Venezuela’s Elections of November 23: A Briefing


(November 22nd 2008) On 23 November, Venezuela will hold elections for state governors and regional and municipal legislators.

 

In recent years, much of the British media coverage of Venezuelan elections has been misleading, repeating claims made by opponents of the democratically elected government of Hugo Chávez. These claims have their origins in false allegations made in the Venezuelan media, which is overwhelmingly owned by the political opposition. Already, a number of inaccurate claims have been made about these elections. (1)

 

This briefing outlines some key facts concerning the forthcoming election, previous elections and the Venezuelan government’s democratic mandate.

 

FACTS ABOUT THE FORTHCOMING ELECTIONS

 

Over 5000 candidates will contest 603 elections for 22 state governors, 328 mayors, 233 state legislative councillors and a range of other local positions. 17 million Venezuelans will have the opportunity to vote in these elections.

 

The elections will be the 14th set of national votes held since 1998 when Hugo Chávez was first elected as President. Hugo Chávez and his coalition of supporters have won 12 of the 13 previous national elections and referenda. This is in stark contrast to the 40 years prior to President Chávez‘s election, when only 15 national electoral contests were staged in Venezuela.

 

Elections under the government of Hugo Chavez have been verified as free and fair by a range of independent international observers including the Organisation of American States, the European Union and the US Carter Centre. A total of 134 foreign observers will take part in November’s election, according to Venezuela’s independent National Electoral Council (CNE). The observers will come from 34 member countries of the Organization of American States (OAS), and include representatives of electoral organizations from America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

 

With regards to equality, half of the candidates standing in the local and regional elections will be women, following the implementation of legislation to ensure gender equality earlier this year. This is a tremendous advance for women in Venezuela – when these elections were last contested in 2004, 82% of candidates were male and 18% female.

 

PREVIOUS REGIONAL ELECTIONS IN VENEZUELA

 

Equivalent elections to those on 23 November took place in Venezuela in October 2004. Chávez’s coalition of supporters won the elections in 80 per cent of the local authorities and 22 out of 24 governors.

 

However, it should be noted that, during the run-up to the previous regional elections in October 2004, much of the opposition called on their supporters to abstain in an effort to discredit the Venezuelan electoral system, which they claimed was "fraudulent" after their defeat in the August 2004 referendum on whether President Chávez would remain in office. These claims became increasingly unsustainable after electoral observation missions from the European Union, the OAS and the Carter Center repeatedly expressed satisfaction with the transparency, fairness, and inclusive nature of Venezuela’s electoral system. As no such boycott will occur this time, it is reasonable to assume that this will strengthen the opposition’s level of support, all other things being equal. It is hoped that accurate and honest media coverage will recognise this fact.

 

In 2000, Chávez’s coalition of supporters won 18 governors and the opposition six. However, three governors elected with Chávez’s support later became part of the opposition.

 

A TRANSPARENT AND INCLUSIVE ELECTORAL PROCESS: Venezuela’s electoral system has undergone significant improvements under the Chávez government that have helped achieve a transparent process and an increase in voter participation. Some of these are looked at below:

 

AN INDEPENDENT ELECTION: The National Electoral Council (CNE), body in charge of administering elections in Venezuela is an independent branch of state. It is comprised of 11 members of the National Assembly and 10 representatives of civil society, none of whom are appointed by the President.

 

MONITORING OF THE ELECTION: Venezuela’s elections are among the most observed anywhere in the world. At each of the 11,500 voting centres throughout the country, the dozens of parties involved in the election will be entitled to an observer – one example of how at different levels of the electoral process in Venezuela, the opposition can fully participate.

 

TRANSPARENCY: The November 23 elections will be 100% computerised. Voting will take place using an electronic touch-screen voting machine that will provide every voter with a receipt. This allows the election authorities to conduct a manual recount of the paper receipts if the tally of a particular voting centre is challenged. The full electronic results will also be checked against a hand counted audit of 53 per cent of the machines.

 

Thirty political parties and organisations expressed their satisfaction in one of the many audits carried out by the CNE which took place on November 16. Thus far the CNE has carried out 53 such audits.(2)

 

The machines produce a receipt to allow the voter to check their vote. US Senator Bill Nelson (Florida) has argued they are therefore more reliable than those used in several countries including the USA. On the security of the voting machines, the report of the Chairperson of the EU Observation Mission to the 2005 elections stated that "the general conclusion of the observers was that the voting machines seemed very reliable."(3)

 

ENHANCING VOTER PARTICIPATION: Over the last few years, voter participation in Venezuelan elections has increased significantly, and in large part thanks to measures adopted by the CNE. It has carried out extensive voter registration campaigns that contributed to a 64% increase in the number of registered voters between 1998 and 2007. Parallel to this effort, the CNE has made voting much more accessible to millions of Venezuelans by adding new voting stations in poor neighbourhoods and rural areas.

 

It should be noted that these advances have benefited all Venezuelans by increasing democratic participation. In particular, though, they have helped to empower the less privileged citizens in poor areas and Afro-Venezuelan and Indigenous communities that have traditionally been left on the sidelines of Venezuelan politics.

