Venezuela’s Quiet Election

City-wide dawn wake-up calls, moderate afternoon rain, and general calm, marked the Venezuelan election. The governing coalition gained 100 percent of the seats in the Venezuelan National Assembly. Less impressive was voter turnout and opposition protests.

Caracas, Venezuela, December 5, 2005—According to the opposition media, it was going to be the election that marked the death of democracy in Venezuela. The government, on the other hand, predicted a contragolpe, a show of support by the people, through the ballot box, against aspiring coup mongers. Everyone agreed that it would be an election that would have long-standing consequences.

But in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital and most populated city, the day which held such importance for the future of the South American nation was unmarked by either opposition protests or crowded voting centers, which is unusual. Venezuela, unlike the United States, is a country where people turn out both to protest and to vote.

A few years ago, hundreds of thousands of opposition and government demonstrators would fill Caracas’ streets on an almost weekly basis. On Sunday, opposition crowds were non-existent.

And, under this president, Venezuelans have shown their love of voting.
During the 1983 presidential elections, voter participation hit its peak at 89% percent (there were higher turn-outs before that, but they did not provide for universal suffrage). Of the nine elections under this administration, this one had the second lowest participation rate. Only a city council election in 2000 saw a worse turnout. By contrast, in 2000. 44% of registered voters voted on the new constitution, despite torrential rains. This was in spite of polls indicating the passing of the constitution was a foregone conclusion.

But in those elections, the opposition at least made a showing. Before 10 percent of candidates noisily dropped out of the race, the opposition had barely dropped in. There were posters across the city, and a few press conferences, but campaigning was markedly less than it had been in previous elections. So many candidates’ decision not to run was the highlight of their campaign.

After the non-campaigns, by both opposition and government candidates, it came as no real surprise that the most eventful part of the day seemed to be at 5:00 am when trucks drove throughout the city blaring music encouraging people to vote. Much of the city, it would seem, heard the din, looked out their window at the sky which was threatening rain, put a pillow over their head and went back to sleep.

It was this sort of calm apathy by government supporters and the lackluster opposition by government opponents that permeated the day, rather than, as some had feared, threats of violence. While Vice President José Vincent Rangel, talking about the upcoming vote, had warned that the opposition had proven their love of violence in the past, few seemed to take his concerns to heart. Half a block away from Colegio de San Ignacio, a nearly deserted voting center in an upper class area, a crowded outdoor jazzercise class boogied to the Village People’s “YMCA,” apparently unworried by any election day threat.

But while voter turnout was low, 20% of Caracas voters did head to the polls. Among these were supporters of the government’s new social programs, which voters said had changed their lives. “I’m voting because I believe in the new project, the missions, and I’m here to support them,” said Etan Carbaille, at a lower-middle class voting center in Sabana Grande.

“There are lots of people here, like us, not poor people, but lower middle class people, humble people, who have come here to vote because…we believe in this process,” said Mauren Salomon, who had voted for MVR at a voting center in Catia, one of Caracas’s largest barrios. She went on to say that this was the first government that had ever done anything for the poor of Venezuela. 

“We have a country virtually free of illiteracy. You might be able to find a person unable to read, but it’s very rare, there have been huge improvements,” Salomon’s friend Concepción Prieto added. Another woman at the voting center heard her comment, and said she was part of Mission Ribas, the government’s adult education program. 

Other government supporters were hard-core Chavistas, who spoke more of their love for Chávez than of any of the government’s policies. At the Jesus Enrique Losada School in the barrio of Chapellin, a small group queued outside at 7am, some of whom had been waiting for over an hour because the polling center was late to open.

Everyone in this group of voters, though they had come separately, said that, in this National Assembly election, they were going to vote for Chavez. They did not mention el processo or their support for MVR or other government parties.

Their sentiments were echoed by Umberto Rodriguez, who was voting in Escuela San Antonio de la Florida, a nearby middle class area. “I’m voting for Chavez because he has charisma; I respect him. He is a real man, a real leader,” said Rodriguez, who works as a chauffer and lives in a barrio in the city. And he was dedicated to casting his vote: Rodriguez waited 6 hours because of a problem at his table in the center.

