Caracas Connect: April 2013

Venezuela’s Elections

Photo Finish and a Lingering Controversy 

By Dr. Dan Hellinger

Since the polls closed in Caracas on Sunday evening, April 14th, bringing a polarizing campaign to an end with a surprising photo finish, events in Venezuela have been fast moving. While Nicolás Maduro has been declared the winner, and sworn in as president, the controversy surrounding the campaign is outliving the reporting of the results. At this time, it is early to draw many conclusions. This report combines analysis by Dr. Dan Hellinger, the Venezuela scholar and CDA board member, with eye-witness reports and commentary by Dawn Gable, CDA’s assistant director who was in Caracas during the elections. Her in-depth report will be available on CDA’s website by mid-week.

A Photo Finish

When Venezuelans returned to the polls to vote in a special election following the death of President Hugo Chávez, 50.8% cast their vote for Nicolás Maduro, the Chavista candidate, giving him a slim margin over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who garnered 49%. Voter turnout at 80% was not much different than in the October 2012 presidential race between Chávez and Capriles. Moreover, the electorate was identical because the same voter roll, which had been closed to further registration in April 2012, was carried forward.

With 15 million votes cast in both elections from the same electorate pool, there was a swing of 600,000 to 700,000 votes toward the opposition. Capriles virtually closed the 11% gap from last October, as Maduro was unable to translate the memory of the charismatic Chávez into the kind of decisive victory his mentor usually achieved.

“In October, I voted for Chávez, but he is no longer here, and it’s just not the same,” Monica Chocron, former official of the Ministry of Environment, told CDA. Monica and her sister Sara had been vehemently anti-Chavez until about 6 years ago whenthe success of his social missions swayed their opinions. Now, with Chávez gone, they opted not to vote at all.

Several committed Chavistas who voted for Maduro openly lamented to CDA that they would have preferred Elias Jaua, Venezuela’s foreign minister, but realized the importance of remaining united against the opposition. Among these Chavistas there was consensus that those in government, who had surrounded Chávez over the years, were untrustworthy. Though the reason was unclear, they felt that Jaua was different. Still others committed to the process, like Gustavo Borges, a grassroots activist from “23 de Enero” barrio, enthusiastically supported Maduro who has promised to stay on course and deepen the revolution, which “does not depend on one man.”

Chavistas celebrating in the street. Photo by Yordanka Caridad.

The Vote

Around 3 am on Election Day, Caracas was awakened by trumpets blasting throughout the city. Lines at polling stations started forming as early as 4 am. Since each voter’s polling place was based on their residence one year ago, there was a considerable movement about the city.

When asked why there were no lines after the early morning rush, officials in both Chavista and opposition neighborhoods said that a steady stream had continued all day, but since they just held an election a few months ago, everyone knew the procedure and people moved through quickly.

Nationally, some 30,000 locations ensured voters easy access. Hotlines and websites provided voters with information on their polling place. Each polling station was staffed by 3 officials randomly selected from the voter rolls along with a witness from each party. Credentialed national and international “accompaniers” also monitored the process. The polling officials and credentialed observers who spoke with CDA confirmed that all had run smoothly at their location.

Unlike the U.S. Federal Election Commission, whose role is to enforce the U.S. campaign spending statutes, Venezuela’s Consejo Nacional Electoral [the National Electoral Council or “CNE”] is tasked to ensure an accurate count of the votes. That process consists of thumbprint recognition to ensure one vote per person, an electronic voting machine that instantly tabulates votes, and a paper receipt for the voter to double-check for error before placing it in the individual machine’s corresponding box. After the polls close, by law, 54% of the machines are chosen for audit. A statistical sample of the receipts is compared to each machine’s records to verify its accurate performance. All this was done prior to the CNE announcement.

All five “rectors” [members] of the CNE, including Vicente Diaz, the lone opposition member, announced the results of the election late on Sunday. Chávez supporters in Caracas began a night-long street party and thousands headed towards Miraflores Palace, the official workplace of Venezuela’s president, to celebrate with Maduro. However, many supporters were disappointed when he did not address them from the “People’s Balcony” as Chávez always had, but rather from a make-shift stage. This fed rampant speculation that something was wrong. There was. Only moments after the CNE had called the race in Maduro’s favor, Capriles declared that he would not accept the results.

Recount, Review, Audit?

Maduro’s rhetoric during the campaign depicted Capriles as a rightist in league with Washington. His victory speech blamed the close victory in part on “psychological warfare.” Maduro’s claim gained credibility by Washington withholding recognition of the result and by Capriles’s own inflammatory rhetoric and provocative response.

