The kinds and extent of fraud already being applied by the Venezuelan
government to the crucial elections today are unprecedented. Having
originally won election to the presidency in 1999 in a remarkably clean
contest, Hugo Chavez has progressively moved the process to one of unmitigated electoral larceny.
Election irregularities are nothing new in the United States or virtually any democratic country, but Venezuela's pilfer process starts well before the day the votes are cast and counted.
In August, 400 opposition candidates for state and municipal posts were
initially declared ineligible for trumped-up reasons ranging from
poorly prepared applications to corruption charges. The predictable
reaction to such a blatantly bogus move resulted in 276 candidates
finally being blocked from competing.
It seems possible the climbdown from 400 was preplanned, the
government having taken its lead from Iran, which has regularly
reinstated roughly 65 percent of candidates initially declared
ineligible, in a move designed to show how reasonable the authorities
have been in vetting prospective candidates.
Once a number of opposition candidates were eliminated, Mr. Chavez's
next public move was to announce he would withhold national government
financial support from states that elected opposition governors. With
state-owned oil monopoly PDVSA providing more than 50 percent of all
government income, the threat was clearly designed to have a chilling
effect on opposition voters.
The fraud potential on election day is staggering. For example,
voting lists have previously been completely jumbled, making it almost
impossible to verify a challenged voter's eligibility.
Voting machines and related systems are so rigged that virtually any
manipulation is possible. The control center can change results on one
or every machine, to accommodate "requirements," as one dissident
official told me. Most frightening in Venezuela's police state climate,
it is possible for authorities to determine for whom any individual has
voted in past and current elections, a fact the government is not
disappointed to have leaked to nervous citizens.
dean of election organization and monitoring in Venezuela, is widely
respected throughout Latin America. Director general of Venezuela's
Supreme Electoral Council from 1974-84 and again in 1993-94, he is a
founding director of ESDATA, privately organized to assure clean
Mr. Weil puts the case simply: "Voting is a human right, and the
challenge is to assure that each vote is impartial, transparent and
secret. This has been enshrined in the United Nations charter, by the
Organization of American States and the Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights, but it is not honored in Venezuela. Our computerized
voting system violates every one of these three basic tenets of fair
Mr. Weil is confident his organization and thousands of volunteers
can capture accurate readings from the country's voting machines, and
ESDATA is committed to make the results known to any and every one
interested. "But that's the end of the line. They can manipulate the
count during the voting day, thereby affecting the final tally; they
can spread the word that they know how people vote, thereby destroying
the concept of secrecy and intimidating many voters. Unfortunately,
they are many, many ways to commit vote fraud."
Gerardo Blyde, opposition mayoral candidate of Baruta, one of five municipalities comprising metro Caracas,
is one of many who see significant wins by the opposition. However, he
believes "the government will make every effort to change the election
results. They have done it before and there is only so much we can do
to keep the elections clean. We need 120,000 poll watchers across the
country on election day, but we will only have between 80,000 and
Despite the daunting challenges, most opposition observers are
cautiously optimistic about their chances. "Chavez is running scared,"
observes a widely respected university professor. "He's not just
attacking opposition candidates; he's publicly condemning members of
his own coalition. On top of that, he makes wild threats to not fund
states that elect opposition governors. These outbursts only strengthen
The overall electoral situation was most recently put into focus by
disaffected former close Chavez associate Luis Miquilena. Handpicked by
Mr. Chavez as president of the 1999 National Constitutional Assembly
and as interior and justice minister, Mr. Miquilena held a devastating press conference urging Venezuelans to vote against the chavistas on Nov. 23.
"In recent years, far from rectifying things, the president has placed
the country in a trance, one that could very possibly cause us to lose
our democracy. He has created an economic crisis that has increased
poverty and plunged us into social violence," Mr. Miquilena charged.
"The president has imposed aggression, violence and militarism, in
place of promoting the peace that the Constitution of 1999 established
as a fundamental principle. He has kidnapped the powers of our national
institutions, controlling them totally himself. He seeks to remain
forever in power through re-elections, contrary to the constitution and
against which the people voted on Dec. 2, 2007."
"The government has disqualified those candidates who had the best
chance of winning on Nov. 23," he continued. "No one is greater than
the people, least of all you, Mr. President. The will of the people is
"The president... fears Venezuelans will vote against him in the
elections, because the incapability, waste and corruption of his
government, has made us lose our most important chance of economic
development in the last 40 years, has weakened us and has left us
extremely vulnerable prior to the worldwide recession."
In the days following Luis Miquilena's denunciation of President
Chavez, the government mounted a predictably vicious counterattack, but
observers believe Mr. Miquilena's former position and prestige can have
a beneficial effect similar to Mr. Chavez's ex-defense minister, Luis
Isaias Baduel, shortly before the opposition's first victory in the
constitutional elections of December 2007.
The opposition needs all the help it can get in a situation where
the chavista government does everything possible to inhibit its
opponents' electoral chances. Fortunately, Hugo Chavez's quixotic
behavior appears to be helping the opposition. Pollsters have found
that eliminating valid anti-Chavez candidates and threatening to cut
off federal grants to state governments have had a negative effect.
Moreover, during my recent visit to Caracas, Mr. Chavez actually
publicly humiliated the head of the second ranking party in his ruling
Nevertheless, the potential for electronic ballot box stuffing - or
its reverse, if necessary - is enormous. Lovers of serious democracy
will need all the expertise Alfredo Weil and his colleagues at ESDATA
can muster, fearless and tireless efforts by dedicated volunteer poll
watchers - plus resolute voter determination to send their national
leader a strong message.