Mérida, September 24th 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – As the streets of Venezuela bustle with campaign-closing rallies, voters prepare to choose 165 National Assembly representatives in a nation-wide vote on Sunday that could either accelerate or put limits on the “Bolivarian Revolution” led by President Hugo Chavez.
Pro-Chavez legislators have held a supermajority since the last National Assembly election in 2005, which the opposition, slated to lose badly at the time, boycotted in an attempt to delegitimize the vote.
With full legislative backing, the Chavez administration was able to massively expand public health care and education, increase access to low-interest loans and low-priced food, promote community organization through communal councils, and promote workers’ rights in key nationalized industries.
Pro-Chavez candidates, now united under the banner of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), based their electoral campaigns on this record of achievements. President Chavez and the project known as “21st Century Socialism” were the centerpieces of massive rallies nation-wide in support of PSUV candidates over the past month.
It is widely predicted that the PSUV, in alliance with the Communist Party of Venezuela, will win a majority of the National Assembly seats in this election. However, it is hotly debated whether this pro-Chavez alliance will win the two-thirds majority necessary to control key initiatives such as passing organic laws, appointing members to other branches of government, and enabling the president to pass laws by decree.
The principal opposition parties, united as a coalition called the “Democratic Unity Roundtable” (MUD), have capitalized on the weaknesses of the government over the past year and a half. These include a six-quarter recession, a rising crime rate, an annual inflation rate of nearly 30%, a corruption scandal in the state-owned food company PDVAL, and an electricity crisis that led to several months of energy rationing.
MUD candidates proposed a disarmament law and the re-privatization of the state-owned parts of the economy in order to solve these problems. PSUV candidates argued that its proposed solutions to the problems – a new National Police Force, an integrated state-owned sector of the economy, and worker-controlled management of the electricity and basic industries – are underway and must be expanded in order to be successful.
While the MUD says it supports free and fair democratic elections, the PSUV has brought attention to the opposition’s history of violent tactics and attempts to delegitimize the electoral process, and called on the opposition to respect the rules of democracy.
The opposition attempted a military coup d’état against Chavez in 2002 and carried out a management-led oil industry shutdown in 2003. Armed opposition groups staged violent protests in major cities in the days before elections in 2005 and 2007, and the opposition has repeatedly accused the government of fraud despite favorable evaluations of the Venezuelan electoral system by reputable international organizations including the Carter Center and the Organization of American States (OAS).
Last week, three people were arrested in Falcón state for attempting to dismantle electrical lines, and there were reports of attempts to tamper with electrical facilities in other areas of the country as well. This sparked fear among government supporters that the opposition may attempt to sabotage the elections.
Ali Rodriguez, the Minister for Electric Energy, said the national electricity company, CORPOELEC, will place back-up thermal electric generators and 3,000 workers at stations around the country to monitor the electricity supply and prevent blackouts caused either by sabotage or by system breakdown.
This week, PSUV Campaign Coordinator Aristóbulo Istúriz declared that the PSUV will respect the results of the election, and he called on the opposition to do the same.
“I say, in the name of the PSUV, that we are going to recognize the results, whatever they may be, in any district. I want to hear the opposition’s campaign chief say they will recognize the results, whatever they may be,” said Istúriz in a nationally televised announcement. The opposition has not replied to the request.
Gabriela Ramirez, the head of the Public Defenders Office, urged the opposition to recognize that “no political party can abrogate the legitimacy” of the election, since the National Electoral Council (CNE) is “the only entity authorized to determine legitimacy.”
On Friday afternoon, the CNE announced that 100% of the 36,553 voting centers were installed, complete with electronic voting machines that underwent a comprehensive audit in recent weeks.
CNE President Tibisay Lucena assured a group of 150 international observers that the voting results “will correspond exactly and crystal clearly with the will expressed by the people through the vote.”
The international observers come from electoral, governmental, and non-governmental organizations from Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa. On Friday, they were given an orientation to the Venezuelan electoral system, which has managed 15 elections over the past decade and is acclaimed as among the strongest in Latin America.
One observer, Uruguayan Legislator Susana Pereira, commented, “Each step of the voting process seems very clear, and in case it isn’t understood, there are thorough instructions.” Paraguayan Senator Fernando Silva, also an observer, praised Venezuela’s electronic voting machines, which print a paper record of each vote that the voter can view. “This system is very enviable because it guarantees the transparency of the process,” he said.
The voting process will also be monitored by official witnesses who were chosen in a lottery carried out by the CNE. The CNE announced that 78,113 of these witnesses belong to one of the pro-government parties, while 61,505 are members of opposition parties.
To guarantee the security of the voting centers and to maintain public order during the elections, the military will deploy 180,000 soldiers, 70,000 militia members, and 10,000 members of the reserves as part of a special electoral operation called “Plan Republica.” 30,000 troops were already deployed to protect the voting machines from being tampered with between now and the elections, according to General Henry Rangel Silva, who coordinates Plan Republica.
Also, 719 public defenders will work on election day with the intention of protecting people’s right to vote and dealing with infractions that threaten to compromise a fair electoral process, according to the Public Defender’s Office. Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz said 2,000 functionaries from her office will be working with the public defenders, and Supreme Court President Luisa Estela Morales said 321 special courts will be opened to process cases on election day.
In response to opposition claims that there was an unfair imbalance in media access among the PSUV, MUD, and other parties, the CNE released the results of its study of paid television advertising slots between July 12 and September 21st.
CNE Rector Vicente Díaz, who identifies politically with the opposition, announced that 53% of paid television advertising slots were occupied by the opposition, while 39% were pro-PSUV, and the rest went to other political parties. Díaz criticized the state television channel, VTV, for dedicating 90% of its advertising to the PSUV; he also pointed out that the privately-owned channel Globovision broadcast opposition advertisements in 58% of its slots, while 39% of the slots went to the PSUV.
Nonetheless, Díaz emphasized the solidity of Venezuela’s electoral system in an interview with Reuters. “Democracy at the ballot box in Venezuela is an example for the world. In that sphere, we have a solid democracy,” he said.