Capriles declared that he would not recognize Maduro’s victory without a “recount” of the vote “one-by-one.” By calling for a “one-by-one” recount, he suggested that he wanted a count of the paper receipts that are deposited in a box by each voter after he or she casts an electronic ballot. Counting receipts might actually make the situation worse, opening the process up to opportunities for manipulation and fraud. Venezuelans voted on paper ballots in the past, and it was common to say “Acta mata vota.” The “act” (the tallying and reporting of ballots) “kills the vote.” This refers to the way that party observers at polls distorted results with various tactics. It is hard to imagine how counting the paper ballots would yield reliable results credible to both sides.

In his victory speech, Maduro said he had no objection to an audit. Opposition ally Vicente Díaz supported the Council’s declaration of Maduro as the winner but called for an audit of 100% of the voting machines. On Thursday, the CN agreed to audit the remaining 46% of machines after receiving a formal request by MUD (the coalition supporting Capriles). Washington quickly pitched in its two-cents, warning against rushing to name a winner, but using the terms “recount” and “audit” interchangeably in calling for a reevaluation of the vote.

Meanwhile, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, India, Mexico, France, Portugal, Qatar, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and South Africa; as well as China, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Russia, Uruguay, Vietnam, and the coordinating bureau on behalf of the entire Non-Aligned Movement recognized Maduro’s victory.

A continued push by Capriles for a count of receipts later prompted Díaz to clarify his position. “Yes, I recognize President Maduro…I have never had reason to doubt the results,” he told Ultimas Noticias explaining that he had supported Capriles’ call for a review of the voting process not because he doubted the numbers “but because the country is so polarized.”

Roberto Abdul, president of Sumate, the anti-Chávez grassroots group that organized a recall referendum against Chávez in 2004 with the help of NED funds, expressed the same view to CDA that Monday. In fact, at the very same moment that Capriles appeared on TV encouraging his supporters to protest in the streets, Abdul stated that there was no doubt about the quantitative results of the vote. He further conceded that neither a count of the receipts nor an audit of the remaining 46% of the machines would produce a different result. Nevertheless, he defended Capriles’s call for protests because, despite the potential for violence, he believed it would help satisfy “the people’s perception” that Capriles had actually won.

This perception, he said, was due to the low quality of the election. He referred to the numerous [but not independently verifiable] reports of irregularities on Election Day that had been called in to hotlines operated by Sumate and other opposition groups. He also denounced the use of government vehicles to transport people in Chavista neighborhoods to the polls and he complained that government missions providing free housing to the poor gave the incumbent an unfair advantage.

The Maduro camp had its own issues with the quality of the election. It accused Capriles of intentionally fabricating reports of Election Day abuses, citing examples such as erroneous reports of Maduro vote tallies exceeding total turnout in some districts. In addition, the opposition-allied TV station, Globovision, reported that metro trains and buses in Caracas were not running, when in fact they were not only running but were free all day, in order to facilitate travel to and from polls.

Violence and Demonstrations

When Capriles called on his supporters to take to the streets immediately, he also revealed plans for a mass march on the CNE headquarters in Caracas on Wednesday April 17th. Within an hour of his TV appearance, groups of protesters began blocking the streets of Altamira, the opposition stronghold. Riot police quickly took up positions around the area to prevent them from pouring into the main thoroughfares. Later in the evening, opposition supporters in Caracas began to bang on pots and pans out of their apartment windows. Maduro supporters responded by blasting Chavista tunes from their stereos. The government responded by shooting off a barrage of fireworks. This went on into the night and started up again the next day.

Tuesday’s news was grim. By the afternoon, the media was reporting that eight Maduro supporters had been killed, most shot to death, and dozens had been reported wounded. Several PSUV buildings had been set ablaze and the homes of at least two governors, along with the TeleSur headquarters in Caracas, had been surrounded by protesters throwing rocks and chanting threats.

Human rights groups, including PROVEA, confirmed reports of attacks on health centers staffed by Cuban doctors, which reportedly had been sparked by a tweet from opposition journalist Nelson Bocaranda who claimed that Cubans working in a Centre of Interior Diagnosis (CDI) were concealing ballot boxes and preventing Venezuelans from looking inside. Government spokespersons had claimed that several CDIs had been burned down, but PROVEA found no evidence to support this charge. Cuba’s deputy health minister, Roberto González, told the Havana Times, there were no injuries among its health care workers in Venezuela, and “the Cuban doctors are doing their duty.”

Venezuela’s attorney general announced that Capriles would be held personally responsible for the violence. Nevertheless, the two major private broadcast television stations continued transmitting interviews with opposition leaders encouraging participation in the mass march on Wednesday. The plans for the march, and roll of private media in promoting it, evoked memories of the April 2002 coup, when the (then) four private television stations actively cooperated with some of the coup-makers.