But government supporters were not the only ones at the polls. Charlese Theresa, who opposed the government, went to vote at the upper class San Ignacio center. “I’m going to vote for the opposition” she said, because, although she liked the government’s social missions she didn’t agree with the land reform law and some of the governments actions toward the media.

She didn’t yet know who she was going to vote for because she was unsure which candidates were still running. But her plan of waiting to see who was listed on the ballot probably wouldn’t help her, since opposition parties dropped out too late to change the ballots. Any vote made for a candidate who had withdrawn would merely be invalidated after the election. In the end, because of the boycott, over 133,000 votes out of around 3 million in Venezuela were declared invalid.

However, for Theresa, at nine in the morning, this was a moot point. Three hours after the official opening of the polls, she was still waiting to cast her ballot. Her table, like many in other voting centers, was not yet working.

The delay in opening voting centers across the city was the result of truancy of many poll workers. They had failed to show up in the morning, due largely to the opposition nonparticipation campaign. The boycotting opposition had managed to successfully slow the voting process in many centers by ensuring that their supporters did not work at the polls. But they had not been able to bring people out in protest of an election they claimed was unfair.

The opposition NGO Sumate, had urged people to go to Church instead of voting. At the Church of San Antonio, in the middle class area of La Florida Baja, two Sumate supporters, Nancy and Cesar Orellana were part of the congregation.

The Orellanas said the number of people in the church was 5 times larger than normal because of the Súmate-led protest. “It’s exactly the same size as normal,” contradicted Alfonso Ocha, a member of San Antonio’s congregation. No one else leaving the Mass said they had gone to church because of Sumate.

But while the voting day itself may have been uneventful, the results of the election were far from it. Chávez’s own party now holds 68 percent of the legislature, more than the two-thirds necessary to change the constitution. Parties in the MVR coalition hold the remaining 32 percent of seats. The opposition won nothing. This marks a huge change from the current National Assembly, where opposition parties have 48 percent representation.

The polls said the opposition was going to lose seats anyway. Still, many Caraqueños (Caracas residents) wanted to have a choice at the ballot box. “I had no one to vote for. I didn’t want to vote for Chavez. He has a big mouth and talks too much,” said Ocha. “Where was the opposition? Who could I vote for?”

Teresa, the opposition woman who was voting in San Ignacio, also voiced her objections to the withdrawal of candidates. “I don’t agree with the opposition boycott, because this is a democracy,” she said. “What bigger test is there than the right to vote?”

The Sumate supporters, on the other hand, blamed the government, rather than opposing parties, for the boycott. “There have been registration problems; the government has created new voters who live in towns with populations that are too small. There have been problems with the fingerprint machines. There is so much corruption,” Orellana said.

The Venezuelan Electoral Commission had agreed to remove the fingerprint machines before the opposition parties began their boycott. According to the OAS, two days before the first of the parties had declared their intention to drop out of the race, they had agreed that the “secrecy of the vote would not be violated.” But Sumate supporters did not trust the judgment of these observers as international groups had verified the results of the failed presidential recall referendum, which Sumate had lobbied hard to pass.

The time had come, the Sumate supporters said, to resort to other measures. “We Venezuelans need to fight against this government, to overthrow it…We have to do whatever it takes to get rid of [them], using all means necessary,” said Cesar Orellana.

Many, though, asserted that the democratic process was working. “Even though the opposition withdrew, opposition sympathizers came independently to vote. This is a democracy. No one is obligated participate. Those who want to participate, participate. The process worked perfectly,” said Monica Estella, a poll worker in Catia.

Marisca Gutierrez, a voter at the same location, expressed her opinion. “I am neither for or against the withdrawal of the opposition,” she said. “To each his own, they are not required to participate.”

At the end of the day, the jubilation that normally marks the ending of elections was low-key. The voting center in Catia closed. The poll workers, overwhelmingly government supporters, cheered, but half-heartedly.

“Do we celebrate now?” asked one.

“I guess,” said another. “We win by forfeit.”