By Larry Fisk
In one week Venezuelans will choose a president. Having experience in Nicaragua during elections, including last year’s presidential and legislative elections, I arrived in Venezuela a week ago to be present during the process leading up to the Sunday, Oct.7 presidential election and its aftermath. During the past week I have spent time in Caracas and the states of Carabobo and Aragua learning about the electoral system, meeting people, getting input on the voting process, political sympathies, level of respect for the electoral authority and expectations for the immediate post-election period.
A vibrant electoral process is taking place and the public is well aware of the two major candidates and their electoral propaganda. Electoral information and materials, sample ballots, media coverage, billboards, posters, graffiti, T-shirts, caps, caravans of vehicles supporting one candidate or the other are omnipresent.
Most people made up their minds long ago. The right-wing candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, has taken to portraying himself as a progressive, a man of the future who would preserve and improve the social missions that the Chávez government has initiated, build houses, provide health care, education, etc.
Poor people I have met who have received their new housing from Gran Mision Vivienda, which plans to build three million houses and apartments by 2017, see Capriles differently. They are committed to the government and the president who have moved them from shacks, “ranchos”, into homes with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and appliances. I have been in apartments and houses which are finished and occupied and seen thousands of others under construction. The Venezuelans who will be living in them see a better future for themselves and their children, but “only with Chávez!” Similarly, they feel that the vastly improved educational opportunities, free universal medical care and many other social improvements would be lost without President Chávez.
Venezuelan elections are administered by the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) in accordance with the 1999 constitution. The system is electronic, standardized throughout the country and perhaps the most modern and secure in the world. What was already an excellent system was improved for this election. The CNE held simulation elections in August and September with some voters going to the polls to test the equipment, logistics and process while allowing the CNE to assess the time required to vote and fine tune the procedure for election day. After the simulations the CNE established a large number of “Ferias Electorales” throughout the country in parks, malls and other public places. These tables are equipped with the electronic voting machines, information and CNE personnel who instruct citizens in use of the machines.
In the city of Maracay I visited one Feria to practiced voting with Venezuelan citizens who were familiarizing themselves with the process. Since it was a practice vote one didn’t need a cedula (ID) with number and thumb print that will be required on Oct. 7. I put my thumb in the scanner which opens the machine to allow a vote to be cast. An electronic ballot with the pictures of bogus candidates was on the table beside the voting machine. Although it will only take a minute or so on average to vote, a six minute time limit allows the voter to push pictures on the pad to choose one of the seven candidates whose photo then appears on the voting machine screen. Once the “votar” button on the screen has been pushed the vote is final. I changed my choice of nonexistent candidates several times and then made a final choice and voted. The machine prints a paper record of the vote which I deposited in the sealed box provided.
After the voting on Oct. 7th, 56% of polling tables (a percentage far in excess of the number necessary to statistically verify the integrity of the results) will be randomly and publicly audited to verify that the paper votes match the electronic totals. Like voters I interviewed, I found the process to be simple and intuitive. According to a local newspaper, more than 50,000 voters in the state of Aragua visited the Ferias Electorales. It would be hard to imagine a population which has been provided with more information and opportunities to familiarize themselves with a voting process or been more encouraged to participate.
In the city of La Victoria I met a local CNE official with responsibility for 225 voting tables who spent an hour explaining the electoral system and technology and invited me to attend a class for the training of the workers who will run the “Mesas Electorales” on election day. I was provided with a training manual on the functioning of the mesas and attended a two hour class with citizens who were being trained to set up the voting sites, receive and identify voters, administer and facilitate the voting process and verify and document the integrity of the electoral process. The president, secretary and members of each table and alternates are chosen by “sorteo”, a random selection from all registered voters. Those selected who choose to work in the election are paid something for their time. The class was excellent, the trainees attentive and the instructor thorough.
The system has multiple levels of security, back-up equipment and personnel and contingency planning to ensure the right of citizens to vote and for the vote to be rapidly and accurately tabulated and reported. There will be national and international electoral observers such as the Council of Latin American Electoral Experts (CEELA) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) on Oct. 7 as well as witnesses from political parties in the voting sites and witnesses to other levels of CNE activity.
Today saw the closing of the campaign of Enrique Capriles Radonski with a large crowd in Caracas. Also the Ferias Electorales closed today and the final technical check of voting equipment was made before delivery to the Mesas Electorales. President Hugo Chávez will close his campaign on Thursday in Caracas. Credible polling shows the president with a lead between 10 and 20 points. A panel of pollsters concluded that the president will be reelected owing to the fact that the number of undecided voters is insufficient to change the result even if all went to Capriles.
The typical Chavista I have spoken with expects Chávez to win with around 60%. Many Capriles supporters believe their candidate will win based on two obscure polls showing Capriles close or slightly ahead and constant misinformation in the media which is dominated by the opposition. The poll that shows Capriles leading is tied to Capriles’ Un Nuevo Tiempo party. Opposition press has played on the contention of a close election, inferring that Chávez may win by fraud. Some opposition predict or even advocate violence if Chávez wins. Chávez and supporters feel that a win with a large majority is the best guarantee of preventing the accusation of fraud from being turned into a serious challenge to public order and respect for democracy. Thus the closing days of the campaign have become a quest against abstention and to encourage voter turnout which many estimate will be 80% or greater.
The Venezuelan Army is responsible for safeguarding the electoral process and most Venezuelans I have spoken to believe that though there may be some disturbances, the government is prepared to see that the people will safely exercise their right to vote and that the election will be a celebration of democracy with results respected by the great majority.
President Chávez has signed a pledge to respect the results but the opposition has made no clear commitment to do so. People on the left and the right know the importance of this election, not only to Venezuela, but to all of Latin America and the Caribbean and to worldwide aspirations for more just, peaceful and sustainable societies. With an oligarchy intent on returning to power and their US foreign policy establishment patrons focused on stopping and reversing the Venezuelan revolution, internal and external threats to the people and government are real and need to be taken seriously.This article first appeared at Axis of Logic and the original can be viewed here.