Venezuelans Boycott Dying Democracy

(International Relations and Security Network, 23/12/2005)


Venezuela is experiencing a trend of voter abstention that has reached alarming levels. Now, with under a year before the next presidential elections, the government must work to establish trust in the electoral process or risk certain, and perhaps violent, social instability that comes in the wake of a government that represents a significant minority of voters.


The president of Venezuela's National Electoral Council, Jorge Rodriguez, announced on Thursday that Venezuela's presidential elections would be held on 3 December 2006. That announcement came less than three weeks after Rodriguez admitted that 75 per cent of the electorate had failed to vote in recent parliamentary elections.


Tens of millions of Venezuelans are registered to vote, but less than three million cast ballots in general elections on 4 December. Days before the poll, all major opposition candidates pulled out of the race and urged Venezuelan voters to boycott an electoral process they said would not be free and fair.


In Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's first presidential victory in December 1998, he won 56 per cent of the popular vote, with a voter turnout of 64 per cent. Eight years later, it is clear that the majority of Venezuelans who once supported Chavez no longer even bother to vote, clearly viewing the country's voting process as a product of corruption and manipulation.


Due to the absence of opposition, Chavez controls Venezuela's National Assembly. His power is complete, but fewer Venezuelans support him now more than ever. It is a volatile combination that could explode if Venezuela's fragile democracy is allowed to expire.


The state and fate of Venezuela's democracy and security largely will be determined by the events leading up to next December's presidential elections. While some observers may find it difficult to believe that Venezuelans would stand aside and allow Chavez to create an autocracy, it is a reality that is all but publicly acknowledged.


Voter confidence fades away


In the run-up to December's parliamentary elections, surveys had suggested that voter turnout would be less than 30 per cent. On the day of the poll, some observers claimed that as many as 90 per cent of the electorate failed to vote. Most now agree that voter turnout hovered around 20-25 per cent - an extremely poor showing by any standards. When compared to the National Assembly elections in 2000, which saw a 56 per cent voter turnout, this year's voter disillusionment was nearly doubled.


Venezuelans - as well as international observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the EU - blame the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is charged with ensuring free and fair elections, for the deplorable situation.


Alejandro Plaz, a spokesperson for the nongovernmental Sumate civil society group, says that CNE directors must be approved by a two-thirds vote in the national assembly. He told ISN Security Watch that according to the country's constitution, CNE directors cannot belong to any political parties or organizations.


The Venezuelan constitution also states that the CNE must be run by five directors who each have replacements and sub-replacements. When the president and vice-president of the CNE resigned in 2004, their replacements were not selected by the National Assembly, but by the Supreme Court in January this year.


Many are convinced that these men, as well as their replacements, are Chavez supporters. Sumate claims that four of the five CNE directors are Chavez supporters who work to manipulate the elections. This perception, whether accurate or not, has taken root in Venezuela's voting public.


Evidence of manipulation?


Another scandal has also been used by some as evidence of the CNE's alleged manipulation of the elections. During a voting simulation conducted by international observers in the run-up to December's parliamentary poll, it was revealed that computers controlling the finger print scanners used to identify voters were insecure.


A government approved technician, Leopoldo Gonzalez, used a program he allegedly downloaded for free from the internet to hack through the computer's security and accessed the finger print scanners. During the test run, he proved that the computer could be comprised by telling each international observer for whom they had secretly voted.


This news that the computers could be comprised, along with the legal right to vote in secret, broke just two weeks before the elections. It was the last thing hesitant Venezuelan voters needed to hear before deciding whether or not to head to the polls.


Still, some say these technical insecurities were exaggerated.


"The technician who checked these machines admitted it would be very difficult to crack the algorithm that secures an individual's identity," a Venezuelan policy analyst who asked to remain anonymous, told ISN Security Watch. "I doubt these machines could have been used to manipulate the election results because the password that allows access to this information is split three ways between the government, the CNE, and the opposition," he argued.


But the damage in the public had already been done.


With news of the possibility of insecure finger print scanners out, the political opposition was in an uproar. Sumate argued that the finger print scanners had likely been used to manipulate prior elections, as well.


Three days before the December elections, a leading political party, Democratic Action (AD), pulled out of the race, joining the rest of the opposition. The DA argued that since finger print scanners had been installed in 53 per cent of the voting stalls, the CNE could "make changes according to its plans". The party said the CNE "could not guarantee the reliability of the vote".


And while only some 15-25 per cent of the electorate voted in the December polls, some observers say that those who actually did vote may have not had a choice in the matter.


Since 1999, the Venezuelan state has contracted one million government employees, and many in Caracas believe these employees and their family members make up a large percentage of the voters who are forced to either cast ballots or lose their jobs.


Chavez claims CIA plot


Standing firm on a platform that espouses representative democracy, Chavez's reaction to the election results was less a victory speech and more of an entrenched defense.


Chavez claimed that the opposition's decision to abstain from the elections was a part of a plan set in motion by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to weaken his position. He also said that all opposition parties that abstained from the mid-term elections would no longer be recognized by the government.


Both the OAS and EU election observers criticized the opposition's boycott, but they were harder on the government. In separate statements, they concluded that the Venezuelan electoral board had failed to ensure the security of the electoral process.


Both organizations squarely blamed Venezuela's electoral council for the low voter turnout. Attacking international observers from the OAS and the EU, Chavez said both groups were comprised of right-wing and ultra right-wing individuals whose objective was only to "plant mines" in order to destabilize the 2006 presidential elections.


The seeds of revolution


Chavez controls the Executive Office, the Congress, a large portion of the media, the country's largest economic contributor (state-owned energy giant PDVSA), and access to billions of dollars in foreign exchange reserves. With the National Assembly in his hand, Chavez also has the power to change Venezuela's Constitution.


There are few real political threats to his office or his party, and those that do exist are now illegal. Chavez also retains a strong grip over a solid core of supporters in the military. He is in a perfect position to proclaim an autocracy, yet he does not.


Proclaiming an autocracy could very well spark a civil war. A domestic conflict even partially resembling a civil war in Venezuela would unravel any plans Chavez has for uniting South America under his leadership. Even if it is an illusion, Chavez wants to maintain the perception of peace and prosperity in Venezuela - proof that his Socialism for the 21st Century works. As such, democracy is allowed to limp along, as long as it keeps its distance.


Chavez cannot deny that his representative democracy no longer represents the Venezuelan voting public - while he may be able to cajole his neighbors, voters have made their position clear by refusing to show up at the polling stations.


This year, ahead of the next presidential elections, Chavez will be forced to make a decision over whether move closer to democracy and give in to the opposition's demands and reform the CNE from the top down, or carry on with elections as if nothing has changed.


To ignore the abstention trend could bring Venezuela to the brink of violence. Venezuelans would be forced to act, and Chavez - a supporter of Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution - may find himself with a revolution on his own doorstep.