The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

E.U. observers say Venezuelan elections show major improvement, but uneven playing field remains

Isabel Santos, a member of the European Parliament and head of the E.U. observation mission, appears at a news conference related to elections in Caracas, Venezuela. (Manaure Quintero/Bloomberg)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s closely watched regional elections were conducted under the best conditions in years, international observers said Tuesday, but a lack of judicial independence created an uneven playing field for candidates.

The vote Sunday for governors and mayors across the country was the first in nearly four years to include candidates from Venezuela’s major opposition parties. The leader of the European Union observation mission, Isabel Santos, said she could not say whether it was free and fair.

But asked by a reporter if the results of the election were “technically” reliable, Santos replied that based on “the voting system, the conclusion of everything we’ve studied … yes.”

The E.U. observation mission, the first to visit Venezuela in 15 years, released its preliminary findings two days after President Nicolás Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela won most of the regional and local races.

The elections were widely seen as a test of legitimacy for the socialist state’s electoral system. U.S. officials and key opposition leaders condemned the elections as flawed from the start, and eagerly awaited a report from the E.U. mission that might shed light on those irregularities.

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According to the initial report, the elections were marked by an excessive use of state resources in the campaign, unequal access to the media, voter coercion on election day and the arbitrary disqualification of opposition candidates. The mission observed the use of state resources at 30 percent of PSUV campaign events and in 2.5 percent of campaign events from the opposition, according to the report.

In all 23 states and 22 percent of polling centers, observers noticed control stations known as “red points,” where state employees scan the IDs of voters who receive government benefits. Critics say the control points, which are prohibited by Venezuela’s electoral council, have long been used to intimidate people into voting for government candidates.

Santos also expressed concern about reports of violence at polling sites, including an attack outside an electoral center in Zulia that left one person dead and two wounded.

But leading up to the elections, as the E.U. observed 120 campaign activities across the country, “the environment was calm and peaceful, without incidents or situations of great tension,” the report said. The report highlighted improved conditions as a result of a more balanced makeup of the electoral council, which consists of three people tied to Maduro’s party and two members of the opposition.

“These elections can be a first step on a path that can only advance through political dialogue, a path that we are willing to accompany,” said Jordi Cañas, a member of the European Parliament and of the mission.

The mission’s initial findings came a day after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the Maduro regime “deprived Venezuelans yet again of their right to participate in a free and fair electoral process” and “grossly skewed the process.”

Blinken criticized the government for arbitrarily arresting and harassing political and civil society actors, banning candidates across the political spectrum and other actions that “all but quashed political pluralism and ensured the elections would not reflect the will of the Venezuelan people.”

The report also came as members of a divided opposition sought to recover from its election-day losses and from infighting between political parties. The country’s major opposition parties participated in the elections in the hopes of reconnecting with an apathetic base and re-energizing the leadership of the struggling anti-Maduro movement. But elections seemed only to fracture the opposition further.

Henrique Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate who built internal alliances to promote participation in the elections, said the E.U.’s report should not be made partisan. He called the elections a “small step” toward recovering democracy.

“An internal process of exploration is urgent here,” Capriles said. “The people on Sunday gave a clear message: Today, no one owns the opposition.”

The opposition’s decision to participate in the elections was controversial among its own political leaders, including Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by the United States and more than 50 other countries as Venezuela’s rightful president. Guaidó did not vote in Sunday’s elections, arguing they were rigged by Maduro and saying he refused to “normalize the dictatorship.”

In an interview with The Washington Post on Monday, Guaidó blamed the divisions within the opposition on the Maduro government, calling it a “well-designed strategy by the regime.”

“No matter how many differences we have, we always reach an agreement. That has to be refined and improved,” he said. “We must review ourselves, we cannot make past mistakes. What happened in Miranda is unacceptable.”

In Miranda state, the opposition fielded two competing candidates. At the last minute, candidate Carlos Ocariz attempted to withdraw in favor of David Uzcátegui in an effort to unify the opposition vote. But the electoral council ruled it was too late.

Guaidó faces declining support from within the opposition and from regular Venezuelans. But the United States has no plans to withdraw its support, officials have said. And Guaidó pledged to continue to fill the role as the country’s interim leader “until there is a free and fair presidential election,” he said. “That is my constitutional mandate.”

But if that day comes, he said he isn’t interested in running as a candidate for president.

“At this moment, I don’t have that aspiration,” he said. “My aspiration is to save the country, to save democracy.”

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