The U.S. delegation found that the voting in Venezuela’s 2009 referendum was, overall, fair, transparent, and clean. While there were a few instances of technical problems, we were impressed by the efficiency and simplicity with which Venezuelan voters were able to express their preferences. We often found ourselves wishing that elections in the United States were conducted with such uniform professionalism and care, and that the election results could be tallied as quickly. Our observations of Venezuelan popular democracy in action stand in marked contrast with media depictions of Venezuela’s government as autocratic.
History of Constitutional Reform
The 2009 referendum on term limits was the third such consultation on the Venezuelan constitution to be held since Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998. The first was the constitutional reform in 1999, which formally established the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and represented the first time a constitution had been approved by popular vote in the country’s history. The second referendum, held in 2007, was to amend 69 articles of the constitution, and included two blocks of amendments that were both voted down.
Constitutional reforms and amendments, as outlined in Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution, can be proposed by the president, the National Assembly, or 15 percent of registered voters through petitioning. The 2009 referendum was proposed in an amendment introduced in the National Assembly. The Constitution requires that proposals for constitutional reform and constitutional amendments must be debated three times in the National Assembly, changed if required, and then each change must be approved by two thirds of the members of the National Assembly to move forward. At that point, any proposed changes must be voted on by Venezuela’s citizens in a national referendum within 30 days.
History of Electoral Observers
Chávez has garnered wide international attention and scrutiny since the Constitutional Reform of 1999 and his subsequent electoral victory in 2000. In an attempt to diffuse any possible criticism and guarantee the highest level of transparency during elections, the CNE invited international electoral observers to monitor every election and referendum between 2000 and 2008. Despite critiques from Chávez’ opposition and some Western nations, Venezuela’s elections have been internationally certified as free and fair.
Following the December 2, 2007, referendum, the Carter Center congratulated the CNE “for the measured and responsible management of this critical democratic exercise and their efforts to strengthen the guarantees the electoral system offers the citizens.” Overall, international accolades for transparency consistently describe Venezuela’s current electoral process.
February 15, 2009 Referendum
The February 15, 2009 Referendum asked the people of Venezuela to vote on whether or not to amend five articles of the Constitution. These amendments would change the 1999 Constitution, which prohibits most elected officials from serving more than two consecutive terms in office, by removing these limits on reelection. These modifications specifically sought to change articles 160, 162, 174, 192, and 230, removing the term limits for governors, state legislators, mayors, National Assembly representatives, and the president. While approval of the amendments by referendum removes term limits, it still requires that elected officials be reelected each term (term lengths vary by position).
The question posed to the voters in the referendum was as follows: “Do you approve of amending articles 160, 162, 174, 192, and 230 of the Constitution of the Republic, as proposed by the National Assembly, which would expand the political rights of the people with the aim of allowing any citizen who holds a publicly elected office to be nominated as a candidate for the same office, for the constitutionally established term, exclusively depending on their election via popular vote?”
According to CNE officials, the international recognition of Venezuela’s recent history of transparent, free, and fair elections made hosting international observers unnecessary. Nevertheless, the CNE invited 98 international electoral accompaniers, predominately from countries throughout Latin America and Europe as well as the Middle East and North America. As accompaniers, rather than full-fledged observers, the delegation was present in Caracas from February 12 to 17 to observe the voting process on the day of the referendum (February 15) and conduct interviews with members of the Venezuelan government and civil society.
Goals of Delegation
The delegation’s goals were to:
1. Gain a preliminary understanding of the pre-referendum environment based on conversations with members of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Venezuela.
2. Observe the referendum vote on Sunday, February 15, 2009.
3. Deepen personal and organizational understanding of the Venezuelan electoral process.
4. Contribute to domestic and international press coverage of the results of the referendum.
5. Offer observations and recommendations to the CNE, CSO, and elected officials.
Particular attention was paid by delegation members to the ways Afro-Venezuelan, indigenous, and socio-economically marginalized citizens were incorporated into the electoral system.