Saturday, August 06, 2005

Venezuelan Election FAQ 

Q: What are the elections scheduled for this Sunday, August 7th?

The elections this Sunday will be for a variety of local offices, in particular town and city councils. For the most part these will NOT be elections for mayors or other higher-level positions. The only exceptions to this are a few smaller cities such as Miranda in the state of Carabobo and the special election for the governorship of the state of Amazonas. All told almost 38,575 candidates are vying for 5,399 different positions. Unlike some countries where there are only a handful of parties these candidates belong to 906 different political parties!

Q: How is the voting carried out?

Most voting is by computers with touch screens that have been specially designed for elections. They are the same machines used during last years presidential recall referendum. While the votes are recorded electronically they also give a paper printout of each vote which the voter then deposits in a box. At the end of the voting some of the machine totals are audited by comparing the automated totals to the papers in the box. In this election at least one machine at each voting center will be audited and it will be selected randomly by the election workers and party representatives at that site. Out of 25,694 voting centers only in 3,442 will people not use machines and vote manually.

Q: Will there be a high level of abstention and if so does that undermine their legitimacy?

For this type of local election with no major offices contested there has typically been a high level of abstention. There also may be some electoral fatigue given that Venezuela has had a large number of elections, approximately one every six months. Just last August there was a recall referendum on Chavez, and in the fall there were elections for governors and mayors. Later this year there will be elections for the National Assembly.

Also, some segments of the opposition, complaining that the vote is not fair or transparent, have called on people not to vote. The government and some other opposition parties by contrast have urged people to vote. So what the level of abstention turns out to be is one of the big points of interest in this election with a higher level of participation seen as favoring the Chavez administration and his political parties.

As a point of reference, in the last local elections in 2002 the level of abstention was 76.2%.

Q: Is the opposition boycotting the elections?

Partly yes and partly no. All the main opposition political parties, such as Primero Justicia, A.D., and COPEI are participating. The reason being that they currently occupy many of the offices up for election and don’t simply want to give them away by boycotting the vote. After all, given that this vote is locality by locality the opposition will be able to win a significant amount of positions in localities where most people support the opposition such as the wealthy areas of eastern Caracas. There have been some opposition members, mainly very small fringe parties that have few if any elected representatives, that have called for a boycott and they led a march of a couple thousand people last week. But as the small size of the march indicated there are few who back the boycott option.

Q: Is the Venezuelan electoral authority, the CNE, not legitimate?

This is an interesting question. Lately, some in the opposition have been questioning the legitimacy the five member board that runs the CNE because of the way that it was named. By law, the CNE is to be appointed by a two thirds vote of the National Assembly (AN). However, in 2003 when a new CNE board needed to be appointed this proved not to be possible. The reason being that the AN was very deeply divided between pro and anti Chavez forces. Because neither side in the AN has a two thirds majority and because they couldn’t agree on who the five board members should be it proved impossible for the board to be appointed by the AN. And without this CNE board there could be no elections. To get around this the Venezuelan Supreme Court went ahead and named the board members themselves.

This is problematic in that this is not how the CNE was to be named. However, no one complained, least of all the opposition, when it was done. The opposition was desperate to try to hold a recall referendum to oust Chavez and therefore wanted a CNE to be put in place regardless of how it was named. So the opposition was actually quite content for the CNE to be named that way. It allowed them to have the elections which they desired – which they went on to lose. Now that they know they have very little chance of winning any elections and they are simply trying in any way possible to discredit them they bring up this issue of how the CNE was named. But if they wanted to be credible on this issue they needed to have raised it when it first happened, not now.

Q: Is there a problem with the electoral registry – the opposition has alleged that they have not seen it and there are many voters incorrectly registered?

No, there is not any significant problem with the electoral registry. A significant number of false allegations have been made by the opposition, and in particular their shadow electoral authority, SUMATE (who is funded in part by the U.S. government) regarding the electoral authority. The electoral registry (REP by its Spanish initials) is the list of all people in Venezuela who are registered and eligible to vote.

Currently there are 14,363,690 registered voters. The opposition has been insistent that there be an audit of the list to verify its accuracy and make sure people who should not be on the list (people who are deceased, criminals, minors, etc.) are not on it. Also, they want to verify that people are registered in the correct locality. Contrary to what has been said by SUMATE and some opposition web sites the REP has been audited. The audit was being carried out by CAPEL which is the electoral observation branch of the Inter American Human Rights Commission based in Costa Rica. At the current time the outcome of their audit isn’t known.

However, at the time of the Presidential Recall Referendum in August 2005 SUMATE was given the complete REP which they thoroughly audited. They found 115,025 errors with people’s registrations (ie, people who shouldn’t have been registered or who had incorrect information such as wrong ID numbers) and 58,281 who had incorrect addresses. These errors constituted and error rate of about 1% given a total REP at that time of 14,245,615. For a database of this type that is a very low error rate. Given that there has been very little change in the size of the REP between then and now it can be reasonably concluded that the REP is fine and contains no significant errors. So this issue is a red herring based on factually incorrect information.

Q: Is the vote not secret?

