After reports that Interior Minister Jorge Rodriguez had met with representatives of the opposition to offer postponing presidential elections and improving electoral conditions, these reports have finally been confirmed. Yesterday, the government agreed to postpone presidential elections set for Aprill 22, and electoral authorities are instead holding them on May 20. The agreement (see text here), which was announced in a ceremony at the National Electoral Council (CNE), was signed by representatives of the government as well as members of the small political parties backing former Lara state Governor Henri Falcon’s presidential candidacy. These include his own Avanzada Progresista (AP) party, the Movement toward Socialism (MAS), and a faction of the Social Christian COPEI Party.
Prior to the announcement, some in Chavismo had floated the idea of combining presidential elections with legislative elections for the National Assembly in addition to overdue elections of state legislatures and municipal councils. In the end, though, Constituent Assembly President Delcy Rodriguez presented the CNE with a decree that convenes elections that do not include a National Assembly vote, only merging presidential elections with those for state legislatures and municipal councils. CNE President Tibisay Luncena has confirmed that the vote will be shifted to May 20, and claimed that the CNE will announce the timetable for the local and regional elections shortly, providing more specifics about the dates for candidates to declare themselves.
While the agreement falls short of the specific concessions sought by the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition during the failed talks in the Dominican Republic, they do include some significant improvements. Among them:
- Asking the United Nations Secretary General to create a UN electoral accompaniment and observation mission which would have a mandate covering “all phases of the electoral process.” A joint commission of the signing parties will request a meeting with the Secretary General to discuss organizing the mission.
- All technical audits of the electoral system will be conducted with established standards “not inferior to those used in the elections of October 7, 2012 and of December 6, 2015,” in which the opposition participated, and in the latter case won a legislative majority. These audits will “affect all of the components of the system, with established protocols and the presence of international observation.”
- Voting centers, which were changed during municipal and gubernatorial elections last year, will be relocated to their original positions.
- The government will avoid broadcasting joint radio and television broadcasts during the campaign, and claims that “equity in access to public and private media” during the campaign will be “ensured and favored.”
Following the announcement of the agreement, the CNE confirmed that it would indeed be extending the voter registration period to March 10, and that the parties still legally able to present candidates now have until 4:00pm today to do so. Because the Constituent Assembly issued a decree in December that forced parties that participated in previous boycotts to register with the CNE again and receive a certain number of supporting signatures, and because Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular failed to do so (the former didn’t obtain necessary signatures, and the latter refused to participate), this new window only applies to two major MUD member parties: Accion Democratica and Un Nuevo Tiempo.
The MUD has been placed in a bind by the development. After announcing that it would only participate in elections that met strict guarantees—and that the April 22 vote amounted to a fraudulent “simulacrum”—the MUD has maintained a strict abstentionist line. When Falcon broke from this by presenting his candidacy on February 27, the MUD condemned him and said that by doing so, he was “departing” from the umbrella group. The statement was perceived as his expulsion, to which Luis Romero, the secretary general of Falcon’s Avanzada Progresista party, responded by saying, “It’s hard to be expelled from something that doesn’t exist,” referring to the deepening divisions within the coalition. Romero also pointed to polls (see last week’s Atlantic Council/Datanalisis survey) that show that 70 percent of Venezuelans say they would be willing to participate in elections, criticizing the MUD’s abstentionist approach.
As prominent Venezuelan electoral analyst Eugenio Martinez has pointed out on Twitter, the fact that the government has conceded (at least verbally) to the technical audits in place during the December 2015 vote that saw an opposition landslide is a “breakthrough.” Yet he notes that Falcon’s coalition does not possess the technical capacity to ensure these audits across the country. According to Martinez, actually carrying out these audits “would depend on the structure of the MUD” in order to guarantee their reliability. So far the MUD appears unlikely to embrace the proposal, as the coalition has taken care to communicate that it did not sign the agreement, and that it has insisted on more comprehensive conditions.