanctioned by the United States, Canada, Panama, and/or members of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance.

The removed leadership of opposition political parties had publicly said they would not participate in the upcoming legislative elections because there are no guarantees they will be free and fair. The new court-appointed leadership, instead, has announced that they intend to do so.

Since former President Hugo Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly conducted a political takeover of the Supreme Court in 2004, Venezuela’s judiciary has stopped functioning as an independent branch of government. Members of the Supreme Court have openly rejected the principle of separation of powers and have consistently upheld abusive policies and practices.

The Supreme Court has interfered with the leadership or internal structure of eight opposition political parties since 2012. The playing field leading up to past elections was far from even, with arbitrary disqualifications of opposition members from running from office and credible allegations of political discrimination in government jobs, which undermine the ability of many Venezuelans to express their views freely. Venezuelan authorities have also used hunger as a tool of social and political control during past elections.

The last elections in 2017 to choose Constituent Assembly members were marred by allegations of fraud leveled by Smartmatic, a British company hired by the government to oversee the vote that concluded that there had been tampering with the turnout figures and estimated that actual voter turnout was probably at least 1 million less than the 8 million official reported. There has been no independent oversight of Venezuelan elections for years.

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