Another accusation made by SUMATE is that by being automated the vote is not necessarily secret. Given that the votes are stored in a computer’s memory the government could in theory keep track of the order in which people vote and then compare that to the order in which votes are recorded in the computers memory to determine how individual people voted. In theory this could happen. But this is true not just for the vote in Venezuela but in pretty much any place where automated voting machines are used. The only sure way to avoid this is for all voting to be done with paper ballots that are randomly dropped in boxes and consist of paper that isn’t pre-marked. Almost no-one in the world votes this way if for no other reason than most people don’t want to wait days to find out who won.

Q: Has Chavez’s supporters broken the law by setting up a new political party?

A controversy has arisen regarding a new pro-Chavez party, the UVE. This party was recently set up and registered. The opposition claims it is a dummy party set up only to help more pro-Chavez candidates win than would otherwise possible. The reason has to do with how many election results are calculated in Venezuela. In some countries all candidates are directly elected from certain geographic areas. The U.S. and Britain use this system. In other countries office holders are voted in by list where each party gets a number of seats that is in proportion to its percentage of the overall vote. Israel and Italy use those types of systems. Venezuela combines both of those systems. In Venezuela some seats are decided by direct votes for particular candidates and others (for the same office) are decided by lists based on a political parties overall percentage of the vote. The rub is that to make sure minority parties are represented proportionally the number of seats of seats won by a party directly is subtracted from the number of seats that party is entitled to by the list voting. This is to ensure that the number of seats a party wins remains proportional to the percentage of the vote it gets.

One way of getting around this that has sometimes been used is to create a new political party that is nominally independent but really affiliated with a bigger established party. The bigger established party can then tell people to vote for its candidates directly but to vote for the new dummy party on the list part of the vote. Because they are technically separate parties the candidates that are directly elected wont be subtracted from the number elected by the list and these two parties, which are really one party, will be over represented.

The opposition is claiming that Chavez’s political party, the MVR, is doing just that by having set up a new dummy party for this election called the UVE. However, the MVR and UVE both deny that the UVE is a dummy party and insist it is a new and independent political party. The Venezuelan electoral authorities have ruled in favor of the UVE and are allowing it to stand in these elections.

Of all the opposition complaints this is probably the one that does have some merit. The UVE is indeed very new, was technically too late to register for these elections, and doesn’t have much in the way militants or anything that would indicate that it is truly independent. However, in defense of the electoral authorities they generally bend rules in favor of maximizing participation in the electoral process rather than using technicalities to exclude people. For example, the Venezuelan Constitution, in Article 67, mandates that the candidates of all political parties be chosen through internal elections (primaries). However, the only political party competing in these elections which held primaries is Chavez’s party, the MVR. All the opposition parties had their candidates chosen by the political bosses – they didn’t hold any primaries. So from a strictly legal point of view all the opposition candidates from Primero Justicia, A.D., etc. should not be allowed to participate in these elections. But again, the Venezuelan authorities bend over backwards to allow people to participate and it can well be argued that is what they have done in the case of the UVE.

Q: Are foreign observers coming and if not does that mean they disapprove of the way the elections are being held?

There are foreign “observers” coming to monitor the elections. For example, both the Organization of American States and CAPEL have delegations in Venezuela that will be observing the electoral process. However, they will not be observing the elections in the common sense of the word where they will be viewing all the steps, auditing the results, and ultimately verifying the accuracy of the official results. In elections of this nature it is not possible for observers to do that. The reason is quite straightforward.

Rather than having just one vote to be monitored as in a presidential election or dozens of elections as in a congressional election there are literally thousands of different contests in these local elections. So the observers would have to have the staff to monitor each and every one of these thousands of elections. For that you would need tens of thousands of observers which is beyond the means of any of the international election observing agencies. For that reason the Carter Center and the European Union do not send observers for local elections and declined to observe these elections despite being invited by the Venezuelan government. In part to offset any decline in confidence due to the vote not having an outside audit the electoral authorities have announced that the onsite electoral workers and political party representatives will do a complete audit of at least one machine per voting center by matching its results to the paper ballots.

Q: Do the pro-Chavez candidates have an unfair advantage and are state resources being used to favor them?

This is an interesting question the formulation of which shows a certain bias. The opposition has maintained for quite some time that the Chavez administration has been using state resources to win political support. For example, one will often hear statements such as Chavez’s social programs are an attempt to “buy” votes. Certainly, one can look at a government implementing popular programs as an attempt to gain political influence.

However, from most people’s point of view that is precisely how government and politics is supposed to work. People elect governments that they expect will best provide services and improve their quality of life. Governments try to implement programs that do just those things. In turn, political leaders hope that the electorate will appreciate those efforts and will reward them at the ballot box for implementing successful program. Viewed this way Chavez’s social programs and other policies are a successful effort to do the greatest good for the greatest number of Venezuelans. That they in turn create political benefits for the Chavez government and influence people to vote for him is simply the way politics is supposed to work in a democracy.

Of course, the incumbent government does have an advantage over its opponents in that by being in power it is in a position to implement popular programs. But that is completely normal and is referred to as the “power of incumbency”.

Q: Who is going to win?

I’m a blog writer, not a fortune teller. But all polls in Venezuela have been showing for some time now that Chavez and the MVR are far more popular than any of their opponents. It is therefore widely expected pro-Chavez candidates will win most of these elections.


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