Editorial Board

Venezuela's Empty Elections

Steadfast pressure is the best way to ensure that Venezuela's soft autocracy one day returns to democracy.

What if the box has no bottom?

Photographer: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

"A triumph of peace and democracy." That's how Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro described his government's implausible victory in last weekend's gubernatorial elections. In fact, it is a further hardening of the soft autocracy that used to be South America's richest democracy.

Maduro's government entered the polls with an approval rate of about 24 percent in a collapsed economy with inflation nearing 1,000 percent, widespread hunger and residents fleeing by the tens of thousands. Somehow, it managed to win 54 percent of the vote and 17 out of 23 governorships.

The opposition has rejected the results and has rightly demanded an audit. The government's pre-election shenanigans included disqualifying the opposition's most popular candidates, keeping losers of primaries on the ballot to confuse voters, moving 200 polling places at the last minute, selective power outages, and allowing no independent outside observers. Moreover, Maduro mandated that any winning candidate must swear loyalty to the constituent assembly that has usurped the powers of the opposition-controlled legislative assembly.

By trumpeting this "win," Maduro undoubtedly hopes to undermine growing international censure and provide cover for his long-time backer China -- and new supporter Russia -- to provide him with a badly needed economic lifeline.

Instead, the opposite needs to happen. From Canada on down, many of the hemisphere's governments have blasted the irregularities of last weekend's farce. With a presidential election scheduled for next year, they need to push hard for a full audit, the restoration of independence to Venezuela's once vaunted electoral council, and the unhindered presence of outside election observers.

Governments need to expose and punish the complicity of Venezuela's highest officials in corruption scandals. They need to support the work by the Organization of American States to hold Venezuela to account for human rights abuses. More need to join coordinated sanctions against individuals accused of such crimes -- something the European Union is taking up this week. And the U.S. can ratchet up financial pressure on Venezuela by constricting its oil company's access to short-term credit, while signaling a greater willingness to ban exports of U.S. oil products to Venezuela and, if necessary, imports of Venezuelan oil. All these measures can and should be complemented by declarations of robust support, if Venezuela changes its ways, for international efforts to reschedule its mind-boggling debt and restart its economy.

Maduro wants to preserve the facade of democracy while hollowing out its rights and privileges. But democracies hold free, fair and transparent elections. They don't hold political prisoners. And they allow their citizens to peacefully express their beliefs and pursue their economic livelihoods. Until Venezuela returns to that path, steadfast pressure is the best way to ensure that its soft autocracy doesn't become a dictatorship.

    -- Editors: James Gibney, Michael Newman

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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