Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Venezuelan election observer woes (Oct. 21, 2015)

Venezuela's upcoming December parliamentary elections present the opposition with an opportunity to challenge the PSUV hegemony. But it's looking increasingly likely that -- like the previous few elections since 2006 -- the playing field will be distinctly tilted in favor of the ruling Socialist party.

Brazil announced yesterday that it was pulling out of the UNASUR electoral "accompaniment" mission after Venezuelan authorities because Venezuela rejected Nelson Jobim, a former Brazilian defense minister and judge, from heading the group, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Brazil's Supreme Electoral Court, or TSE, said it had sought to observe conditions before the election to ensure a level playing field, but Venezuela's authorities had hindered access to an audit of its electronic voting system, reports Reuters.

Venezuela's lack of response "did not allow the mission to accompany the auditing of the electronic voting system, nor start assessing the fairness of the electoral contest, which, less than two months from the election, prevents a fair observation," Brazil’s independent electoral board said according to the WSJ.

Folha de S. Paulo gives a window into the diplomatic negotiations to propose a mission leader more likely to receive Caracas approval, including former Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim and former Argentine foreign minister Jorge Taiana. 

The piece quotes Human Rights Watch's Jose Manuel Vivanco who notes that an observer mission is critical for the credibility of the electoral process in Venezuela. And Venezuela analyst David Smilde told Reuters that Jobim's presence would have given the election some international credibility.

The withdrawal is highly relevant, considering that nearly all international observation missions have been nixed and the UNASUR mission is the only one scheduled to be present. On Monday Venezuela said it will not permit the OAS to send observers, reports AFP. As is, several international observers questioned the UNASUR mission's ability to effectively monitor the situation.

Earlier this month President Nicolás Maduro said he hoped President Carter and the Carter Center would participate in observing the electoral process. However, earlier this year the Carter Center  shut down its 13-year-old electoral observation office in Venezuela, though at the time it said it would continue to monitor events from the center's headquarters in Atlanta. (See Aug. 6th's post by Eduardo Romero.)

Observation missions haven't been permitted since 2006, based on a sovereignty argument, though the opposition says it is a ploy to reduce electoral transparency.

"Credible international election observation would help minimise the risk of a disputed result, but the government has once again refused to accept observer missions, dismissing them as a form of interference in its internal affairs," explains Phil Gunson at International Crisis Group. The government will only permit "accompaniment" missions, a more restricted form of observation which in the past has resulted in very uncritical reports, he says.

In a recent piece Eugenio Martínez explains the critical differences between observer missions and accompaniment: "International electoral observation missions usually present concrete plans for the verification of all the phases of the electoral process and they arrive at the countries that have accepted their presences weeks in advance of electoral event. But in the case of accompaniment, the CNE has limited the date of their arrival to the country to only one week before the elections."

The International Crisis Group notes several factors complicating the election run-up, including the state of emergency along the Colombian border, in which several states have had civil liberties suspended; the banning of several opposition leaders from running for office; and the redistribution of legislative seats which reduced the slots in traditional opposition districts. (AFP reports that yesterday the government extended the state of emergency for another 60 days, saying the restrictions on civil liberties were needed to combat smuggling and crime. Among other things, the right to assembly is suspended in six municipalities of the state of Tachira, which also has been a focus of anti-government protests.)

The election will be observed by national groups, including the Venezuelan Electoral Observatory (OEV) and the Observer Network of the Assembly of Education. Their work is however hindered by the electoral councils rules, which include limiting their presence to 5 percent of the voting centers in each state and limiting their presence at various audits, writes Gunson.

This weekend the CNE held a voting simulation to check the electoral system and review technical and logistical details reports TeleSur. But the OEV criticized the exercise, noting that it became an open campaign event for many candidates, mostly from the PSUV.

And Fox News reports on the difficulties of opposition candidates to access airtime.

