Venezuela Elections: On the Front Lines

Last week I was invited by the opposition Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD) in Venezuela to serve as an election observer in the presidential elections where Hugo Chavez was seeking reelection after 14 years in office against the opposition candidate, the young, marathon-running  Henrique Capriles Radonski. By the time Sunday dawned, there were high hopes that the Capriles candidacy could make great strides in obtaining votes, and perhaps win the election.

On Sunday morning, October 7, my international group of observers was ready to set out. We had received our credentials from the MUD office, but the government electoral authority (CNE) did not recognize our electoral observer status. Only observers from friendly countries of the UNASUR pact were allowed: no Carter Center, no European Union, and no Organization of American States delegations were permitted full observer status. My group was hoping that the local polling stations would be open and friendly enough to allow us in, despite our compromised status.

That was a big assumption, given that we were headed to one of the biggest Chavez supporting areas of Caracas, La Vega, which also is very poor and sometimes violent. My group of Spaniards, Argentines and me, the lone American, were ready to take on our assignment. But we did not know what to expect.

As it turned out, we had little to fear. We observed six voting centers, walking from one to the next. No one was hostile to us. A few Chavez supporters joked with us and quite a few Capriles supporters greeted us in the neighborhood with a shout of “Hay un Camino,” the campaign slogan of Capriles, meaning “There is a Way.”

At the voting centers themselves, we saw no evidence of any fraud taking place. In every one, the center chief took great pride in upholding the secrecy of the voting process and the constitutional process that was supposed to be respected. We did ask about how voter turnout had been, and by midday it seemed that the centers had received half to two-thirds of their voters at their tables. What did this mean for the outcome?

The MUD had pressed their voters to go early in the day to vote, and my guess was that was exactly what happened. That explains why a number of international exit polls called the election for Capriles by a narrow margin. Those calls were based on morning exit polls.

The afternoon presented a different scenario. Here’s my take on what happened on that afternoon. We had noticed a lot of motorcycles speeding through the neighborhoods. We found them loud, annoying and potentially dangerous. As it turns out, they were extremely dangerous to the opposition effort. Aware that he was behind in votes and that his supporters were not turning out, Chavez mobilized supporters through the use of those motorcyclists, who were paid on the order of 1,000 bolivars  (US$232) to get voters out to the polls. Voters were threatened with not receiving benefits, such as government housing, if they did not vote for the candidate. Over the course of the last four hours of voting, 2 million Chavez votes came in.

Voter mobilization campaigns are nothing new in Venezuela, that much is true. But what was the cost of this one? An estimated US$465 million, probably acquired from the national oil company’s funds.

Later that night, and not knowing what happened in the afternoon, the opposition party headquarters was energized with the idea of a possible win. An unimaginable sadness hit later that night when the word got out that the CNE was going to announce a landslide vote in favor of Hugo Chavez. At once, fireworks that had been placed all around opposition party headquarters in the affluent neighborhood of Chacao were launched, giving the feel for those inside the headquarters that a military attack had begun. The effect was the equivalent of a knife being twisted in a wound.

Henrique Capriles was stoic in his concession speech and called upon his supporters to keep up the fight. This will be an important call as gubernatorial elections will take place in December. If the opposition is to remain relevant to the political process, a call to unity to obtain governorships will be key. The opposition will also have a chance to pick up mayoral slots in elections during the first part of next year.

The Venezuelan opposition has nothing to feel sorry for in these elections, other than the fact that they did not win as they hoped. They garnered 45 percent of the vote—the largest opposition showing against Chavez ever. Moreover, Chavez illegally mobilized government resources against his opponent, including the use of government controlled media and communications “chains” that force private stations to broadcast government announcements. He controlled all government institutions involved in the election process, including the CNE, and prohibited all internationally accepted election observers. He conducted fear campaigns among government workers that would lose their jobs, and among poor Venezuelan citizens who would lose benefits if they did not vote for him.

What did all of that gain him? Not even a 10 percent margin over his opponent. President Chavez would be well advised with these results to listen to the opposition and the 6 million voters they represent who really do want another path for their country.

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