Trapped in a political quagmire, a consolidating dictatorship and a collapsing economy, Venezuelans are supposed to go to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election that in theory will allow them to change their fortunes.
Yet much of the international community has come out against the May 20 vote, with the United States and most Latin American countries portraying it as a sort of line in the sand that Nicolás Maduro, seeking a new six-year presidential term, should refrain from crossing.
Why are some of the most democratic nations in the hemisphere dead set against an election when polls claim that more than 80 percent of the people want to end Venezuela’s increasingly autocratic regime?
Because it will be a sham, most of the countries, including the United States, contend.
“On Election Day itself, the Maduro regime has already given every indication that it will resort to its authoritarian playbook," Vice President Mike Pence said last week in a speech before the Organization of American States (OAS), calling for Venezuela to suspend its elections. "In short, there will be no real election in Venezuela on May 20 and the world knows it. It will be a fake election with a fake outcome."
He is not alone in the claim. The OAS and Latin America’s most influential countries, gathered under the umbrella of the Lima Group, have also asked Maduro to change course, arguing that Venezuelans may cast votes on Sunday but the results won't reflect the will of the people.
The Venezuelan vote, analysts say, violates many of the basic rules about free and fair elections, starting with the authority to call for the election at all.
A legal election?
The elections, which according to the constitution should be held in December, were called by the controversial National Constituent Assembly, a Maduro government-controlled organization that has effectively sidelined the opposition-controlled legislature.
Experts said the regime had no legal right to move the election forward, but stressed that more worrisome is the fear that by holding an election, the National Constituent Assembly will be granted legitimacy.
The assembly — created last year in an election that many said included up to three million fraudulent votes — is all-powerful and could make any potential opposition victory meaningless because it could strip any office of its authority.
On Tuesday, Venezuela’s Supreme Court, which operates in exile after the regime threatened to arrest all of its magistrates, declared the election illegal. “Any act pronounced by the group of people calling themselves the Constituent National Assembly is null and void,” the exiled court ruled.
Election officials' loyalty
For years, the regime has held a firm control over the National Electorate Council, or CNE, the branch of government in charge of tallying the votes.
The council’s five-member controlling board includes four members of the Chavista movement — the name refers to former President Hugo Chavez who died in 2013 but handpicked Maduro as his successor — even though board members are not supposed to be affiliated with any political organization. Only the fifth member is independent.
From its past work, the CNE has made clear where its loyalties lie. In 2013, for example, it organized in record time a presidential election soon after Chavez’ death was announced. But it took many months to organize in 2016 a much simpler recall referendum, running out the clock to the point that the process could not be held.
Racing to Election Day
Time did not seem to be a problem for the CNE this time around, however. The group announced in January that the election could be held just three months later, in April, although it later postponed the date to May.
But that didn’t leave enough time for candidates to campaign, said Luis Lander, president of the Venezuelan Elections Observatory. According to the Observatory’s latest report, the 2018 presidential election allowed for just 26 days of campaigning, as opposed to the 96 days allowed for the 2012 presidential campaign.
No international observers
The short time frame also didn't allow much time to organize ways to monitor the elections including international observers, whose presence has already been gradually limited through the years.
In recent years, Venezuela has changed the process so that any outside observers are given regime-controlled tours of polling places on Election Day, rather than allowing the monitors to set up their own ways to watch for fraud.
This type of crucial activity is simply no longer happening during Venezuelan elections, Lander said.
Doubts about the voter’s registry
One of the main challenges that brings all sorts of doubts about the electoral process in Venezuela is a long-delayed audit of the country’s voter registry.
Guillermo Salas, a founding member of the Venezuelan think-tank ESDATA, said that in 2003, the regime did away with the agency that was in charge of conducting those audits, which means that there is no real control of who has registered as a Venezuelan voter.
There is also no address information on those who have registered to vote, which leaves observers and opposition parties without any real chance of verifying if a registered voter exists or not.
The last independent audit that was attempted in 2005 demonstrated there was a very big problem with this issue, said Salas. Researchers wanted to do a survey and verify the information on a sample group of 12,000 randomly selected voters. After asking the CNE for the personal information of these voters, electoral officials admitted they did not have the data for about half the people.
Salas, whose university-based group has been investigating for years the failings of the Venezuelan electoral system, says that information could be missing on up to about a quarter of Venezuela’s 20 million registered voters.
Opposition not really participating
Another key factor in the May 20 election is the weak opposition and a potential boycott of the vote.
The opposition alliance called Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, or MUD, decided not to participate in the election when it determined there would be insufficient guarantees of transparency. That would have left Maduro without an opponent but for left-leaning opposition leader Henri Falcon’s last minute decision to break ranks and run on his own.
Yet Falcon is having a very hard time convincing opposition voters that he represents them.
He has always been looked at with a certain degree of suspicion because he previously was known as a Chavista leader.
The mistrust, added to the opposition parties’ call to abstain from voting, is likely to ensure that Sunday’s turnout will be low. According to a Meganalisis poll released early this month, about two-thirds of those asked said they did not plan to go to the polls.
Hunger as weapon
And a large number of those who actually do go to the polls on Sunday to vote for Maduro may be thinking more of their stomachs than their politics.
An electronic card, called the Fatherland Card, grants them access to bags of subsidized food distributed by the government program known as CLAP.
In a hyperinflation-ravaged country where a minimum wage laborer needs to work 45 days to be able to afford a carton of eggs, having access to the CLAP program could be the difference between life and death.
Some Venezuelans worry that if they don't vote, the Maduro regime will withhold their subsidized food.
Follow Antonio María Delgado in Twitter: @DelgadoAntonioM