Venezuela's Elections-September 26
Sunday, September 26, Venezuelans will elect the members of their national assembly for the next five years. No one can foretell the outcome of the elections. The stakes are high.
If the opposition can win one third of the seats, they will be able to effectively put brakes on many of the Chávez government’s proposals. But, whatever the outcome, there are some things to keep in mind.
One: the electoral process in Venezuela is one of the finest in the world. I am not able to vote in these national elections because I am not a Venezuelan citizen. But, as a person who has more than ten years residency in the country, Venezuela does give me the right to vote in local and state elections and so I can personally describe the process.
First, one has to be registered to vote. Upon arriving at the proper election place, there is a list indicating which of the voting tables has your personal information and the voting machine you will use. You are required to show proper identification, sign that you have come to vote, and put a thumb print alongside your signature.
All voting is then done electronically, but when you have touched the button to register your vote, you also receive a printout of your choices which you then deposit in a ballot box. (After the elections, 54% of these are checked to verify that they conform to the results of the electronic results). Finally you are required to dip the small finger of your right hand in a cleansing solution to remove any oils before dipping it in a bottle of indelible ink that is impossible to remove for several days, thus preventing a person from returning to vote more than once.
In Venezuela, elections are conducted by the National Electoral Commission, an independent branch of the government. In the United States we have the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Venezuela has two more, the electoral branch and what is called the “peoples’ branch,” which includes the attorney general’s office, the national ombudsman, and the national comptroller. Regarding the National Electoral Commission, it means that the election process does not vary from state to state as it does in the United States.
To the best of my memory, every national election in Venezuela has had international observers, including the Carter Center, and their evaluations have been universally positive. Through the years, the Electoral Commission has worked hard to satisfy the demands of all the political actors. However—
Two: if the opposition scores a victory in these elections, it will be recognized by government supporters. But if the candidates aligned with the current government maintain control of the National Assembly, some in the opposition will cry “fraud.”
I base what I have written on past experience. When the Carter Center said in 2004 that the referendum that attempted to remove Chávez from power was fair, Jimmy Carter was harassed by people beating on their plates in an upscale Caracas restaurant. Chávez won the referendum 58 to 42 percent. When Manuel Rosales announced to his followers that he had lost the 2006 presidential elections, he was heckled by his followers for accepting the defeat. Chávez’s margin of victory that time was 63 to 37 percent of the votes!
In contrast, when Chávez lost the referendum in 2007 for a major reform of the constitution by less than a percentage point, he accepted the results. However, the anger that I saw on the faces of the opposition leaders that night before the results were announced made it very clear that they would not have accepted a decision of the voters had they lost by any percentage.
The party Chávez leads, the PSUV, has said that it will recognize the results given by the National Electoral Commission, whatever they might be. The opposition coalition has not been willing to make a similar statement.
Three: If the opposition does not gain control of 1/3 of the National Assembly, it is highly likely there will be student protests the following days.
Venezuela uses school buildings, in many cases, as polling places. As a result, schools are usually closed on a national level for a few days before and a few days after the elections. This year schools were supposed to start classes September 20, but the Education Ministry postponed the starting date to October 4.
My first reaction was that this was too long of a delay. Classes could have started one day after the election on September 28. Then the thought occurred to me that the later date was chosen by the Ministry so as to avoid student protests—should the results be unfavorable to the opposition.
However, the universities in Venezuela are private or autonomous. Thus it didn’t surprise me when I saw that the Catholic university and the Central University in Caracas were going to begin on September 20 anyway. By far, the largest percentage of their students are from the upper classes which make up the base of support for the opposition. In a subtle, but not so-subtle, manner, the university authorities were giving a tacit approval to demonstrations if their students and their parents were not happy with the results.
Four: Don’t expect balanced reporting on the election whatever the results are. I give two examples: 1) in Venezuela, the radio and television stations that carry CNN news belong to the opposition; and, 2) in Caracas the Associated Press has its offices in the building belonging to one of the principal anti-government newspapers. Here are a few things to watch in the international reporting.
As soon as the polling places close, you can expect exit-poll results to appear. These have been extremely manipulated in the past so as to give the opposition an opportunity to cry fraud if the results are not their liking. There is no reason to expect something else in this election.
The opposition will certainly gain some seats in the National Assembly. They would have won some in the elections five years ago, had they not pulled out at the last moment—a decision that was imposed by some of their leaders and that is regretted by them to this day.
You can expect whatever seats they win to be portrayed as a fact that Chávez is slipping in his popularity. I doubt this. If it were true, the opposition would have called for a referendum to oust him last year.
To repeat what I wrote at the beginning, no one can say what the results of the elections will be. But I think certain reactions can be predicted with some accuracy, whatever the results might be. Time will tell if I am right.
(Charles Hardy has lived in Venezuela for over 25 years and is author of Cowboy in Caracas: A North American’s Memoir of Venezuela’s Democratic Revolution, published by Curbstone Press. Other essays by Hardy can be found on his personal blog www.cowboyincaracas.com. You may write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)