The International Response to Venezuela’s Rigged Parliamentary Elections

On December 7, the CSIS Future of Venezuela Initiative hosted a public event to discuss how the international community would respond to the December 6 National Assembly elections in Venezuela. This event is available on demand here.

On Sunday, December 6, the Maduro regime held elections for the National Assembly, the last remaining democratically elected institution in the country. Throughout Venezuela, polling stations were noticeably empty. About 5.2 million people turned out to vote according to the country’s electoral authority—fewer than the number of people who have “voted with their feet” by fleeing the country.

The elections marked a critical moment for the Venezuelan interim government, which derives its authority from the current National Assembly and will now need to fortify its support among the international community.

The Elections Did Not Meet International Electoral Standards

Turnout on December 6 was remarkably low for several reasons. Over the past several months, the regime took deliberate steps to ensure its own victory in the elections. In June and July, the regime, through the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ, Tribunal Supremo de Justicia), took over three major opposition parties and appointed loyalists to the National Electoral Council, which arbitrarily altered electoral laws in the months leading up to December 6. These steps are part of a broader, years-long strategy to stifle the country’s democracy by jailing political dissidents, censoring the opposition, and relying on armed colectivos to intimidate the population.

The country is also in the midst of a humanitarian crisis that makes it difficult for Venezuelans to vote freely and safely. An estimated 33 percent of the population is severely food insecure, and the regime has historically taken advantage of this by conditioning government assistance on political support. These elections were no exception. On November 30, Diosdado Cabello, president of the rubberstamp National Constituent Assembly, said that “those who do not vote, will not eat.” Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic, which according to official regime sources has infected more than 105,000 Venezuelans, also poses a risk to voters, many of whom cannot afford personal protective equipment and have intermittent access to clean water and soap.

Jose Ignacio Hernandez, former special prosecutor of the Venezuela interim government
“Yesterday’s elections were the least competitive process ever held in Venezuela since 1958.”

The electoral conditions were so deplorable that most of the opposition—which gained a majority in the Assembly in a landslide election five years ago—chose not to vote this year. Voter turnout was estimated at about 31 percent, compared to 74 percent in the 2015 parliamentary elections.

Even before the elections happened, the results had been condemned by the United States, Canada, the Organization of American States, the European Union, and 18 member states of the Lima Group. Since Sunday, 45 countries have announced that they will not recognize the results.

What These Elections Mean for the Venezuelan Interim Government

The interim government, led by Juan Guaidó, derives its constitutional legitimacy from President Guaidó’s elected position as president of the National Assembly. As supported by Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, the president of the National Assembly has the authority to establish an interim presidency if there is no legitimate president-elect to take office. According to the Venezuelan opposition, the United States, Canada, and over 50 other countries, that is precisely what occurred after May of 2018, when the Maduro regime held presidential elections that were widely condemned as fraudulent.

Two years later, the opposition is in a similar legal position. The current National Assembly, which the opposition has controlled since 2015, is due to be replaced on January 5, 2021. However, there will be no freely elected legislators to take their place because the December 6 elections did not meet internationally recognized electoral standards.

The Future of the National Assembly

Between now and January 5, the international community will need to decide how best to support the interim government, the 2015­–2020 National Assembly and, more broadly, the Venezuelan opposition, a wide-ranging coalition of political parties that are united in their desire to restore the country’s democracy.

Jose Ignacio Hernandezformer special prosecutor of the Venezuela interim government
“Because the election held yesterday is an illegitimate process that does not produce any legal and binding consequences, the mandate of the 2015 deputies should be preserved until valid, free, and fair elections are held.” 

The mainstream opposition argues that the best path forward would be for the international community to continue recognizing not just Interim President Guaidó, but the sitting National Assembly from which he derives his constitutional authority. That is the path that the United States has opted for, and other countries are likely to follow suit. The opposition argues that the sitting National Assembly should have its mandate preserved because there is no new, freely elected Assembly to take its place. This argument is based on Articles 2, 5, 7, 233, and 333 of the Venezuelan constitution, as well as legal precedent from a 2005 decision by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice.

Carrie FilipettiDeputy Assistant Secretary for Cuba and Venezuela, U.S. Department of State
“[The U.S.’s Venezuela] policy has been predicated on one main thing, and that is the supremacy of the Venezuelan constitution. That is the thing upon which we will always determine our policy when it comes to who we are recognizing and when inside Venezuela. Whether it is a parliament or a president. It is very important that the interim government is also supporting all of their arguments on the supremacy of the Constitution. That is the basis of Venezuelan democracy”

How the International Community Has Responded

The elections have been widely condemned, but the Maduro regime declared victory and will swear in a new assembly on January 5, complicating the interim government’s legal standing abroad. While Maduro’s new assembly will not be recognized by many Western democracies, the issue is not black and white. Some states may reject the results of the December 6 elections but stop short of preserving the mandate of the 2015–2020 assembly. This could mirror what occurred at the presidential level in 2019; of the over 60 countries that had refused to recognize Maduro’s 2018 reelection, only 57 officially recognized Guaidó as interim president. Of those 57, 30 have maintained some parallel relationships with the Maduro regime.

Furthermore, some key actors, such as Argentina, stopped recognizing President Guaidó after changes in government. Argentina, Mexico, and other countries in the region could once again fall into a gray area, or may even stay silent. Cuba and Nicaragua, the regime’s regional allies, will recognize the results. Beyond the region, the regime’s new assembly will likely be recognized by its key allies, such as Russia, Iran, China, and Turkey.

Though the international community is certainly not unified in its tactical approach to the Venezuelan crisis, the December 6 elections further underscore the need to find common ground and pursue multilateral efforts to find peaceful and democratic solutions in the country and respond to human rights violations.

Michael GrantAssistant Deputy Minister for the Americas, Global Affairs Canada
“We all agree on the fundamental points. We agree Venezuelans deserve democracy and human rights. We agree that there needs to be accountability. We agree that there needs to be a transition back to democracy. And I think focusing on those elements is how the international community is going to work better.” 

With control of the new assembly, the Maduro regime hopes to recover a semblance of legitimacy on the world stage and stimulate further investment from foreign actors such as Russia, China, and Iran. After January 5, the regime is also expected to strip President Guaidó and other lawmakers of parliamentary immunity, making them even more susceptible to being detained or harassed by the regime. The interim government, which is mostly in exile already, will increasingly be forced to flee. This may make it more difficult for the opposition—at least in its current structure—to galvanize local support from a population that is growingly distrustful of all political actors.

Moises Rendon is director of the Future of Venezuela Initiative and a fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Claudia Fernandez is a research associate with the Future of Venezuela Initiative at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Moises Rendon

Moises Rendon

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program

Claudia Fernandez