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Weekly Report - 18 June 2020 (WR-20-24)

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VENEZUELA: Elections thrown into disarray

Venezuela’s supreme court (TSJ) took it upon itself to appoint new rectors to the national electoral council (CNE) on 12 June. The country’s principal opposition parties, led by Juan Guaidó, condemned the move as “an electoral farce staged by the dictatorship for its own convenience”. It is in the gift of the legislature to appoint CNE rectors, but the TSJ took matters into its own hands on the grounds that the national assembly was guilty of ‘constitutional omission’, for failing to fulfil its legislative duty and make the appointments. Guaidó called for more international pressure to be brought to bear on the de facto government led by Nicolás Maduro, without suggesting what measures could be taken or definitively confirming whether the opposition would compete in legislative elections scheduled for later this year.

The TSJ gave the national assembly a 72-hour ultimatum on 11 June in which to present a list of candidates for the new CNE. This was ostensibly in response to a petition by various representatives of small opposition parties cooperating with the Maduro government. A week earlier, they had appealed to the constitutional chamber of the TSJ to declare this ‘constitutional omission’, arguing that the national assembly had neglected its duties by failing to designate the new rectors. In the event, the TSJ acted within 24 hours of its stated deadline. The TSJ president, Maikel Moreno, announced the five new members of the CNE, with Indira Alfonzo replacing Tibisay Lucena as president of the body. He offered no explanation for the criteria applied in the selection process.

The new CNE rectors were formally sworn-in on 15 June, with their first session shown on state television. Alfonzo, who had been serving as first vice president of the TSJ and president of the TSJ’s electoral chamber, was sanctioned by the Canadian government in May 2018, along with 13 other senior Venezuelan officials, over the “illegitimate and anti-democratic presidential elections”. Two of the other rectors have been sanctioned by the US government, while the remaining two are affiliated with the opposition. This will leave the Maduro government with an effective majority on the CNE.

The four main opposition parties - Acción Democrática (AD), Voluntad Popular (VP), Primero Justicia (PJ), and Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) - were joined by a further seven smaller opposition parties, including Vente Venezuela, in signing a document on 14 June accusing the TSJ, not for the first time, of “usurping the functions of the legitimate national assembly” by deciding, sua sponte, to declare a constitutional omission.

Guaidó said that a revamped CNE was “just one of the conditions for fair elections” in Venezuela, along with the release of political prisoners, and the presence of international observers. He said it was “time to remobilise” and for “more forceful international action” to be taken. Questioned about what this should constitute, however, Guaidó pointedly avoided mentioning any concrete measures.

Refusing to recognise the new CNE is all well and good but the body has been created and it has started functioning. Its composition provides further evidence that the opposition would not be competing on a level playing field but if it responds by boycotting the legislative elections it will become increasingly irrelevant. The opposition would cease to control the national assembly, albeit an institution emasculated by an anti-democratic alliance between the Maduro government and the TSJ, a pliant appendage of the executive, and be forced to fight on the sidelines, denuded of any power and without a stage on which to play.

US reaction

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threw his weight behind Venezuela’s political opposition on 15 June by rejecting the legitimacy of the new CNE. In a statement, Pompeo said that the “regime has selected a [CNE] that will rubber-stamp its decisions and ignore the conditions required for free elections”. He argued that the Maduro government had “continued to manipulate the Venezuelan constitution”, and that the TSJ’s appointment of the CNE rectors “takes Venezuela even further away from a democratic transition”.