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Pedro Enrique Calzadilla, president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), center, announces the resignation of the council's five board members at the CNE in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, June 15, 2023. © 2023 AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

(Washington DC) – The Venezuela National Assembly’s decision to appoint new members to the National Electoral Council threatens an already unfair system, Human Rights Watch said today. The action increases concerns for the prospect of free and fair presidential elections scheduled for 2024 and the legislative and regional elections in 2025.

On June 15, 2023, the National Assembly’s president, Jorge Rodríguez, said that legislators will replace all 15 members of the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE), which had included two opponents out of five principal members. The decision came after eight members of the council, who were aligned with the government, resigned five years ahead of the end of their seven-year terms, leaving new appointments to the government-controlled National Assembly. The assembly swiftly appointed an 11-member commission that will initially lead the process to replace the council members. Almost all members of the commission belong to the ruling party, including the wife of President Nicolás Maduro, Cilia Flores.

“The chances of free and fair elections in Venezuela were already hanging by a thread, and this move may make them all but impossible,” said Juanita Goebertus, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Government leaders with access to Maduro, particularly Colombian president Gustavo Petro and Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, should take steps to stop this move if they seriously care about any prospect of Venezuela’s return to democracy.”

The Electoral Council, five principal members and ten alternates, is responsible for overseeing the entire electoral process, including voter registration, candidate nomination, and the organization and supervision of voting procedures.

Under Venezuelan law, the newly formed 11-member commission will be charged with designating an Electoral Nominations Committee, which in turn will present a list of candidates to the National Assembly. The pro-government coalition controls over 250 of the 277 members of the Assembly, after a 2020 legislative election that was not free or credible.

For decades, allies of former president Hugo Chavez and of Maduro have packed the electoral body, undermining the right to free and fair elections. The electoral council became slightly more balanced in 2021, with the appointment of two members from the opposition. An agreement with the council allowed a European Union mission to monitor the November 2021 elections. The mission said that the three council members close to the government were “in control of the CNE executive bodies” but noted that the council was “widely seen as the most balanced of the last 20 years,” and that most of its decisions were by consensus.

The EU mission concluded that several conditions had undermined the 2021 election’s fairness and transparency. These included arbitrary disqualification of political opponents, partisan use of state resources in campaigning, unequal access to media and social media during campaigning, government blockage of websites, and a lack of judicial independence and respect for the rule of law.

The mission issued 23 recommendations, including strengthening the electoral council’s capacity to impose sanctions on candidates who unlawfully use government money to campaign and improving the accuracy of the voter registry, as well as providing more options for voters, including Venezuelans living abroad, to update their information.

In 2021, the Maduro government and the opposition agreed that, as part of their political negotiations in Mexico, they would discuss “political rights,” “electoral guarantees for everyone,” and an election schedule. However, the negotiations are currently stalled, and the parties have yet to address this issue.

An electoral council fully controlled by Maduro’s allies would make implementation of the reforms needed to ensure Venezuelans’ right to participate in free and fair elections very unlikely, Human Rights Watch said.

The possibility of appointment of new members has already affected the opposition’s primaries, scheduled for October. Some opposition members had been working to obtain the electoral council’s support for holding their primaries, but in the wake of the resignations, the opposition decided to “self-manage” the primaries.

Presidents Petro of Colombia and Lula of Brazil have maintained close access to the Maduro government. Publicly, both leaders have emphasized the importance of democracy, free and fair elections, and progress in the political negotiations between the Maduro government and the opposition. But during a recent Maduro visit to Brazil, President Lula described concerns about authoritarianism and lack of democracy in Venezuela as “a narrative.”

“The small window of opportunity for a democratic transition to ensure the rights of Venezuelans is closing down,” Goebertus said. “If Lula and Petro want their talk about democracy in Venezuela to have any credibility, they should urgently leverage their relationship with Maduro to prevent a full coopting of the country’s electoral body.”

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