Center Sends Expert Group to Venezuelan Elections

Municipal and regional elections don’t usually attract much interest outside the country where they’re taking place, but when Venezuelans went to the polls last November to choose their next governors and mayors, the world was paying close attention.

Woman sits in a chair against a blue wall at a polling station in Venezuela Woman standing in front of a seated poll worker at a polling station in Venezuela.

The world was watching as Venezuelans went to the polls last November. Venezuelans prepare to vote at polling stations (above). Venezuelans shop at a Caracas market (below). (Photos: The Carter Center)

Vegetable line an aisle at the Caracas market.

“The country is under a crisis — a political crisis, economic crisis, humanitarian crisis — and has been for almost a decade,” explained Jennie Lincoln, the Carter Center’s senior advisor on Latin America and the Caribbean and the head of the Center’s expert mission to analyze the November election.

In the last five years, President Nicolás Maduro has disbanded the opposition-dominated National Assembly and replaced it with a Constituent Assembly of loyalists. He disqualified, arrested, or prompted opponents into exile and stacked the high court with justices favorable to him. These actions led the opposition to boycott the last two elections, claiming that the ruling party had rigged the system — and in some cases, the votes.

But in 2021, the opposition reversed course.

“The opposition chose to participate,” Lincoln said. “In an uphill battle, on an uneven playing field, but they chose to participate.”

Even more striking, Venezuela’s electoral council invited The Carter Center, the European Union, and the United Nations to assess the electoral process, promising them complete independence to observe proceedings and publish reports.

Two women check a paper list that hangs on a fenced section of a wall.

Venezuelans check the voter list for their names.

“For these reasons, we decided to send a small team of election experts to assess the process,” said David Carroll, director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program. “We knew going in that the election would not meet international standards, but we felt we could still offer analysis and recommendations that could help improve future elections.”

West Bank Palestinians Vote in Municipal Elections

Despite a highly challenging political and human rights environment, Palestinians living in large cities in the West Bank went to the polls on March 26 in a peaceful and well-administered exercise to elect municipal councils, a Carter Center electoral expert team found. Virtually all the major cities in the West Bank had competitive contests, despite a formal boycott by the Hamas party and intimidation and harassment of candidates by security forces and others.

The vote was the second phase of municipal elections; a first phase was conducted in December in smaller towns and villages in the West Bank, which is dominated by the Fatah party. No elections took place in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas.

The municipal elections were scheduled following the last-minute cancellation of national elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council and presidency in May 2021 Palestinians have not voted for their national leadership since 2006 The Carter Center called on international actors to respect the fundamental rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to choose their national leaders and to help promote a renewal of democratic governance.

The Carter Center called on Fatah and Hamas to reconcile and said more must be done to ensure respect for Palestinians’ right to hold regular elections and to speak and assemble without fear of harassment or intimidation by Palestinian or Israeli security forces or political opponents.

The Carter Center’s six-person team took part in more than 50 meetings, sitting down with government and opposition leaders, members of the electoral council, civil society groups, human rights organizations, business leaders, and ordinary voters.

Though the team was too small to assess voting and counting processes, they did spend election day visiting polling stations to continue learning about the process.

Luis Garcia, a voter who spent hours waiting in line at his precinct in Valencia, stopped Lincoln to thank the Center for being on hand: “Thanks for coming and supporting our democracy here in Venezuela,” he said. “Your presence here is very important because you can see that we are voting...we are exercising democracy.”

When the votes were tallied, the opposition had won 55% of the overall vote but only four of 23 governorships and 120 of 335 mayoral seats.

“The opposition was so fragmented,” explained Lincoln, “that they did not gain a lot of territory.”

The deck is also still stacked against them, as The Carter Center pointed out in a preliminary report, noting that political and governmental interference undermined the election commission and that legal provisions surrounding freedom of expression, candidate registration, and campaign financing do not comply with core international standards. The report also condemned the government for barring many key opposition candidates from running. It described an atmosphere of repression, highlighting the more than 250 people being held as political prisoners.

In a particularly egregious example of government interference, the courts halted vote counting in one state after early numbers showed that an opposition candidate was likely to win the governorship, claiming he was ineligible to run despite all evidence to the contrary.

But then something interesting happened: In the new election, the substitute opposition candidate trounced the government’s candidate.

Even before that show of strength by the opposition, people inside and outside the country were saying that November’s elections could serve as a catalyst for change.

“It’s very important to note that even though these were regional and municipal elections, a struggling Venezuelan population decided to go to the polls,” Lincoln said. “In a democracy, the only way to make a change is to participate. These elections may be a turning point toward reconciliation and resolution of the crisis in Venezuela.”

The Carter Center is continuing to monitor the political situation in Venezuela and explore ways it might play a role in strengthening democracy and human rights there.

Learn more about the Center's Democracy Program »

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