To participate or not to participate: The Venezuelan opposition’s Hamlet moment

Once again Venezuela’s democratic opposition finds itself in an electoral dilemma. This time, though, it’s not (entirely) of their own doing. The moral weight of whether and how to participate in the November 21 regional and local elections hangs more on the European Union.


  • Christopher Sabatini

    Dr. Christopher Sabatini, is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and was formerly a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. Chris is also on the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU, the Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch's Americas Division, and of the Inter-American Foundation. He is also an HFX Fellow at the Halifax International Security Forum. He is a frequent contributor to policy journals and newspapers and appears in the media and on panels on issues related to Latin America and foreign policy. Chris has testified multiple times before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2015, Chris founded and directed a new research non-profit, Global Americas and edited its news and opinion website. From 2005 to 2014 Chris was senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and the founder and editor-in-chief of the hemispheric policy magazine Americas Quarterly (AQ). At the AS/COA, Dr. Sabatini chaired the organization’s rule of law and Cuba working groups. Prior to that, he was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a diplomacy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, working at the US Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance. He provides regular interviews for major media outlets, and has a PhD in Government from the University of Virginia.

Photo: Meredith Kohut / NYT

Once again Venezuela’s democratic opposition finds itself in an electoral dilemma. This time, though, it’s not (entirely) of their own doing. The moral weight of whether and how to participate in the November 21 regional and local elections hangs more on the European Union. The EU’s potentially premature announcement that it will observe the November vote threatens to not only undercut Venezuela’s fractious democratic opposition and the credibility of ongoing negotiations, but also further erode decades-old norms and practices already under attack by the likes of Russia, China, Nicaragua, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.

Whether this outcome comes to pass depends on whether the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, and the head of the EU Observation Mission, Isabel Santos, commit to internationally recognized standards for election observation and then defend them on the ground.

Reengaging through elections

Following pressure from the Biden administration, the bulk of Venezuela’s opposition agreed to participate in the November 21 elections as a good-faith measure in negotiations with the Maduro government. As I’ve written previously in Global Americans, the Venezuelan opposition’s repeated refusal to participate in elections managed by the Chávez and Maduro governments has been a mistake. The 2005 National Assembly elections were far from the rigged, carnival-like-games that they have become more recently; the opposition’s decision to sit those out undercuts its legitimate claims in later contests. Even in the Maduro regime’s unfair and undemocratic elections of late, the opposition has lost more than it has gained through boycotts.

Elections—even fraudulent ones—provide a unique civic moment for democrats to engage with the public and build their party institutions by selecting candidates and communicating with the people. And the process of getting voters to polls and to the streets is an important opportunity for leaders to publicly defend citizens’ rights of democratic participation and representation, if only to draw a contrast with the sham process staged by the regime. Sideshows, such as the ill-conceived online protest vote that the opposition staged last December for the 2020 National Assembly, don’t fit the bill. Democratic leaders must take the courageous, difficult path of rallying their people around principles that eventually, when respected, will lead to a peaceful transition.

The Biden administration’s push to get the opposition to participate in the November vote makes sense in the abstract and at the start of the negotiations. By agreeing to put up candidates for the 3,000 or so regional and local seats up for grabs, the opposition would demonstrate good faith in negotiations that would lead—U.S. leaders hoped—to the restoration of democratic institutions, including free and fair elections. The United States’ insistence was also an effort to move the more democratic members of the opposition away from its self-defeating policy of indefinitely sitting on the sidelines of elections until the Maduro regime collapsed … eventually?

The EU’s pledge to observe elections could be seen in this light as well. Borrell’s decision may offer guarantees to the opposition that it wasn’t tricked into a scam that simply legitimizes the Maduro regime and corrupts negotiations.

This goal will be undermined, however, if the EU doesn’t ask for and doesn’t get a necessary set of standards for its election observation mission. Nor will it work if the United States fails to insist on proper standards.

Enforcing standards

There is no one manual establishing a uniform set of international standards; the Organization of American States, the European Union, and the Carter Center, for instance, each has their own manual. Nevertheless, the international community has agreed on a general set of principles of “best practices” to evaluate the degree of fairness and freedom of electoral processes (These are drawn from an article I wrote years ago for Americas Quarterly. For the full explanation and description of the variables below, please see the original column.)

