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Venezuela: EU Elections Report Flags Rights Barriers

Arbitrary Disqualifications, Unequal Access to Media, Lack of Judicial Independence

Isabel Santos, front, member of the European Parliament and Chief Observer of the 2021 EU Election Observation Mission to Venezuela, leaves the National Electoral Council headquarters before regional elections in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela on November 17, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

(New York) – A report by the European Union mission that monitored Venezuela’s November 2021 elections underscores that Venezuelans faced serious obstacles in voting and running for office, Human Rights Watch said today. The February 22, 2022 report provides a roadmap for the substantial reforms needed for free and fair elections.

EU election monitors noted problems including the arbitrary disqualification of political opponents who sought to run for office, partisan use of state resources in the campaign, unequal access to the media and social media during campaigning, government blockage of websites, and a lack of judicial independence and respect for the rule of law. They emphasized that such conditions undermined the election’s fairness and transparency.

“The EU report confirms the diagnosis that Venezuelans have not been able to freely exercise their rights to vote and run for office,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “It is essential to maintain strong international pressure to get Venezuelan authorities to commit to the needed structural reforms to make the country’s future elections free and fair.”

Isabel Santos, the mission’s chief observer, presented the report remotely from Brussels. She had asked to release it in Venezuela but received no response from that country’s National Electoral Council (CNE).

The report made 23 recommendations to Venezuela. They include enhancing separation of powers and judicial independence, including through transparent, non-political, and merit-based selection of judges and abolishing the comptroller general’s authority to strip citizens of their political rights through an administrative procedure that has been arbitrarily used against political opponents. It recommended strengthening the National Electoral Council’s sanctioning authority, especially in relation to the use of government resources in electoral campaigns and for campaign coverage by state-owned media.

The report also recommended promoting freedom of expression and ending self-censorship by repealing the vague Law against Hatred. And they said the Electoral Council should improve the accuracy of the voter registry and the ability to assess voter turnout by providing more options for voters, including Venezuelans living abroad, to update their information.

The EU had announced its observation mission, with 134 observers, in September, after reaching an agreement with the National Electoral Council. A core team of 11 experts arrived in Caracas in early October, and the rest – long-term and short-term European and local observers – soon joined them.

At a news conference on November 23 – two days after the election – the mission presented a preliminary report, highlighting the return of most opposition parties to the electoral arena and, with two of five members of a reconstituted National Electoral Council linked to the opposition, a more balanced election administration. These achievements were noted again in the final report, along with broader voter registration.

But the experts reported flaws including judicial decisions that tilted the playing field, “arbitrary political disqualification of opposition candidates, extensive [partisan] use of state resources in the campaign, and unequal access to the media” and social media, as well as government blockage of websites and self-censorship due to fear of the state agency that regulates the media.

Election blemishes included “significant delays in the opening and closing of polling stations,” the mission noted, “and reports of voter coercion,” as well as “violations of the secrecy of the vote … by polling officers.” Monitors witnessed Nicolás Maduro’s party setting up “red points,” where citizens showed their national identification cards and pro-government volunteers monitored voter attendance. On a much smaller scale, they noted opposition parties setting up similar attendance monitoring systems. Both the preliminary and final reports also noted that a man had been killed and two people injured by armed gangs (colectivos) outside a polling place in Zulia state.

The reconstitution of the Electoral Council in 2021, with greater opposition participation, was not enough to ensure an election that fully respected voters’ and candidates’ rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Although the mission’s agreed-upon departure date was December 13, Venezuelan authorities forced them to leave on December 5. Maduro described them as “enemies” and “spies,” and accused them of trying to “stain” the electoral process without “evidence.”

The agreement between the EU and Venezuela’s Electoral Council had granted the observers full access to political parties, candidates, electoral authorities, various other players, and polling places. This part of the agreement was fulfilled. EU observers visited 683 polling places. But in at least three states, the mission reported, some domestic observers were prevented from entering polling places. The mission concluded that Electoral Council regulations governing national and international election observation restrict monitors’ activities and should be amended.

On election day, Human Rights Watch received information about alleged threats, intimidation, attacks, and shootings by armed pro-government groups. Voters reported late opening and closing of polling places and last-minute switching of locations. Journalists reported restrictions and attacks on media covering the elections.

The Carter Center, which also monitored the elections, and Venezuelan journalists covering them reported similar problems.

The EU mission’s final report reaffirms concerns raised in the preliminary report and adds reporting about problems that occurred after election day, including the lack of access to effective procedures to challenge results. The mission found that administrative appeals do not guarantee a timely decision and that political parties and civil society organizations do not consider them impartial. This keeps such groups from filing complaints.

The report noted the Supreme Court’s annulment of the gubernatorial election in Barinas, former President Hugo Chávez’s home state, after an opposition candidate won. On November 29, the court annulled the election and ordered the Electoral Council to hold a new one, claiming that the winner should have been disqualified from running for office.

The election was held again on January 9, and another opposition candidate won. The report said that three candidates for the second election were disqualified without being duly informed. Santos said at the news conference that what happened in Barinas “shouldn’t have happened.”

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