By Rohan Chatterjee
A year on from the death of Venezuela’s controversial socialist leader Hugo Chavez the country still find itself in the grip of political uncertainty (well, more so than usual).
In recent months opposition groups have regularly taken to the streets in some cities to protest high inflation, insecurity and scarcity of basic goods, leaving 40 dead and many more injured. One unifying belief for many in this mobilisation is that of struggle against an authoritarian regime. But, is Venezuela really a dictatorship?
Claims of illegitimacy had dogged Chavez and his PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) party since as early as the 2004 recall referendum; however they reached fever pitch in last April’s fiercely contested presidential election.
The previous October Venezuelans had already taken to the polls in record numbers with the then incumbent Hugo Chavez claiming a comfortable victory over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski by some 11 percentage points. However, the untimely death of the emblematic leftist leader in March of last year saw the OPEC nation take to the ballot box for a second time in seven months.
The inevitable void left by Chavez’s larger-than-life character was felt in the subsequent elections which saw his Vice-President and hand-picked successor, Nicholas Maduro, win the presidency by a slim margin over the repeat challenger Capriles. The official results announced by Tibisay Lucena, head of the independent CNE (National Electoral Council) late in the evening of April 14, gave Maduro an ‘’irreversible” victory of just 1.8 per cent, some 260,000 votes.
However, Capriles and his MUD (The Democratic Unity Roundtable) coalition immediately, in a public address, refused to recognise the result claiming electoral fraud, failures in the voting system and branding Maduro as the “defeated candidate”. In the following days, 15th and 16th April, both government and opposition supporters took to the streets in shows of support which saw nine deaths, many more injuries and some government institutions like medical centres and party offices attacked.
However, Capriles-led opposition claims of a stolen election – echoed in the many private newspapers – once investigated, are at best exaggerated and, at worst, power politics preying on a highly polarised society with tragic consequences.
The electoral process itself has been monitored by the independent Carter Centre (founded by former US President Jimmy Carter), a world leader in voter monitoring and active in Venezuela since 1998 producing reports on the electoral processes as well as sending observers. Carter, a Noble Peace Prize winner, assessed the “voting part” of the electoral process as “free and fair”, echoing previous assertions that: “of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world”. UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) have also strongly endorsed the systems with the delegation’s head for Chavez’s final elections, former Argentine Vice-President Carlos Alvarez, praising the qualities of Venezuela’s democratic institution.
Carter and Alvarez are referring to the advanced SAE electronic voting system which identifies voters by their fingerprints. In short, Electronic votes are accompanied by a paper receipt which individual voters check before depositing in sealed ballot boxes used for audits. One such audit took place on the Election Day, with 54 per cent of votes verified and signed off by witnesses from all parties at each polling station. The two records make it almost impossible to tamper as numbers must correspond. On the day in question CNE rector and opposition representative Vicente Diaz and Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program at the Carter Centre, adhered to the accuracy of post electoral audits.
Certainly the voting system had served Capriles and opposition interests well in the past, without protest. Capriles won the governorship of key State Miranda in 2012 by similar margins to what he would later contest. The opposition coalition equally accepted CNE results of a historic and politically embarrassing defeat for Chavez’s on proposed constitutional changes, again by similar margin to last April. Somewhat ironically, the CNE at the requests of MUD, oversaw primaries for Presidential candidates which saw Capriles nominated.
Following initial claims of electoral ‘fraud’, ambiguity and inconsistencies permeated from the Capriles camp. Initially an audit of the remaining 46 per cent was called for, with Capriles stating his belief that the unaudited ballots held crucial votes that cost him the presidency, with a final verdict to be accepted. Not unreasonable, a move supported by CNE’s Vicente Diaz, considering the closeness of the contest. As a result of mounting pressure Lucena, CNE director, accepted a full audit which confirmed Mr Maduro as the winning candidate; again Capriles refused to recognise the result. He upped his demands, claiming fingerprints and signature verifications, dismissed by Lucena as unfeasible, taking ‘years’ to complete. It is worth noting, at no point has Capriles, as promised, presented evidence of ‘irregularities’ or ‘fraud’, not at the recount, nor at national and international courts.
Capriles and his team, no fools of course, were aware the vote would stand. Their goal, more perverse, was never to overturn the decision but to unsettle and undermine a newly-elected (if not by a lot) government with allegations that would plague their time in office, limiting abilities to function and unifying opposition supporters in defiance. A common phrases, ubiquitous among protesters, be it in the streets or on twitter, ‘MaduroDictador’ (Maduro Dictator) and ‘Resistencia’ (Resistance) among others were used to champion violence and calls for a removal of the government, not by the ballot box but by force.
To that end, Venezuela is a highly complex and dangerously polarised society, suffering many problems for which blame can be reasonably laid at the government’s door. Within reason it can even be argued PSUV blurred the lines of ethical, and possibly legal, grey areas (read: campaign funding, TV exposure, arrest of opposition members and protestors). Hard facts, though, cannot be used to support claims of a stolen election and thus a dictatorial government, nor the violence that is inevitably justified by it.