  • Freedom from coercion; 
  • Limited use of public resources for partisan purposes; 
  • Relatively equal access to public media;
  • Voter access to information;
  • Secrecy of the vote;
  • Transparency of the voting process
  • Transparency of financing; 
  • Impartiality of electoral authorities;
  • Impartiality of electoral laws;
  • Public officials must recognize the results of the election and allow for a smooth transfer of full powers to new winners.

Now, in Venezuela, several of these, such as those related to electoral authorities and the impartiality of electoral laws, are far from perfect and unlikely to be sufficiently altered in the next month or so. (For an exhaustive list of the ways in which Venezuelan elections have become corrupted in the past 20 years or so, please see this study by Javier Corrales.) 

The opposition had already agreed to participate under those conditions, including a more plural electoral commission. But the bulk of the principles listed above are ones in which, presumably, the European Union should have a say. The EU and the United States will have to defend those if this year’s elections are going to constitute even a minimally credible electoral process. 

If those conditions are not met, there is the very real risk that the opposition will have been lured into the worst possible scenario for its participation: not just a flagrantly fraudulent process that they participate in, but one that is given a fig leaf of legitimacy by a half-hearted observation effort. 

By the same token, failure by the EU and U.S. to demand and defend those standards could provide another excuse for the opposition to sit out the elections, again. Such a scenario would not just sell out the intent behind getting the opposition to commit to the process and move along the negotiations—and thereby hand a huge, undeserved win to the Maduro government—it would also undercut the European Union and United States’ international credibility when it comes to defending free and fair democratic standards.

Credible, honest, objective international election monitors do several things, but one of them is to guarantee to skeptical candidates, leaders, and voters that they can put their faith in the process. What wavering democratic leader or voter will do that again if the EU arbiters in this process don’t even agree to the standards needed to ensure at least a fair process? 

Where do we go from here?

There are several scenarios here that can help correct what for now appears to be a train wreck— keeping in mind that the optimal outcome is an internationally guaranteed democratic election (even with some flaws) on November 21 that the opposition participates in— regardless of the results.

Here are those—in grosso modo—scenarios in descending order of positive outcomes. No odds provided here regarding likelihood, and no betting please. 

  • The EU—under pressure from member states and the international community—demands and gets the full set of conditions and agreements listed above to observe the pre-election and election day and vote tabulation process. 
  • The EU demands but doesn’t get the conditions required for a full, open, professional observation mission. Once on the ground, the EU documents a series of pre-electoral abuses (use of state resources for campaigning, intimidation of candidates and voters, non-transparent handling of voter rolls, refusal to give access to voter registration databases or vote tabulation algorithms) and election day violations (access to only limited polling sites, no access to counting/tabulation sites)—which, let’s be honest, none of these are unlikely—and refuses to certify the election despite multiple appeals. Negotiators return to the table, this time with greater international pressure on the government (and less international naïveté about its machinations). International standards for election observation are thus maintained despite a less-than-perfect outcome for elections in Venezuela. 
  • The EU doesn’t get the access and conditions necessary for a legitimate election mission but sends one anyway and certifies an electoral process that, regardless of the outcome, fails to meet even minimal democratic standards. The democratic opposition is left twisting in the wind, as is its courage in committing to the process. The non-democratic opposition (and yes, they do exist) gains ground, stiffens its resistance to any compromise, and as a result negotiations are scuttled. The EU’s neutered response sends a signal to every autocrat or aspiring autocrat who wants to steal an election that the EU has joined the ranks of other “zombie election monitors” like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Council of Electoral Specialists of Latin America (CEELA). 

The decisive factor in all this will be the position of the United States, the United Kingdom, and EU member states. Will they publicly stand up and defend election observation standards? Will they follow through on the implicit promise they made to Venezuela’s democratic opposition to protect those standards and if they can’t, to denounce a sham process?

There’s also another risk in the first scenario above: that the failure to publicly define and defend the electoral process gives the opposition what many allegedly want: another opportunity to sit on the sidelines and just call foul. 

The Biden administration’s admirable effort to enlist Venezuela’s true democratic leaders in what we all hope will be a productive, frank, and ultimately successful negotiation process is the correct one. And an EU promise to observe elections that negotiators have coaxed the opposition into could be a critical step toward a democratic outcome in Venezuela. Will they abide?

If the EU—with U.S. complicity—fails to uphold decades-old principles and election standards, both will have cast their lot with the SCO, CEELA and the now defunct UNASUR. Credible election observation is likely never to be the same again.

Christopher Sabatini is the senior research fellow for Latin America at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London and a member of the board of Global Americans, which he founded in 2015.

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