Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas
Web Exclusive

Venezuela: Is This the Final Straw?

Reading Time: 8 minutesIn dealing with the recall referendum, the government is playing dirty.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia (google) Accessed: June 13, 2016

Reading Time: 8 minutes

To see a full list of electoral irregularities that have occurred since Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro took office, scroll to the bottom of the page

I recently wrote about the one institutional factor that, in my opinion, is keeping Venezuela’s government alive. I called it the judicial shield, which refers to how the Supreme Court has sided entirely with the executive branch to invalidate every act of Congress, thereby disarming the opposition.

But in recent weeks I have also recognized something that could potentially bring down the administration of President Nicolás Maduro: electoral irregularities. I have tallied 26 such irregularities under his leadership, with a full list detailed below. While no single incident alone will undermine Maduro, altogether they are bringing the country close to a dangerous tipping point.

In situations of enormous political discontent, efforts by a government to tinker with electoral rules can spark serious protests. This is what has been happening in Venezuela this year.

Propelled by both its electoral strength and the government’s judicial shield, the opposition set in motion the process of requesting a referendum to recall Maduro.

The recall referendum is a key innovation of the 1999 Constitution and an important right of Venezuelan citizens, but the government has responded by trying every possible trick to avoid it. This kind of meddling is a serious electoral irregularity and, not surprisingly, it is driving the opposition crazy.   

The destabilizing effects of electoral irregularities are hard to overstate. This is the main lesson of the Color Revolutions, a series of massive protests that took place in former Soviet republics starting in 2000. Electoral crises were crucial features in six key cases: Yugoslavia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Kyrgyzstan (2005), Belarus (2006) and Moldova (2009). The government of each republic suspended elections, banned important actors, or announced non-credible results. These electoral irregularities led to an increase in protests, and in some cases, regime change. The Arab Spring of the 2010s also involved electoral irregularities in many cases.

In Latin America, electoral irregularities are no longer prominent aspects of political crises. Few of the presidential crises that have taken place in the region, including suspended Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment trial, have been triggered by electoral irregularities. No doubt, close elections, as in Mexico 2006, have triggered protests, but situations in which the government is caught systematically trying to cheat or self-servingly altering procedures are now less common in Latin America. Electoral strengthening is in fact one area of major institutional change in the past decade – for the good of democracy. While no country can claim to have perfect electoral processes, most now have far more credible and reliable electoral systems than they did a decade ago. The exceptions are Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras and, of course, Venezuela.

Venezuela, in fact, has moved counter to the rest of Latin America. The country has experienced a long list of electoral irregularities since Chavismo took hold in 1999. Under Maduro, those irregularities have become more frequent and excessive.

In the case of the recall referendum, the Maduro administration is possibly adopting the worst forms of electoral irregularities so far. The electoral body in charge of conducting elections, the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE), is taking an inexplicably long time to comply with procedures. The CNE invented new regulations after the process started. It used non-transparent methods to invalidate collected signatures. Members of the ruling party, in secrecy, are making decisions about procedures and compliance. And even Maduro, along with important cabinet members such as Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez and Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz, has said the referendum cannot take place this year, predicting an outcome that should not be pre-ordained. 

Comparing the behavior of the CNE this time with its behavior in a previous signature-collection campaign shows the extent of its bias. In 2015 the government organized a signature-collecting campaign to pass a resolution condemning the United States. The CNE validated 10.4 million signatures in just one and a half days. For this year’s recall referendum, with 1.95 million signatures to validate, the CNE took more than 30 days to do its job. The CNE rejected more than 30 percent of the signatures, in most cases for no clear reasons. Even the signature of Henrique Capriles, the leader of the opposition, was rejected.

The next step in the process, signature validation, has been designed to deliberately depress the vote. Only 24 validation centers have been opened, each located in state capitals, which means that most petitioners will need to travel far to validate signatures with their fingerprints. Furthermore, the whole process has to be completed in five days. With this timeframe, long lines are inevitable, in a country where people are sick of standing in line for food. Officials will also need to work like super-humans. In the state of Zulia, for instance, officials will need to process 10 signatures per minute, working an eight-hour day.

Worse yet, these electoral irregularities are occurring in a context of rising repression. The military and the national police have been deployed to most supermarkets with the intention of using force to prevent riots as people stand in lines desperate to find products in a country where most products are unavailable or unaffordable. Leaders of the opposition have been beaten in public for participating in marches. And in mid-May, Maduro declared a generalized “state of exception,” effectively abolishing all constitutional liberties and guarantees.

