On January 23, in a move that likely put an end to the negotiating process in the Dominican Republic and quickly provoked widespread international condemnation, Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly (ANC) approved a decree that obligates electoral authorities to hold presidential elections by April 30, 2018.
Venezuelan legal scholar José Ignacio Hernández has argued that there are many things wrong with the ANC’s announcement. First and most importantly, the ANC itself was illegally convened without holding a referendum over its proposed creation as mandated by the 1999 Constitution. As a result, its decisions have no legitimate basis. Second, the National Electoral Council (CNE) is the sole institution with the authority to initiate the call for (or “convocar”) presidential elections. Finally, Hernández suggests that while there is no formally mandated date for holding elections this year before the start of a new presidential term on January 10, 2019, Article 298 of the Constitution clearly states that the CNE must announce elections with at least six months’ notice. The ANC decree obligates the CNE to organize a vote in less than half that time.
As electoral analysts like Edgar Martinez have suggested, it appears unlikely that that this timeframe would even allow for an election which meets “minimum technical conditions” to avoid the kind of fraud that apparently took place in the Bolivar state gubernatorial race in October.
This fact has not been lost on the international community. The Lima Group, which was meeting in Santiago, Chile, on the same day as the announcement, issued a ten-point statement of strong condemnation. According to the document the decision “makes democratic, transparent and credible presidential elections in accordance with international standards impossible, and contradicts democratic and good faith principles of dialogue between the government and the opposition.” The statement also asserted that elections that fall short of free and fair elections would “lack legitimacy and credibility,” reiterated the group’s rejection of the ANC, repeated past offers of aid and called for investigations into extrajudicial executions and other abuses.
The Lima Group statement provided an indication of growing hemispheric concern over the crisis. This was the first time since the Lima Group’s August creation that a collective statement received more than the 12 signatures of the group’s founders. This time, Guyana and St. Lucia added their signatures, making a total of 14 countries. Jamaica, meanwhile, appeared to have sent a representative (as it has in past meetings) but did not sign the document.
The United States is not part of the Lima Group, and no U.S. officials took part in the Santiago meeting. Yesterday State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said the announcement was “news to [her]” in a press conference, but hinted at the U.S. position by saying the State Department “support[s] a real, full, and fair election system there and not the illegitimate constituent assembly that was put together by Maduro and the Maduro regime.”
While the EU—which approved targeted sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials on Monday—did not issue an immediate statement on the announcement, Germany’s Foreign Ministry responded to the news by calling it “cause for concern” and calling for elections to be held “with significant time in advance.”
The ANC’s move also probably ended the negotiating process between the government and the opposition, which had been taking place in the Dominican Republic. In response to the ANC decision, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray—who had been acting as an opposition-appointed observer of the talks alongside Chile’s Heraldo Muñoz—announced Mexico would be pulling out of the process. Muñoz, meanwhile, appeared to indicate Chile was reserving judgement until more emerged about the specific conditions under which the vote would take place. If these lacked “minimum guarantees,” then Muñoz said Chile would back out as an observer. Nevertheless, the odds of talks restarting appear slim. Venezuelan opposition lawmaker Luis Florido, who has been taking a leading role in the negotiations, described them as “moribund” and said the only hope of revitalizing them lay in the government committing to a preliminary accord from December agreeing to clean elections and accepting international aid.