The kinds and extent of fraud already being applied by the Venezuelan government to the crucial elections today are unprecedented. Having originally won election to the presidency in 1999 in a remarkably clean contest, Hugo Chavez has progressively moved the process to one of unmitigated electoral larceny.
Election irregularities are nothing new in the United States or virtually any democratic country, but Venezuela’s pilfer process starts well before the day the votes are cast and counted.
In August, 400 opposition candidates for state and municipal posts were initially declared ineligible for trumped-up reasons ranging from poorly prepared applications to corruption charges. The predictable reaction to such a blatantly bogus move resulted in 276 candidates finally being blocked from competing.
It seems possible the climbdown from 400 was preplanned, the government having taken its lead from Iran, which has regularly reinstated roughly 65 percent of candidates initially declared ineligible, in a move designed to show how reasonable the authorities have been in vetting prospective candidates.
Once a number of opposition candidates were eliminated, Mr. Chavez’s next public move was to announce he would withhold national government financial support from states that elected opposition governors. With state-owned oil monopoly PDVSA providing more than 50 percent of all government income, the threat was clearly designed to have a chilling effect on opposition voters.
The fraud potential on election day is staggering. For example, voting lists have previously been completely jumbled, making it almost impossible to verify a challenged voter’s eligibility.
Voting machines and related systems are so rigged that virtually any manipulation is possible. The control center can change results on one or every machine, to accommodate “requirements,” as one dissident official told me. Most frightening in Venezuela’s police state climate, it is possible for authorities to determine for whom any individual has voted in past and current elections, a fact the government is not disappointed to have leaked to nervous citizens.
Alfredo Weil, dean of election organization and monitoring in Venezuela, is widely respected throughout Latin America. Director general of Venezuela’s Supreme Electoral Council from 1974-84 and again in 1993-94, he is a founding director of ESDATA, privately organized to assure clean elections.
Mr. Weil puts the case simply: “Voting is a human right, and the challenge is to assure that each vote is impartial, transparent and secret. This has been enshrined in the United Nations charter, by the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but it is not honored in Venezuela. Our computerized voting system violates every one of these three basic tenets of fair democratic voting.”
Mr. Weil is confident his organization and thousands of volunteers can capture accurate readings from the country’s voting machines, and ESDATA is committed to make the results known to any and every one interested. “But that’s the end of the line. They can manipulate the count during the voting day, thereby affecting the final tally; they can spread the word that they know how people vote, thereby destroying the concept of secrecy and intimidating many voters. Unfortunately, they are many, many ways to commit vote fraud.”
Gerardo Blyde, opposition mayoral candidate of Baruta, one of five municipalities comprising metro Caracas, is one of many who see significant wins by the opposition. However, he believes “the government will make every effort to change the election results. They have done it before and there is only so much we can do to keep the elections clean. We need 120,000 poll watchers across the country on election day, but we will only have between 80,000 and 90,000.”
Despite the daunting challenges, most opposition observers are cautiously optimistic about their chances. “Chavez is running scared,” observes a widely respected university professor. “He’s not just attacking opposition candidates; he’s publicly condemning members of his own coalition. On top of that, he makes wild threats to not fund states that elect opposition governors. These outbursts only strengthen the opposition.”
The overall electoral situation was most recently put into focus by disaffected former close Chavez associate Luis Miquilena. Handpicked by Mr. Chavez as president of the 1999 National Constitutional Assembly and as interior and justice minister, Mr. Miquilena held a devastating press conference urging Venezuelans to vote against the chavistas on Nov. 23.
“In recent years, far from rectifying things, the president has placed the country in a trance, one that could very possibly cause us to lose our democracy. He has created an economic crisis that has increased poverty and plunged us into social violence,” Mr. Miquilena charged.
“The president has imposed aggression, violence and militarism, in place of promoting the peace that the Constitution of 1999 established as a fundamental principle. He has kidnapped the powers of our national institutions, controlling them totally himself. He seeks to remain forever in power through re-elections, contrary to the constitution and against which the people voted on Dec. 2, 2007.”
“The government has disqualified those candidates who had the best chance of winning on Nov. 23,” he continued. “No one is greater than the people, least of all you, Mr. President. The will of the people is sacred!
“The president… fears Venezuelans will vote against him in the elections, because the incapability, waste and corruption of his government, has made us lose our most important chance of economic development in the last 40 years, has weakened us and has left us extremely vulnerable prior to the worldwide recession.”
In the days following Luis Miquilena’s denunciation of President Chavez, the government mounted a predictably vicious counterattack, but observers believe Mr. Miquilena’s former position and prestige can have a beneficial effect similar to Mr. Chavez’s ex-defense minister, Luis Isaias Baduel, shortly before the opposition’s first victory in the constitutional elections of December 2007.
The opposition needs all the help it can get in a situation where the chavista government does everything possible to inhibit its opponents’ electoral chances.
Fortunately, Hugo Chavez’s quixotic behavior appears to be helping the opposition. Pollsters have found that eliminating valid anti-Chavez candidates and threatening to cut off federal grants to state governments have had a negative effect.
Moreover, during my recent visit to Caracas, Mr. Chavez actually publicly humiliated the head of the second ranking party in his ruling coalition.
Nevertheless, the potential for electronic ballot box stuffing – or its reverse, if necessary – is enormous. Lovers of serious democracy will need all the expertise Alfredo Weil and his colleagues at ESDATA can muster, fearless and tireless efforts by dedicated volunteer poll watchers – plus resolute voter determination to send their national leader a strong message.