By Vivian Sequera and Keren Torres
CARACAS/BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela – Dressed in dark blue vests bearing the logo of the European Union, two election observers toured voting sites ahead of Sunday’s election in Venezuela’s capital Caracas, part of their first mission to the South American country in 15 years.
The observers – among 44 deployed at the end of October in 22 of Venezuela’s 23 states – visited schools that will be voting locations and are open early so citizens can learn about new voting machines. Military personnel, tasked with poll security, left the observers to poke around.
Venezuelans will elect local councils, mayors and state governors in a Nov. 21 contest set to include opposition parties, which boycotted presidential elections in 2018 and a parliamentary vote in 2020.
The opposition allege President Nicolas Maduro and his party notched illegitimate wins in those previous contests.
The United States and dozens of other countries do not recognize Maduro’s administration. Venezuela is suffering a prolonged economic and social crisis, exacerbated by tough U.S. sanctions that have slashed oil exports.
The E.U. – which has not sent an electoral observation mission to Venezuela since 2006 – has faced criticism from some opposition figures who say its presence implicitly legitimizes Maduro’s government.
“The sending of an electoral mission does not in anyway mean recognition or rejection of any authority,” said Xabier Meilan, the mission’s second-in-command.
Whether Maduro’s government will follow any of the mission’s recommendations – an initial portion of which will be published 48 hours after the vote – “depends on the country’s political forces,” Meilan said.
“We don’t have the desire nor the capacity to impose anything,” he said.
Supporters of the mission hope it will highlight alleged government abuses decried by the opposition: arrest warrants for politicians who have since fled the country; the banning of others from running; moving voters on Socialist-party funded buses; judicial rulings which removed some parties from ballots; and registration tents near voting points to track which government supporters cast ballots.
Opposition figures have questioned the fairness of constant coverage of government candidates on state television and sales of subsidized food ahead of polling day.
“I don’t ask (Venezuelans) for faith. I ask for patience, for them to wait until we get the report out,” Meilan said. “We don’t want to interfere. We won’t produce a report that is in any way biased.”
WATCHING FOR HARASSMENT
By election day the team will number 100 observers, Meilan said, with staff set to be present at some 1,000 of the country’s 14,400 polling places.
“We’ve gotten tired of saying ‘the mission I represent and that I’m working on here is an independent mission. It’s impartial and it’s neutral,'” said Slovak observer Petra Sulovska, as she left a voting information center in Caracas.
In areas of Tachira, on the border with Colombia, observers are watching whether candidates and parties can campaign free from harassment.
In western Barquisimeto, German staffer Thomas Leszke said observers are compiling statistics to track whether any problems are isolated, but “we are not policemen and we cannot interfere in the electoral process.”
Any irregularities will be reported to the head of the mission, Portuguese parliamentarian Isabel Santos, he said.
“We will give the information to the head of the mission,” Leszke said. “We will be totally honest with her.”
(Reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Keren Torres in Barquisimeto; Additional reporting by Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Daniel Wallis)