The result of rising electoral irregularity in the context of rising discontent is predictable: both the moderate wing and the radical wing of the opposition have become united in their determination to engage in widespread street protests. Speaking as if she were expressing a wish, CNE president of Tibisay Lucena threatened last week to cancel the recall referendum entirely if more protests happen. 

The magnification of electoral irregularities under Maduro supports the argument by the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, that the democratic order in Venezuela has been altered. The status of Venezuela’s democracy has become, once again, a topic of discussion in diplomatic fora.

As the OAS prepares to discuss the Venezuela case, it should keep in mind that the country might have reached a point of no return. One more blatant electoral irregularity could trigger the most serious clashes ever between government and citizens. More clashes in turn will trigger more involvement of the military. And once the military is involved, it is hard to predict who will live or die. 

In debating Venezuela, therefore, the OAS should be mindful that it is addressing not just the status of institutional quality or political dialogue. It is addressing questions of life and death between the government and the opposition. 


Click to expand the boxes below and view a complete list of electoral irregularities that have occurred under Maduro.

Note:  In the table below, each irregularity is coded according to whether it violated:
       a) the law (L)
       b) the spirit of the law (SL)
       c) an international standard (IS + the number of the corresponding international standard listed) 

Presidential Elections (4/17/2013)

  1. Controversy over whether Maduro should have resigned as “presidente encargado.” The constitution mandates that all public officials running for election (but not re-election) resign. L
  2. Defense minister Diego Molero declared full support for Maduro’s candidacy. The constitution expects the military establishment to be neutral. L, IS2
  3. The opposition discovered a member of the ruling party had possession of passwords for voting machines. While this alone did not constitute a security breach capable of putting the vote tally at risk, it could have been used to tamper with the functioning of machines (turning them on and off arbitrarily), causing delays in opposition zones (Nagel 2013). IS5
  4. El Nacional revealed how PDVSA had been supporting elections, not just financially, but also operationally. For example, employees were notified that they needed to serve as “patrulleros.” For the 2010 elections, patrulleros were instructed to: 1) work with local PSUV coordinators in designated municipalities to monitor voting attendance; 2) provide snacks for PSUV activists, witnesses and table members; 3) pay motorcycle drivers to carry out “tug operations” (“operación remolque”) (Rivera and Zerpa 2013). IS1, IS2
  5. The voting registry was not changed from the one used in October 2012, disenfranchising newly eligible voters.
  6. According to the opposition (April 17):
    • 535,000 voting machines that did not work (affecting 189,982 votes)
    • 1,176 voting centers showed that Maduro had won more votes than Chávez.
    • Opposition witnesses were forced out of 286 voting centers (affecting 722,983 votes).
    • 564 voting centers had “assisted voting (affecting 1,479,774 votes).
    • More than 600,000 deceased people were still listed on the voting registry
    • 397 voting centers reported harassment of voters (affecting 1,240,000 votes).
    • Some voting centers reported more votes than registered voters. http://www.el-nacional.com/politica/tu_decides/Capriles-asegura-asistido-millones-votantes_0_173382958.html
  7. Government use and abuse of media was excessive and was never punished. L

Municipal Elections (12/8/2013)

  1. Originally scheduled for April, 14, 2013, elections were postponed until December of that year. SL

Legislative Elections (12/6/2015)

