The Electoral System
The 1947 constitution guaranteed universal suffrage and direct elections by secret ballot, but the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship abrogated these guarantees. Free and fair elections have been held regularly since 1958; voter turnout has been high, especially for national offices.
Voter registration and participation in elections are compulsory for all eligible citizens. Penalties exist for failing to vote, but they were seldom enforced as of 1990. All citizens over eighteen years of age, except members of the armed forces on active duty and persons serving prison sentences, are eligible to vote. There are no literacy, property, or gender requirements for voting.
With the exception of the president, all candidates for national and local offices run on lists as members of a party. Each party issues a party list with its more prominent members at the top. Candidates are elected on a proportional basis according to the number of colored ballots cast for their party and their position on the list.
Elections are supervised and directed by the Supreme Electoral Council (Consejo Supremo Electoral--CSE), which consists of thirteen members chosen every two years by Congress. The CSE heads an electoral system composed of state, district, and municipal electoral boards. The CSE is responsible for registering eligible voters, operating the polling places, counting the votes, ruling on appeals from lower electoral boards, settling controversies between parties, and other electoral matters. No political party may have a majority on the CSE or any of the lower boards.
Presidential, legislative, district, and municipal elections are held once every five years. The president is elected by a simple plurality, and congressional representatives are selected on the basis of a system of proportional representation for the major parties. The minor party representation is determined by dividing the total number of votes cast by the total number of persons directly elected to calculate the number of votes necessary to award a seat to a party. In the 1973 elections, minority parties gained one seat in the Senate for each 98,491 votes they received. In this way three parties that did not win Senate seats through the direct elections nevertheless gained a total of five seats in the upper house. In addition to the six parties that won seats in the Chamber of Deputies by direct election, six other parties were awarded seats under the quotient system.
Despite efforts, such as the quotient system, that sought to accommodate minority parties, the Venezuelan electorate remained loyal to the two major political groups that have dominated the system since 1958, AD and COPEI. In the congressional elections of December 4, 1988, AD received 43.3 percent of the total, COPEI 31.1 percent. The closest competitor at the polls was the leftist coalition that united the Movement Toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo--MAS) and the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria--MIR), which obtained 10.2 percent of the total. Small groupings of rightist and personalistic orientations garnered a combined total of only 7.6 percent. The balance went to a variety of very small parties; the Venezuelan Communist Party (Partido Comunista de Venezuela--PCV), attracted only 0.9 percent of the vote.
The elections held since 1958, as a whole, have been noteworthy not only for their high voter turnout, but also for the increasing sense of legitimacy they have conferred upon the winners. Domestic and foreign observers alike have praised Venezuelan elections as fair and highly competitive. Over the years, as AD and COPEI have become the dominant political parties, a return to the traditional fragmentation of the Venezuelan political system has become increasingly unlikely. The fact that on four occasions before the 1990s a president from one party handed over the mantle to the president-elect of another party seemed to augur well for a general acceptance of the democratic system. Increased legitimacy at home has also provided Venezuelan presidents with an international clout they would otherwise lack.
The December 1989 gubernatorial and mayoral elections, however, might presage a certain undermining of this sense of legitimacy. Abstention reached a record level, with estimates suggesting that some 60 percent of the nearly 10 million registered voters did not cast ballots--substantially greater than the 41 percent abstention rate recorded in the previous municipal elections held in 1984. This sense of apathy and alienation may have been heightened by a decline in the quality of life during 1989, by an unprecedented crime wave, and by a deterioration of public services.
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