To avert a dangerous clash between the opposition and Maduro supporters, who had so far refrained from retaliation, the president-elect declared that he would not permit the march to take place. He also threatened to sanction the TV stations for promoting it and temporarily suspended citizens’ right to carry personal arms. Capriles backed down and called off the march.

The U.S. quickly called on Venezuela’s government to respect freedom of speech, whilemajor human rights organizations in Venezuela criticized the government for curtailing the demonstrations. The latter argued that the government’s abuse of incumbency had made the reaction to the close result worse. The organizations also condemned the vandalism directed at the personnel, equipment, and installations of election personnel and called upon the army to maintain the security of the ballots.

Most human rights organizations called upon the government to accept the Organization of American States offer to provide the assistance of electoral verification experts. However, Venezuela has for some time questioned the impartiality of the OAS and instead emphasized the participation of UNASUR, an organization of South American countries.

The Campaign

The campaign has now been overshadowed by post-election turmoil. Still, we should note that it served as a prologue for the aftermath because it was even more highly polarized than the contest between Chávez and Capriles last autumn. Maduro took every opportunity to characterize Capriles as a right-wing oligarch, little different from how Chávez had characterized him.

Maduro campaign rallies usually featured a recording of Chávez singing the national anthem, punctuated by the Chavista candidate proclaiming, “I am not Chávez, but I am his son.” Similarly, the official campaign song “Chávez I swear to you, my vote is for Maduro” began with a clip of Chavez voicing what has become his last wish: that his followers carry Maduro into the Presidency if he should not survive.

Capriles took a hard line, constantly referring to Maduro as “that bus driver,” a risky tactic that might have alienated working class voters, but may have helped diminish Maduro’s stature as Chávez’s designated heir. Capriles in one speech even called Maduro a “boy”: “Nicolás, no one elected you president. The people didn’t vote for you, boy.”

The tone of the campaign was reflected in two word clouds constructed by Ultimas Noticias, the most-read daily in the capital. The Maduro cloud emphasizes Chávez and other terms associated with the fallen leader. The Capriles cloud, on the other hand, stresses “country” (“país”), suggesting an attempt to evoke loyalty to the political community rather than to the deceased caudillo.

Capriles hammered hard on the violent crime rate and on claims that PDVSA, the state oil company, is rife with inefficiency and corruption. Maduro pledged to push a program to reduce drastically the number of firearms in civil society. He charged that Capriles would take the oil company back to the days of the “oil opening,” when much of the industry was privatized though joint ventures and service agreements between PDVSA, which constitutionally must be state-owned, and foreign investors.

The most widely reported violations of campaign rules had to do with the abuse of incumbency; in particular, the use of the state broadcasting networks and Maduro’s frequent use of laws that allow the government to commandeer time on broadcasting networks (“cadenas” or chains) for public announcements. His campaign was also frequently accused, as Chávez had been in the past, of using public resources for campaign purposes, especially vehicles to transport supporters to rallies and the polls.

As in the U.S., rules on campaign advertising and expenditures are observed more in breach than in reality in Venezuela. While both sides were limited to only a handful of official campaign ads per day per radio station, private opposition groups were able to support Capriles throughout the campaign with ads thinly veiled as issue advertising – much as government “information ads” were thinly veiled propaganda for Maduro.

The Carter Center report on last October’s election cited studies that show that while the number of state broadcasting media has expanded, the audience share of these media is normally low – about 5.4% of the audience for television. However, that share did increase to 24% for the week before the October election. Capriles’s family owns several of the private print and broadcast outlets in Venezuela, which are typically anti-Chavista. However, the country’s most trusted newspaper, Últimas Noticias, is owned by the Capriles group, yet is edited by a leftist.

The campaigns officially closed on Thursday April 11, after which further vote solicitations were forbidden. However, private and cable channels continued to not-so-subtly remind viewers of Capriles’ successes as a governor and lamented the failures of the previous decade. Meanwhile, government channels continually memorialized Chávez and espoused the successes of the Bolivarian Revolution.

Election Day fell on the day following the anniversary of Chávez’s return to power after the short-lived 2002 coup. Saturday’s celebratory activities were laden with words and images linking the candidate to the fallen leader and warnings against the empire-backed opposition. Late in the evening, Maduro dropped all pretext and directly appealed for votes at the close of an official ceremony marking “the people’s victory” over the coup.

