An electoral solution for the Venezuela Crises?

By Jeff Fischer

March 20, 2019   |   0 comments

Options for the international community

As the humanitarian, security, and political crises continue to intensify in Venezuela, calls for an electoral solution to the crises have been made by the international community and domestic opposition to the regime of Nicolas Maduro.

As international recognition of the Venezuelan presidency is split between Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido, conducting fresh elections to determine governance is seen as an avenue for resolution of this recognition divide. However, in the current environment, conducting such an election is fraught with difficulties and risks.

First, the level of public confidence in the National Electoral Council (CNE) and its impartiality is low.  And, even if the opposition could participate in electoral administration, under what authority would they be appointed and by whom? And such an appointment at the commissioner level may not have an impact on fraud occurring in the polling stations.  Finally, what forces would provide electoral security in a fair and effective manner and not attempt to suppress turnout through intimidation?  As a result, if an electoral solution is pursued, some international dimension to its conduct, administration, and security will have to be considered.

Protests in Venezuela Jan, 23, 2019. Photo by Voice of America.

Global precedent

In six cases over the last 30 years, there have been agreements by the domestic stakeholders and the international community for international supervision of elections: Namibia (1989), Cambodia (1993), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1996-97), Eastern Slavonia (1997), East Timor (1999 – 2001), and Kosovo (2000 – 2001).  In each of these cases, the motives for international supervision emerged from deep political divides and mistrust among the electorate such that an “independent umpire” is needed for the election outcomes to be accepted by all parties.

Syria was also slated to have internationally supervised elections.  United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution (SCR) 2254 mandates “…a Syrian-led political process…and sets a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution, and further expresses its support for free and fair elections, pursuant to the new constitution, to be held within 18 months and administered under the supervision of the United Nations, to the satisfaction of governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians,…including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate…”.  However, given the current trends in that conflict, it seems unlikely that such supervision will be undertaken.

In each of these cases, international supervision has been implemented in different ways. Two intergovernmental organizations have been mandated to supervise elections, the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  While the UN could be so mandated for Venezuela, it may in fact be the Organization of American States (OAS) which is mandated to supervise the process, with inherent advantages and some risks.

In Namibia, the elections were administered by the South African Administrator-General (SAAG) under the supervision of United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG).  Each of the 23 election districts had a UN supervisor. In the end, the administrative effort alone involved some 885-election specialists from 27 countries.

In Cambodia, the United Nations Transitional Administration in Cambodia (UNTAC) possessed the mandate to both supervise and administer the election.  For Bosnia and Herzegovina, the OSCE was mandated to “supervise the conduct of the election” as stated in the Dayton Peace Accords.  Over 2,000 international supervisors from OSCE participating states supported the process.  The UN received the mandate to supervise the “Popular Consultation”, the non-binding status referendum on independence for East Timor from Indonesia.  Subsequent to the passage of the question, the UN was re-engaged to supervise the first rounds of the presidential and parliamentary elections under independence.  And, following the military intervention by the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) in Kosovo, the OSCE was once again mandated to supervise a round of municipal elections and then elections for a Kosovo assembly.

Commonalities among these elections

While varying in structure, these elections did have some factors in common.

First, there was a launching document or agreement, which framed the basic terms of reference for the elections that were agreed upon by the contestants.

Second, with the exception of East Timor in1999, these elections were conducted with either a UN peacekeeping or NATO related security presence.  For East Timor, the Indonesian government stated that any peacekeepers deployed within the country’s borders would be treated as an invading force.  This left electoral security to the Indonesia police and military.  In the aftermath of the voting, an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 people lost their lives in post-election violence, a testament to the breakdown of electoral security when it is provided by those with a vested interest in the outcomes.

Third, in three of these cases– Bosnia and Herzegovina, East Timor, and Kosovo—the electoral process included international voting because of the displacement of otherwise eligible voters by conflict or regime intimidation.

