October 17, 2017
On Sunday, October 15, Venezuela held regional elections amidst a deep democratic crisis in the country. The National Electoral Council announced late on Sunday that the ruling chavista had won 18 out of 23 governorships, in contrast to virtually every pre-election poll conducted on the ground in Venezuela.  Following the stunning electoral outcome, the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center organized a rapid-reaction conference call with David Smolansky, the exiled opposition mayor of El Hatillo Municipality; Luis Vicente León, President of Datanálisis, a prominent Venezuelan polling organization; and Beatriz Borges, Director of the Center for Justice and Peace (CEPAZ) in Venezuela. The call was moderated by Jason Marczak, Director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

Marczak kicked off the discussion by laying out the political landscape post-election. He emphasized the fact that the stark contrast between extensive pre-election polling predicting a comprehensive victory for opposition parties and the announcement of a sweeping electoral victory for President Nicolás Maduro and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) have drawn rightful suspicion of fraud, leading the United States to deem them as having been neither “free nor fair.”

Smolansky, a prominent figure in the opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), gave the coalition’s interpretation of the electoral events both on election day and in the run-up. He described several tactics used by the Maduro government to sway the election in its favor: not allowing candidate substitutions, switching citizens’ electoral districts at the last minute, installing broken voting machines in opposition-controlled areas, leaving the door open for multiple voting by not using indelible ink, and refusing international oversight. Smolansky laid out the opposition’s next steps, arguing that “the National Assembly has to appoint new authorities for the Electoral Court in Venezuela”. He also warned that “as soon as the National Assembly finds new authorities for the Electoral Court, they will be prosecuted, so we have to be ready to swear them in as exiles.

León provided his own analysis for the surprising electoral outcome and the disparity vis-à-vis the polls. He noted that people’s desire for change and rejection of President Maduro – which is around 70 percent – do not match the electoral result. On the other hand, León cited a split opposition and voter abstention as the primary causes of the MUD’s loss but did not comment specifically on whether the actions of the government played a decisive role. Looking ahead, León stressed that the opposition must go to court to contest the election results now as “the government will be calling for elections immediately—for mayors and even, we can believe, presidential elections as soon as possible—because in this very moment, the government knows that the opposition is not going to participate in other elections.”

Beatriz Borges addressed the electoral developments from a broader humanitarian scope. As the director of a human rights organization in a country facing a humanitarian crisis, she argued that regardless of politics, people are suffering and actions must be taken. “Venezuelans are suffering, and in pain, and dying, and that’s why the international community has to pay attention and has to keep an eye on the humanitarian emergency we are living in Venezuela.” Borges further called on Venezuela’s neighbors to view the events in Venezuela as a regional problem due to the adverse demographic and medical consequences that have the potential to spread through the region: massive amounts of displaced people, the financial burden of distributing aid to the diaspora, and the reemergence of previously-eradicated diseases such as malaria. 

When asked about the way forward for sanctions, Smolansky stressed that additional individual sanctions aimed at high-level government officials could add the necessary pressure to incentivize dialogue. León wrapped up the conversation by reiterating the need for dialogue and negotiations between the Maduro regime and the opposition coalition. “It is not easy to see the opposition going to any negotiations in Venezuela right now. But, if we don’t have negotiations, the only other possibility is Venezuela isolated,” he concluded.