Monday, October 16, 2017

Venezuela's opposition loses in gubernatorial elections, claims fraud (Oct. 16, 2017)

Venezuela's ruling party claims to have won a majority of governorships in yesterday's elections. The surprising results -- 17 governorships for the Socialist party and just five for the opposition MUD coalition, one race too close to call -- has the country's opposition politicians calling for street protests and audits of the 23 gubernatorial elections, reports Reuters.

President Nicolás Maduro said more than 61 percent of voters turned out to back a peaceful resolution to the country's political crisis, reports EFE. The national electoral council (CNE) said the ruling party obtained 54 percent of the vote around the country, reports Efecto Cocuyo

The PSUV held governorships in 20 of the 23 contested states, but opinion polls leading up to the vote had shown the opposition poised to take advantage of widespread anger at the government. Polls in fact predicted the opposite result -- up to 18 governorships for the opposition, reports EFE. Pollsters had noted a high level of turnout would be required to ensure such a result for the opposition, according to the Wall Street Journal. But that threshold was met. El País notes the losses in opposition strongholds, including Miranda state, currently governed by opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

The MUD denounced an unequal and tricky system and said it will not recognize the results until they can be audited, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

Voting took place peacefully yesterday, but voters were stymied by changes in where they could vote -- forcing many to take travel to other areas, dominated by government supporters -- and alleged delaying tactics in opposition strongholds, reports the New York Times. The CNE moved over 200 polling stations from neighborhoods supporting the opposition to poorer, more violent Maduro strongholds, reported the Guardian yesterday. Opposition politicians who lost in primary elections were included on the ballots, but a vote for them is considered invalid.

Analysts quoted by the Financial Times said the results aren't credible, noting it would mean the ruling Socialist party has maintained its share of the vote since 2013, despite the massive economic crisis and widespread protests this year. Experts quoted by the Wall Street Journal said the results "verged on the statistically impossible."

The official result is not credible, according to David Smilde, who notes that the high turnout belies a result that does not reflect the government's vast unpopularity. Venezuela's electoral system has a "solid system of audits and checks," he writes, though it requires the CNE to release results from individual voting tables, which it hadn't done as of last night. And the MUD must substantiate its claims of tampering, including presenting evidence of voter suppression, assisted voting or duplicate voting, rather than vague calls for audits, he writes at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.

Indeed, the fraud could be more related to broader issues of an unequal playing field, rather than outright manipulation of results -- making the allegations far harder to prove, argues Raul Stolk at Caracas Chronicles.

Distrust of the system among Venezuelans has grown in recent years. A Venebarometro poll ahead of the vote found that 70 percent of respondents expected yesterday's election to be fraudulent, according to the WSJ.

Part of the reason for the government to push forward with this postponed elections is to recover a level of international credibility after the very questioned Constituent Assembly (ANC) elections earlier this year, noted Smilde last week. "... the Venezuelan government has been doing its best to showcase the regional elections as proof of its commitment to electoral democracy, and trying to use the vote to legitimize the ANC," wrote Geoff Ramsey at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights ahead of the vote. However, countries in the region have stated they would not recognize the ANC, regardless of the results of yesterday's election.

The results could push sanctions from more members of the international community, including the European Union.

The results will likely heighten the potential for conflict and uncertainty, reports the BBC. The outcome will strengthen the opposition sectors that argued against participating in the elections, saying the CNE is an invalid arbiter, according to El País.

Ahead of the vote, Smilde was quoted by the New York Times, saying that "there is a big gray zone between dictatorship and democracy that Venezuela is in right now.”

A video released Saturday by ousted attorney general Luisa Ortega released a video with testimony alleging that Odebrecht made illicit campaign donations to key government politicians, including Diosdado Cabello. Ortega's material showed an excerpt from a deposition by the former head of Odebrecht’s Venezuelan operations in which he discusses how the Brazilian construction giant attempted to influence state and municipal elections in exchange for easing of red tape. The evidence seemed timed to impact on yesterday's elections, notes the New York Times

Last week Ortega posted a video in which the same Odebrecht executive testified that the company had paid President Nicolás Maduro at least $35 million in bribes in 2013 linked to campaign promises. Ortega said she shared information about high level corruption in the Maduro administration with U.S. officials, reports Reuters.