  1. The CNE was months delayed in announcing the official election date. SL
  2. On June 25, one day after the opposition released its list of candidates, the CNE announced a new electoral regulation: at least 40 percent of each party’s candidates must be female. Only 11 of the 110 MUD candidates were women. The regulation was announced before the PSUV had held its primaries (Castillejo 2015). SL
  3. Ten opposition candidates were barred from running. This included María Corina Machado and Enzo Scarano, banned from running for public office for a year. The Comptroller General imposed penalties on both based on their failure to include non-salary meal tickets in their sworn tax declarations (Stolk 2015). These merit administrative penalties, not political penalties, but the government treated them as political offenses. No judge offered a ruling. Pablo Pérez was barred for 10 years (Latin American Herald Tribune 2015) Daniel Ceballos (house arrest), as well as Raúl Baduel, son of general Rául Isaías Baduel, and Ricardo Tirado (http://www.abc.es/internacional/20150805/abci-veto-opositores-cavismo-201508042004.htm). Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma (mayor of Caracas) remain in jail. Manuel Rosales (formerly in Peru) was also banned and was arrested. Abelardo Díaz (Copei, Táchira).
  4. The Supreme Court intervened in the internal affairs of opposition party COPEI, based on demands from warring factions of the organization, to appoint new leadership that was less pro-MUD (http://www.eluniversal.com/nacional-y-politica/150730/tsj-nombra-junta-directiva-ad-hoc-en-el-partido-copei). Other opposition parties (Bandera Roja) or parties that could have offered dissident Chavista candidates (MEP, Vanguardia Bicentenaria Revolucionaria) were also interfered withhttp://www.el-nacional.com/siete_dias/divisiones-amenazan-desarmar-mayoria_0_683931749.html).
  5. Candidates from a former Chavista dissident group, Marea Socialista, led by Nicmer Evans, were banned from presenting candidates (in association with other parties), challenging them on their choice of name or for violating the gender-parity law (http://elestimulo.com/blog/anulan-candidatura-de-nicmer-evans-y-otros-postulados-por-marea-socialista/).
  6. The government banned some parties from registering, including Vente (María Corina Machado’s party).
  7. First lady Cilia Flores, an official resident of Caracas, was allowed to run for the state of Cojedes, in violation of article 188 of the Constitution, which requires candidates to hold a 4-year residency in the district they are representing (http://www.infolatam.com/2015/08/17/el-caos-la-ultima-carta-del-chavo-madurismo/).
  8. Data showed that the traditional media (broadcast TV) hardly covered the campaign activities of the opposition (Corrales and Von Bergen 2016).
  9. Members of the Executive branch participated in the campaign, which violates the constitution. Starting November 13, Maduro made 25 public appearances in campaign rallies for party candidates (http://prodavinci.com/2015/12/16/actualidad/cuan-efectiva-fue-la-campana-de-nicolas-maduro-por-franz-von-bergen/
  10. The government declared states of exception or deployed military security operations in key districts, thus banning public rallies: This affected 58 districts: 26 were swing district or lightly leaning Chavista; 25 were strongly Chavistas; and 7 were strongly opposition (http://www.el-nacional.com/siete_dias/Gobierno-saca-trucos-circuitos-clave_0_712728976.html).
  11. The government changed the number of deputies to be elected in seven districts, giving more seats to pro-government districts.
  12. More than 1,000 voting centers were created with only one voting table, making it harder for opposition witnesses to monitor. Other voting centers were established in geographic zones that were unsafe for the opposition such as in government buildings offering social services or very pro-Chavista neighborhoods. This affected at least 54 districts. (http://www.el-nacional.com/siete_dias/oposicion-blinda-circuitos-vulnerables-fraude_0_742725788.html) (http://www.el-nacional.com/siete_dias/centros-votacion-nombre-rojo-rojito_0_742725790.html)

Presidential Recall Referendum (TBA)

  1. The Referendum Law was altered after the opposition had already begun the first stage of the referendum process (collecting enough signatures to compel CNE to begin verification process). The original regulation required signatures from 1 percent of the total electorate. But this time, the CNE demanded 1 percent of the electorate within each state (Martínez 2016), which is a more difficult threshold to reach than just 1 percent of the electorate.
  2. The Law required the CNE to validate signatures in five days. But new signature-verifying regulations, suggested by PSUV leader Jorge Rodríguez, automatically delayed the verification process for up to a month (Martínez 2016).
  3. Former president of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello said it was impossible to have a referendum in 2016 (http://www.panorama.com.ve/politicayeconomia/Diosdado-Cabello-No-hay-forma-ni-manera-que-este-ano-haya-referendo-20160523-0074.html)
  4. Amidst record levels of food scarcity, Maduro empowers citizen committees (Comités Locales para Abastecimiento y Control, CLAPs) to “carry out and regulate” food distribution. In theory, CLAPs are citizen-organized committees. In practice, they are organs of the ruling party. This violates the constitution on two counts. First, they obtain policing powers, which the constitution reserves for the state. Second, CLAPs obtain privileged access to food, which violates the principle of equal treatment under the law (Hernández 2016). http://www.el-nacional.com/siete_dias/discriminacion-politica-CLAP-repartir-alimentos_0_856114474.html)
  5. Technicalities, such as misspelling the name of the president at the top of the form, become grounds for disqualifying not just one signature, but entire forms of signatures containing as many as 10 signatures (Duarte 2016). Illegibility of names in print are also considered grounds for disqualification.
  6. Staff trained to verify and digitize signatures were trained exclusively by the CNE, without MUD participation.

State Governors Elections (TBA)

  1. As per the constitution, these elections should occur in 2016; as of June 14, 2016, the elections had not been scheduled

This is a draft list and part of an ongoing project on electoral irregularities in Venezuela. Please help improve this document by reporting any errors and omissions to jcorrales@amherst.edu. 

Corrales is Dwight W. Morrow Professor of Political Science at Amherst College, Amherst, MA, and a member of the Americas Quarterly Editorial Board.


Follow Javier Corrales:   LinkedIn   |    X/Twitter

Tags: Electoral irregularities, Maduro, Venezuela
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter