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October 2012

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Venezuelan Irony
A Tainted Election with the World’s Best Vote- Counting System
by Theodore Wilkinson

Venezuela’s national elections on October 7, 2012, were a battleground between two opposing coalitions with radically different visions – the Democratic Unity Roundtable, dedicated to preserving what’s left of democratic pluralism in the country, and the constellation in power that revolves around Venezuela’s 21st Century caudillo Hugo Chavez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, which promises to complete the socialist transformation of the economy. The campaign playing field was so heavily tilted in favor of President Chavez that any challenge by an opposition candidate seemed daunting. One might have expected the Chavez team to have jiggered the electoral machinery accordingly, so as to ensure a dismal opposition showing. Ironically, the electoral machinery worked smoothly and appears to have been unimpeachable.

A solid endorsement of the election day mechanics came in a report presented at the Woodrow Wilson Center on September 7 by two eminent, non-partisan Latin American electoral authorities – Jose Woldenburg, former president of the Mexican Federal Electoral Institute and Genaro Arriagada, former Chilean Minister of the Presidency and Ambassador to the US. After a study mission to Venezuela, the two statesmen detailed the system, which provides for three separate means of verification of vote tallies, including but not limited to checks at each polling station of the counting process by observers of each of the parties. Other observers noted that the opposition this year was well organized and mobilized, in contrast to earlier years in Venezuela. Democratic Unity had lined up 120,000 observers, three for each polling station, with 80,000 more volunteers in support activities.

The report authors conservatively concluded that “the system has flaws and is not absolutely infallible…. Nevertheless, we are convinced that it is reliable, allows for oversight and monitoring by the opposition, and rules out the possibility of massive fraud that would go undetected.” (www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/Venezuela_Elections_Summary.pdf)

Speaking in Atlanta in mid-September, former President Carter went well beyond Srs. Woldenberg and Arriagada in praising the election day system, maintaining that: “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we {the Carter Center} have monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.” (1) (http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/7272)

Jennifer McCoy, who has headed the Carter Center’s observer missions to Venezuela in the past, confirmed that the Center had found the country’s electoral system safe and trustworthy. (2)

In a testimony to the system’s credibility this year, losing candidate Henrique Capriles made a prompt and forthright concession statement with no allegations of irregularities shortly after results were made known in the evening of October 7, showing a record turnout and 45 percent for him, 54 percent for Chavez.

In contrast to their certification of the soundness of the election day machinery, the Wilson Center experts found that: “…the greatest weakness of the process lies in the inequitable conditions of competition. Media coverage is not even moderately balanced.” They pointed out that the president could and frequently did demand TV and radio time on all stations for speeches that often ran for hours. The government also had a guaranteed ten minutes per day for “institutional messages” plus three minutes for “campaign messages.” The election rules allowed Capriles only the three daily minutes of campaign statements.

Apart from campaign limitations, the remaining TV networks not yet controlled by the state have learned from experience over the last decade to mute their criticisms of the government . The most popular, RCTV, had its license revoked in 2007, apparently for controversial broadcasts at the time of the abortive 2002 anti-Chavez coup — an action that was condemned as an infringement of the free press in resolutions of the US and the Brazilian Senates. Globovision, another network, has been subjected to repeated harassment, including a $2 million fine last year for airing footage of a prison riot.

In attempt to define the election atmospherics, the Wilson Center experts observed that “on the government side, politics is experienced as a kind of ‘revolutionary gesture’, in which adversaries appear as irreconcilable enemies, agents of foreign interests, or defenders of unmentionable minority interests.” In contrast, Democratic Unity had made efforts to temper polarization. To the experts, what was “striking to foreign eyes is that it is the government that promotes polarization,” as opposed the norm, when “governments call for unity based on the idea that they are working for everyone.”

Other observers reported electoral distortions involving a combination of government promises and veiled threats. Even though Capriles vowed to maintain the impressive social welfare structure that Venezuela’s petrodollars have financed during Chavez’s 14 years in office, the president warned that these benefits would disappear if he were defeated. It’s undeniable that these benefits have created a strong emotional link between Chavez and his political base. Particularly at risk would be a government-sponsored construction program, under which more than three million Venezuelans are registered to receive new housing. Nor were Venezuelans in general as convinced as the Woodrow Wilson experts (and the leadership of the opposition) that their votes would be secret. Public employees were asked to submit forms with their signatures and fingerprints showing where they would vote, hinting at accountability. Some lower-level government officials went so far as to scare voters with threats that their votes would be known. Many Venezuelans remembered that the names of signatories of the 2004 referendum petition had been made public; a number had lost their jobs. Venezuelan opponents of Chavez claim that the fear factor may have swayed a significant number of voters.

The election was further tainted by sporadic orchestrated harassment of the opposition by groups of red-shirted chavistas showing up to throw stones or otherwise disrupt their rallies. From my own experience as a 2004 recall election observer, the mere presence of these red-shirted mobs around polling places was intimidating.

The Venezuelan electoral system will be tested again on December 16 in gubernatorial and provincial elections, in which Democratic Unity has fielded candidates, but most of the distortions that tainted the October 7 polls will continue to apply.

The tilted 2012 election playing field is symptomatic of the hollowing out of democratic institutions – executive, legislative, judicial – that the Chavez administration has inflicted on the country. There is no space to catalogue these malignant changes here, but there is no doubt that they will ultimately by reversed by the nation that produced Simon Bolivar and Francisco de Miranda. Depending on Chavez’s uncertain state of health, there could be another presidential election within the next four years. In that event, the young and dynamic Henrique Capriles would have an ever better chance of overcoming an officially stacked deck than this time, and could begin the process of restoring real democracy.

Notes

(1) In his Atlanta statement, Carter also used the occasion to criticize the current US electoral system as “one of the worst electoral processes in the world, and it’s almost entirely because of the excessive influx of money.” The allusion was not just to the Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision facilitating unlimited contributions to super-PACs. Speaking earlier in Washington at the IADB Conference of the Americas on September 6, Carter touted the US system of public financing instituted during his presidency, and lamented that presidential candidates in this century had abandoned it even before the Supreme Court decision.

(2) Some Venezuelan observers disagreed, maintaining that the balloting system did not have the same safeguards when it was used in the 2004 recall referendum on Chavez’s 2000-2006 term. Allegations that fraud could have occurred in 2004 have been addressed in a number of statistical studies.


AuthorMr. Wilkinson’s first Foreign Service assignment was to Caracas, Venezuela. Later assignments included Tegucigalpa, Mexico City, Brasilia, Stockholm, Brussels (USNATO), and Geneva. Since retirement after nearly 40 years of US Government service, he has lectured frequently at George Washington University, the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, and various civic organizations. He is a contributing author of “Terrorism and Peacekeeping: New Security Challenges,” published by Praeger in 2005. From 2005 to 2011 he served as chairman of the editorial board of the monthly Foreign Service Journal.


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