 

To facilitate turnout in 23 November elections, the CNE has established 1,500 Centres of Electoral Information throughout the country. The CNE has also produced a short video clip – with added sign language for the deaf and those with partial hearing – and a radio broadcast which are run nationally three times a day, with detailed information as to how to cast one’s vote. It has also printed gigantic posters with didactic information for the voter which have been distributed to every single municipality in the country. The CNE has additionally added a bulletin in the national press containing all the information relevant to the regional elections, including location of polling stations and how to cast the vote.

 

VENEZUELANS CONFIDENCE IN THEIR DEMOCRACY

 

Some media have propagated the myth that President Chávez is ‘authoritarian’, or a ‘dictator’, and that his supporters have stayed in power by increasing central concentration of power. Yet the latest annual survey of Latin American opinion, carried out by the independent and respected polling firm Latinobarometro, showed that Venezuela is now the country with the greatest support for democracy in Latin America on 82%. The average level of support in Latin America is 57%. This represents a huge increase in support for democracy in Venezuela under Chávez. In 1998, just before Chavez was first elected, the Latin American average satisfaction with democracy was 37% and Venezuela was below this average with only 35%.

 

Venezuela is also now the country with the second highest levels of satisfaction with their democracy: 49% against an average of 37%. Additionally, Venezuela has, by far, the greatest number of political parties registered of any Latin American nation: 85 compared to the next highest of 22.(4)

 

Far from the government of Hugo Chavez restricting democracy as is often falsely claimed, Hugo Chávez and his supporters have won twelve out of thirteen electoral contests on a national basis since 1998.

 

These are: 1. December 1998: Hugo Chávez elected president with 56.2 per cent of the vote. 2. April 1999: National referendum on convening a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution won with 71.8 per cent support. 3. July 1999: Election of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, Chávez supporters won a large majority of seats. 4. December 1999: Referendum on whether to adopt the new constitution, won by Cháve zsupporters with 71.9 per cent of the vote. 5. July 2000: Presidential election held under the new constitution, won by Hugo Chávez with an increased majority of 59.76 per cent of the vote. 6. July 2000: Election of the National Assembly, Chávez supporters won a majority of the seats 7. December 2000: Municipal elections with around two thirds supporting pro-Chavez parties. 8. August 2004 – National elections for councillors for local municipalities and local parishes. 9. August 2004: A national referendum called by the opposition on whether or not to remove Chávez from power, won by President Chávez with 59.3 per cent of the vote. 10. October 2004: Local and regional elections throughout the country, Chávez supporters won the elections in 80 per cent of the local authorities and 20 out of 22 provincial governments. 11. December 2005: National Assembly elections. Chávez’s party, the MVR, won a large majority of the seats following the cynical boycott of the election by some of the opposition. 12. December 2006 – Presidential election. Hugo Chávez was re-elected with 63%. 13. December 2007 – National referendum on constitutional changes

 

MISREPRESENTATION REGARDING NOVEMBER’S ELECTION

 

One of the main misrepresentations in the run up to the 23 November has been on so called ‘barring’ of political candidates. Sections of the Venezuelan opposition have claimed the elections will not be free and fair due to a decision by Venezuela’s Comptroller General, Clodosbaldo Russián, to temporarily disqualify a list of around 250 individuals from standing for public office after being found guilty of corruption and/or misuse of public funds. Of these a much smaller number intended to stand for election. The opposition, finding an echo in sections of the media, has argued that the "list of banned candidates is politically motivated and illegal" (International Herald Tribune, July 8, 2008). They add that the measure is unconstitutional. This interpretation is wrong.

 

Some have falsely claimed that this is an attempt to exclude opponents of President Chávez. However the list of disqualified individuals includes both supporters and opponents of the government – a report in the Venezuelan newspaper Ultimas Noticias on 14 July stated that a majority could be identified as government supporters. Furthermore, many of the disqualifications were not imposed recently and are the consequence of investigations by the Comptroller General over a number of years. This decision by the Comptroller General is both lawful and constitutional. Such legal instruments to apply sanctions against individuals whose probity as holders of public office is under question has existed in Venezuela since 1975. The current legislation was adopted in 2002 as an anti-corruption measure by Venezuela’s National Assembly in a near unanimous vote, including support from parties opposed to the Chávez government that then had strong representation in the National Assembly. The disqualified candidates have also had the opportunity to legally contest the decision and the disbarring was upheld as constitutional by a Venezuelan Supreme Court ruling on 5 August.(5)

 

Opponents of Venezuela’s social progress have regularly propagated a substantial campaign of disinformation seeking to undermine the Hugo Chávez government. The latest false claims relating to the disqualifications appear to be part of this ongoing campaign.

 

* This briefing was produced by the Venezuela information Centre (VIC). The Venezuela Information Centre seeks to raise awareness of the advances being made in democracy and social progress in Venezuela, and to build support for Venezuela’s right to determine its own future. VIC can provide further information on the situation in Venezuela and representatives are available for comment. To contact VIC e-mail

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