News Briefs

  • Venezuela and Argentina's governments have been grouped together over the past decade as part of the wave of leftist governments in the region -- hard core Latin American populists according to an old Economist piece. Lest anybody confuse the electoral processes (and more broadly speaking the strength of democratic institutions in each), a Buenos Aires Herald op-edby NYU prof Patricio Navia outlines the important differences between the two.
  • More Sunday election run-up:
  • Argentina's economy might be sluggish, and inflation is at 30 percent, but an important percentage of voters are inclined to maintain the current government -- albeit through presidential candidate Daniel Scioli -- in hopes that he will maintain the social programs that help about 35 percent of the population, reports the Associated Press. To the point that even the conservative, pro-market candidate, Mauricio Macri, has been forced to campaign on a platform of maintaining and increasing social spending. Argentines' benchmark for disaster is the 2001-2002 financial crisis, and there is a belief among the 30 percent hardcore Kirchner supporters that a change in the type of leadership could trigger another disaster. They are wooed by Scioli's promise of maintaining the current system, with gradual adjustments. Still, the race is too close to call, and it's not clear whether Scioli will win outright on Sunday or be forced to a run-off election in November.
  • Another piece in The Nation makes a similar point, emphasizing that Scioli's popularity might be confusing to readers of the international press (read: The Economist) which tends to excoriate current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her economic policies, paying little attention to the relevance of her social policies. The piece quotes historian Ernesto Semán who notes that the government has struggled to maintain these accomplishments even in light of declining commodity prices. But the piece also questions whether Scioli is the man to continue the Kirchner legacy, noting that his "pragmatism" might lead in other directions. 
  • Pre-election violence in Haiti has killed at least 15 people -- two of them pregnant women -- in the area of the country's most notorious slum, Cite Soleil, reports the Associated Press. According to the government-appointed mayor, the violence was politically motivated by gang members, some of whom were killed in shootouts with police. Some 2,000 people fled their homes out of fear starting Friday.
  • More on the worrisome (to say the least) human rights issues related to Mexico's use of armed forces for internal security. (See Monday's post.) VICE reports on the case of a kidnapping victim who was killed by army soldiers who covered it up by burying him as a nameless cartel hitman (sicario).
  • Mexican authorities will begin a new search together with international experts for the remains of the 43 missing teachers' college students. The plan, which includes a new investigations team and the use of drones and satellite technology represents a capitulation to widespread domestic and international pressure, reports Reuters. (See Sept. 25th's post.)
  • EFE reports that several hundred residents of Ajalpan, a city in the central Mexican state of Puebla, lynched two survey takers suspected of being kidnappers.
  • Cuban officials released a graffiti artist who was imprisoned for 10 months for "disrespect of the leaders of the revolution" for painting "Fidel" and "Raul" on the backs of a pair of pigs, reports Reuters. They were intended for use in an art show performance meant to evoke George Orwell's "Animal Farm," but security agents detained the artist en route to the event. Danilo Maldonado, best known as "El Sexto," was the only Cuban activist left on Amnesty International's list of "Prisoners of Conscience." In recent years the government has opted to use short-term arrests and detentions to disrupt attempted protests by the island's small opposition groups, reports the Washington Post. Government officials "don't have a sense of humor," Maldonado told reporters after his release.
  • Same-sex civil unions will become legal in Chile tomorrow, and hundreds of couples are expected to line up over the weekend celebrating a victory for activists in one of the region's more conservative countries, reports Reuters.
  • The parliamentary committee investigating the Petrobras oil corruption scandal cleared all charges against President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, reportsEFE. The report will be put to vote tomorrow by the committee formed by 27 legislators (majority belonging to the ruling party) and could introduce amendments to the text.
  • But the political crisis only thickens. Opposition lawyers in Brazil filed a new petition to impeach Rousseff for allegedly doctoring government accounts into her second term, reports Reuters. The request must be evaluated by lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha, himself facing allegations of corruption. (See last Wednesday's post.) Cunha reportedly came to an agreement last week with the government to keep his post in exchange for warding off impeachment attempts (see last Friday's briefs).
  • Petrobras' legal woes continue: giant investment firm Pacific Investment Management Co. has jumped on the lawsuit bandwagon, claiming that the state-run oil giant misled investors about the scope and scale of a corruption scheme that has wiped billions of dollars in value from company's books, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Canada's B2Gold has resumed operations at the Mina El Limon mine in Nicaragua after weeks of labor strife reports EFE.
  • New Jersey governor Chris Christie is asking the agency overseeing Newark Liberty International Airport to bar any airline requests to routinely fly from there to Cuba until a fugitive living on the island is returned to the U.S., reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The Inca Road—a 24,000-mile-long network that stretches through six contemporary nations, from Chile to Colombia was considered by a sixteen century conquistador to be "one of the greatest constructions that the world has ever seen." Recently declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco, the road was a feat of engineering and political achievement, reports the Wall Street Journal.

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