Venezuela Holds Municipal Elections

A citizen in Caracas reviews the list of candidates. (Photo: Andrew Alvarez / AFP-Getty Images)

On Sunday, Aug. 7, Venezuela held municipal and parish council elections, choosing among 35,000 candidates to fill some 6,000 seats across the country, according to Uruguay’s Merco Press news agency.

Pro-Chávez organizations presented a single, unified slate of candidates, while the opposition, some of whom called for a boycott of the elections, was fragmented, with its leaders incapable of agreeing on fielding joint candidates.

The first of the kind since Venezuelans went to the polls on October 2004, when pro-government parties obtained 80 percent of the country’s 335 municipalities, as well as control of 20 of Venezuela’s 22 provincial governments, National Electoral Commission chairman Jorge Rodríguez had forecast a low turnout for these elections, but better than the historic 76 percent abstention registered following municipal elections in December 2000.

According to the Latin news agency in Spain, the opposition group Súmate reported 78 percent abstention, while the National Electoral Council (C.N.E.) reported 69.2 percent abstention — some percentage points better than 2000.

The week preceding the elections, Nobel laureate José Saramago of Portugal, accused the Venezuelan opposition of “pirating” his idea — illustrated in his novel Essay on Lucidity, where he had advocated in favor of the blank ballot as a form of protest against the degradation of democracy — in calling for mass abstention, which nonetheless was called for by only a small fraction of the opposition, according to EFE.

Spanish news agency EFE reported on Aug. 3 that auditors with the Organization of American States (O.A.S.) had stated that they lacked the means to audit and evaluate the electoral technology in all its complexity. Observers from more than twenty countries took part in the election monitoring — many of these countries’ representatives are members of the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organizations (U.N.I.O.R.E., in Spanish), the Center for Electoral Promotion and Auditing (C.A.P.E.L.), the Quito and Tikal Protocols, as well as Andean Electoral Council and the Andean Parliament.

It should also be recalled that in a hearing at the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, presided by then Democratic Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota on Thursday July 1, 2004, concerning the state of democracy in Venezuela in anticipation of the Aug. 15, 2004 referendum, Dr. Jennifer McCoy, Director of the Americas Program at the Carter Center, and its representative in Venezuela during the previous year, had testified that after a presentation from Smartmatic, the company contracted to provide electronic voting machines for the referendum, she and her colleagues were “very impressed” with the security measures and functioning of the machines.

As reported by Venezuela’s (Latin-American Information and Analysis Agency 2) last year, she disputed Florida Senator Bill Nelson’s comments concerning reports of identity cards belonging to opposition members being confiscated by Venezuelan military forces to prevent them from voting, and stated that the Carter Center had not heard any reports at all about such confiscations, which prompted the Senator, after McCoy’s convincing testimony, to change his mind and declare that if the Smartmatic machines, which emit paper receipts, were successful in the referendum vote, “maybe Venezuela will teach Florida something.”

And indeed, both the Carter Center and the O.A.S., among other international observers, endorsed the results of the Aug. 15, 2004 referendum, which gave Chávez nearly 60 percent of the ballots cast.

At municipal and parish council elections last week, despite the low turnout, Chávez parties won 80 percent of local seats.

Low Turnout

On Aug. 8, the day after the elections, the Costa Rica-based Center for Electoral Promotion and Auditing’s observer, Jorge Thompson, declared that its observers found that the elections took place amid an environment of total normality at the majority of polling stations visited on Sunday. “We did not observe any major difficulties, in spite of the fact that this process involves the use of several machines. We witnessed a tranquil environment, a participation which, if not quite large, is still very acceptable for [the local] events of this nature,” he said.

Thompson estimated that it would take C.A.P.E.L. from five to six weeks to complete a full audit of the elections.

According to Mexico’s El Universal, ombudsman Germán Mundaraín admitted that there were delays in the setup of tables at some polling places in Caracas, but he reminded readers that “it is traditionally so the world over” that turnout for municipal elections tends to be lower than that for other elections.

According to an AFP dispatch in Buenos Aires’ daily La Nación on Aug. 8, “the elections were not able to stir Venezuelan voters’ interest, since they do not attribute great importance to municipal governing bodies and are practically unfamiliar with the candidates, according to local politicians and analysts.”

Miguel Salazar of the Venezuelan weekly Las Verdades de Miguel said, “a chronic problem has been highlighted in contemporary Venezuela, which is the dearth of interest in local government, which is an indication that some political parties do not work at the grassroots level, but instead concentrate on presidential elections.”

The city of Piar’s mayor Cruz Francisco Contreras told the Ciudad Bolívar daily Diario El Progreso it should not be forgotten that the electoral process was somewhat hindered on account of heavy rains that showered the city.

In the opinion of the Fatherland for All (Patria Para Todos, P.P.T., left-wing opposition) leader, Ramón Moreno, interviewed by the Venezuelan daily El Tiempo, lack of local leadership was the reason for the low turnout. “It is obvious that the population didn’t feel motivated to go out and vote, but I’m not going to fall into the blindness, irresponsibility or political naiveté of those who have publicly attributed this troubling fact to ‘an historical phenomenon that Venezuelans do not vote in local elections,’ or that ‘the people lacked confidence in the electoral arbiter [the National Electoral Council],’” he said. “This is all nonsense. The people did not flock en masse to vote because the electoral offerings with which they were presented did not appeal to anyone. How else can you explain, therefore, that when the undeniable leader of this electoral process [Chávez] runs for office, that reality is reversed, and huge lines [of voters] form to exercise their right to vote?”

A week before the elections, on Saturday, July 30, nearly 1,000 protesters took to the streets denouncing the National Electoral Council, alleging that the C.N.E. favors Chávez’s ruling party and could not properly oversee the Aug. 7 elections. Chávez’s supporters set piles of garbage and tires on fire to halt the march.

Venezuela Breaks Ties with D.E.A.

On the same day the municipal and parish council elections took place, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced the cessation of ties with the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, according to Chávez, owing to D.E.A. agents’ espionage activities.

According to Mexico’s daily Diario Olmeca of Aug. 3, Venezuelan Vice President Vicente Rangel said, “It isn’t that we are going to stop supporting the D.E.A., it is that an investigation is afoot with respect to its behavior in Venezuela, because it has been involved in interference in internal affairs.” The vice president was referring to supposed illegal activities on the part of the United States anti-drug agency in Venezuela, denounced by two witnesses, investigated by the office of the attorney general. The use of confiscated drugs in undercover operations, forbidden by Venezuelan law, would be one of the irregularities.

According to administration critics, Venezuela’s rupture with the D.E.A. will transform Venezuela into a haven for Colombian drug smugglers.