Maduro as president

Nicolás Maduro was formally sworn in as the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela on April 19th before the National Assembly by its presiding officer Diosdado Cabello, and with the assistance of María Gabriela Chávez, daughter of the late President. The ceremony was attended by at least a dozen heads of state from countries ranging from Brazil to Iran, as well as high-level representatives from many more. In contrast, the United States has refused to recognize Maduro’s victory until the election results are reconfirmed. A full audit is currently underway, but the National Electoral Council (CNE) has emphasized that this will “in no way reverse” Maduro’s victory.

Maduro has begun his mandate by naming his cabinet, with 17 individuals remaining in place; creating 6 Regions of Integral Development to “oversee the work of the national government” in each state, and naming its leadership; and strategizing with advisors on how to turn his “Government of the Street” concept into a reality.

New, Hard Choices

The weak showing by the PSUV surprised almost all observers. Polls, including one by Datanálisis, a respected firm owned by an opposition figure, had showed Nicolás Maduro leading Henrique Capriles by 14 to 18 percentage points. He was still leading by double digits as the polls closed. It is likely that either some voters in Chavista strongholds did not give pollsters honest answers, or that pro-Maduro people were over-represented in the sampling.

Since it appears that only a bare majority of Venezuelans trust Maduro more than Capriles to maintain the social programs started by Chávez, the opposition could have simply begun preparations to force a recall referendum to cut short his term, which otherwise has more than five years to run. It’s likely that the opposition will still start a recall petition at some point, depending on Maduro’s level of popularity as the next year unfolds.

More immediately, the opposition’s prospects are certainly good for the local elections later this year. But attempting to delegitimize this election is a major gamble. By aggressively challenging the CNE and engaging in protests that were in many cases violent, the opposition may be repeating the same mistake it made between 2001 and 2005. In particular, Capriles has risked alienating the “ní-ní” (“neither, nor”) voters that he has apparently won over.

Sumate’s Abdul and other opposition supporters who spoke with CDA thought it would be impossible to get the signatures needed to petition for a referendum anyway. Similarly, Maduro’s relatively poor showing at the national level may not necessarily portend losses for Chavismo at the local level given that Maduro carried 16 of 24 states and 243 of 335municipalities.

Representatives of Fundalatin, a human rights and social development NGO in Caracas that is founded on the principles of liberation theology and Bolivarian philosophy, saw the outcome as a sign of the movement maturing. In their view, Chavistas have internalized the principals of the revolution and are waiting to see how Maduro performs instead of handing him a blank check. Fundalatin’s advice to the new president was to travel around the country and get to know the people and let them meet him up close. Staying on the course outlined by Chávez’s October election campaign was their prescription.

Francisco Torrealba, former National Assembly deputy and current leader of Venezuela’s umbrella transportation union, agreed. He further explained that it was only a matter of time before Maduro would be on stable ground. He explained that just as the military had coalesced around their fellow soldier Chávez, the workers of Venezuela will close ranks to support their union brother Maduro.

The need to defend Maduro’s victory may help the PSUV remain united, but it may also delay the needed review of why it showed so poorly in the elections. Initially, Chavistas from Diosdado Cabello, head of the National Assembly, to grassroots organizers posting on the Internet forum aporrea.org, were emphasizing self-criticism and diagnosis of the result. By Wednesday, aporrea.org, a website for grassroots activists, was instead dominated by angry responses to opposition protests and violence.

Going forward

The opposition and Chavista forces will soon test themselves yet again in local elections. As is common in most countries, turnout is likely to be considerably lower, meaning that the ability of each side to mobilize voters will be critical.

In the coming months, Maduro will also face the decision of whether to devalue the currency further. Oil prices have declined somewhat recently, and if that trend continues it will make protecting the base more difficult.

In the longer run, Maduro and the PSUV must decide whether to pursue Chávez’s goal of building a “communal state” in which the communal councils and larger units, “communes,” eclipse the institutions of representative democracy. Some radical Chavistas think that this is the path forward to 21th century socialism and will win the loyalty of the poorer majority. But, the narrow victory and massive turnout last Sunday both indicate that almost 60 years since the last military dictatorship ended, Venezuelans, whether supportive of the new structures or not, still believe in the importance of voting and respecting the outcome of elections.

As far as U.S.-Venezuela relations are concerned, Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told Bloomberg that she doesn’t expect relations to improve, but that the U.S. should deal with Maduro the same way it did Chávez. “It still doesn’t make sense to get in, you’ll excuse me, a pissing match with Nicolás Maduro any more than it did with Chávez,” she said.

Meanwhile, Francisco Torrealba told CDA he will be traveling to the U.S. soon in an attempt to resurrect a friendship between a bipartisan group of National Assembly members and U.S. Congress members, saying, “Maduro understands the importance of this.”

 

(c) 2013 Center for Democracy in the Americas. All rights reserved.