Fourth, each of these elections involved or entailed significant political transitions; in the cases of East Timor and Kosovo, the electoral process resulted in the establishment of a new country.

And, finally, while the international community held the supervisory posts, local citizens were recruited as voter registrars and poll workers.

Recommendations for Venezuela

If international supervision of a presidential election is considered for Venezuela, the following scenario is offered as an initial guide.

The basic legal framework for the election including timing, eligibility, lustration on eligibility to participate, and other issues pertinent to the structure and administration of the elections should be embodied in a political agreement signed by the OAS, the parties in conflict and, potentially, the military.  From the provisions of this agreement, the administrative rules and regulations for the conduct of the election can be developed.  It is to note that the election would be conducted under the rules and regulations developed for the presidential election alone, and not the election laws of Venezuela.  To further strengthen the mandate, a UN Security Council Resolution could be attempted.

“Enfranchisement must include marginalized elements of the electorate such as refugees (out-of-country voting), military, illiterate, and persons with disabilities.”

Under the recommended OAS lead, the Secretary General of the OAS can appoint a seven-member, expert-model Electoral Commission, composed of five international members from OAS member states and two national members, one representing Maduro and one for Interim President Guaidó.  The national members will have voice but not vote.  At least three of the members shall be women.

The Commission would appoint a Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) who will have administrative responsibility.  The CEO can be either a current or recent election director from an OAS member state.  The Commission and CEO will develop the rules and regulations, operational plan, budget, and calendar.

Enfranchisement must include marginalized elements of the electorate such as refugees (out-of-country voting), military, illiterate, and persons with disabilities.  For out-of-country voting, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) can be engaged to administer this voting as it has done in Bosnia and Herzegovina, East Timor, and Kosovo.  Under this arrangement, an international election supervisor would be present at each polling center and new Venezuelan poll workers would be recruited and trained by the OAS.

The second body to be appointed is a three-judge panel of all internationals for an Electoral Court.  Once again, the OAS Secretary General would make the appointment and draw from active or recently retired judiciary from OAS member states.   A list of electoral complaints to be within their jurisdiction will be established so that electoral stakeholders have an avenue to appeal decisions of the Electoral Commission to the Court.

Importantly, while this transitional arrangement of institutions and process covers the electoral administration component, there remains an electoral security component which must also be addressed.  One recommendation is for the Venezuelan military to agree to stay in the barracks on Election Day and to be able to cast their ballots from those locations, hence their role as a signatory to the election agreement.

However, there still may be electoral security threats and violence from bands of armed groups –   Colectivos.  Therefore, as with other cases of international supervision, some form of electoral security component is required.  An international electoral police task force can be deployed to secure the election.  Under this arrangement, active police officers would be deployed along with their Venezuelan counterparts to conduct electoral security planning and policing of electoral events, facilities, materials, and transport.  Once again, the UN could be mandated to establish the task force drawing from a global reserve of officers.  However, if the UN is sidelined, then the OAS could receive the mandate as a component of their election supervision responsibilities.

Given adequate political will on all sides, the electoral scenario described above is a plausible approach to political resolution and a transition from continuing crises to more political and security stability.  But such an endeavor will be costly in finances and resources and represents a cost to be largely borne by the international community.

In examining the cost-benefit comparison, it is a matter for the international community to measure the ongoing and cumulative costs associated with the current crises for both Venezuela and its neighbors, against the one-time cost of an election administration and a security.  In this respect, the international supervision of this election can be regarded as an investment in national stability for Venezuela and regional stability for its neighbors

The author, Jeff Fischer is a Senior Advisor for Electoral Security & Integrity at Creative Associates International, in Washington, DC. He served in leadership positions for three transformational elections:  as Director General of Elections in Bosnia Herzegovina for the OSCE (1996), Chief Electoral Officer for the UN in East Timor (1999); and as Director of Elections in a joint appointment in Kosovo by both the OSCE and UN (2000).

Jeff Fischer
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