Venezuela briefs
  • Recent shootouts between prison inmates at Tocorón, in the state of Aragua, and police officers demonstrate the power of criminal groups in Venezuela and "the government's lack of ability, or will, to take control," reports InSight Crime.
  • The IMF is quietly analyzing a potential bailout for Venezuela, that would involve $30 billion in annual international help, and include one of the world’s most complex bond restructurings, reports the Financial Times. A recent IMF report said the country "remains in a full-blown economic, humanitarian, and political crisis with no end in sight," notes the Wall Street Journal. By 2018, the IMF said, the country’s economy will have contracted by 35% from 2014.
News Briefs
  • The U.N. ended its 13.5 year peacekeeping operation in Haiti yesterday. MINUSTAH is slated to be replaced by a smaller mission focused on justice, human rights and police development —  MINUJUSTH. Though the country must overcome complicated hurdles, the operation should be considered a success, according to its head, Sandra Honoré. (Link to full report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti from earlier this month.)
  • The Miami Herald explores whether the country is ready function without a large multinational military presence. MINUSTAH leaves behind a mixed legacy, marred in particular by the introduction of a cholera outbreak and sexual abuse allegations. Public opinion is in favor of the peacekeepers' departure, argue Siobhán Wills, Cahal McLaughlin, and Ilionor Louis in the Conversation. They say that early efforts to eradicate gangs in violent neighborhoods led U.N. troops to unintentionally kill at least 25 people.
  • Guatemalan police captured the leader of the MS-13 street gang Ángel Gabriel Reyes Marroquín, known as Blanco. Authorities believe he is behind the hospital attack that left seven dead in August, reports the BBC. (At the time authorities said the attack was orchestrated to free a jailed gang leader, see Aug. 17's briefs.)
  • Guatemalan human rights groups and other civil society organizations created a national front against corruption and impunity this weekend. They aim to implement reforms promoting profound political change, reports El Periódico. Among other things, they demand the resignation of the legislators who voted in favor of maintaining President Jimmy Morales' immunity from prosecution despite allegations of illicit campaign financing.
  • Cuban President Raul Castro's economic reforms represent the country's "most urgent need and, at the same time, an increasingly controversial one," writes William Leogrande in Americas Quarterly. Castro, slated to step down next year, will leave his successor with a complicated economic panorama. "... Recent signals indicate the reforms may be stalled and that some of Cuba’s leaders are having doubts." Key issues include a delayed promise to unify a dual currency and exchange rate. He also notes that "while the reform process has had limited success stimulating growth, it has produced a noticeable rise in inequality, price increases that outpace wage growth, and rumblings of political discontent."
  • A a new UNICEF report shows a worsening rate of adolescent homicides in Brazil, "one of the more extreme examples of a trend seen across the region: violence by and against young people, especially young males," according to InSight Crime. If the trend continues, then 43,000 more adolescents will be murdered in the country's 300 most populous municipalities between 2015 and 2021.
  • Campaign financing reform passed earlier this month in Brazil aims to replace corporate donations, declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 2015. Congress created a "special campaign-finance fund," in addition to an existing fund aimed at covering parties' administrative costs. Individuals can donate up to 10 percent of their income to candidates, who can also spend millions of reais of their own money. Though the initial impact will be greater for major parties, in the long run, the changes could hurt smaller parties and favor already famous candidates, reports the Economist
  • Argentine lawyer, Delia Ferreira Rubio, has been chosen to head Transparency International, reports Infobae. The former head of the Argentine chapter of the organization is a stalwart opponent of Argentine efforts to implement electronic voting.
  • As the U.S. distances itself increasingly from Cuba, the island is becoming diplomatically cozier with Russia, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Ongoing and widespread power outages have forced Puerto Rico residents to go "old school" with washboards, candles and cash, reports the Miami Herald. And public health experts are concerned that rotting mounds of trash could set the stage for epidemics. Four deaths could already be ascribed to leptospirosis — a bacterial infection caused by rodent urine tainting the water from springs, reports the Miami Herald separately.
  • A new exhibition at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Chile focuses on Washington’s intervention in Chile and its 17-year relationship with the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, reports the New York Times.

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