The Economist in Caracas

A response to a recent Economist article, in the form of an alternate version of how the article might have been written, had the Economist considered the other side of the story

A response to a recent Economist article, in the form of an alternate version of how the article might have been written, had the author considered the other side of the story.

VHeadline.com reprinted the Economist article: Kafka in Caracas

Time was when Latin American rulers would lose an election but still manage to win it during the vote count. Not much has changed.

Ironically, President Chavez a great enthusiast for the idea of recall referendums, an innovation in a new constitution he sponsored in 1999 may be hoisted by his own petard.

The self-named Coordinadora Democratica, a temporary coalition of opposition parties and interest groups, has reluctantly taken up the referendum as a means of getting rid of Chavez. This was after a marathon months long session by The Organisation of American States in which its President, Mr Gaviria, finally managed to persuade them that a coup was not a democratically acceptable procedure.

Two self initiated petition drives by the opposition before the halfway point of Chavez’s term in office, the first requirement for a referendum, were turned down. Claims of collecting 27 million signatures were made (Venezuela has a population of 25 million) and though subsequent admissions to the effect that up to ten different forms were available for each person to sign, the signal was clear: This was not going to be an uneventful process.

Given Venezuela’s chequered electoral history the Venezuelan Electoral College (CNE), which was initially welcomed by all, tried to out-manoeuvre potential fraudsters. Despite security printed numbered signature forms, co-signed daily totals, and observers from both sides over 800.000 signatures have a question mark over them. Why? The answer has to do with the difference between the instructions the signature collectors were given, with the wording of the norms governing the referendum, the number of travelling signature forms that were agreed to and the validation process.

The instructions stated that each signatory had to fill out in their own hand their Identity Number, Name and Signature and add their thumbprint. A note had to accompany each individual case where assistance was given, stating the reason.

The norms governing the referendum do not specify this.

The travelling forms, asked for by the opposition, to cater to the bed ridden and agreed to by the CNE were a very generous 12.5 percent of the total forms. In the event over a quarter of the total forms went walkabout and came back, with the exception of the signature and thumbprint, filled in by the same hand. As yet unsubstantiated allegations of these forms circulating through workplaces where workers were encouraged to sign and a potentially large number of proxy signatures of Venezuelans living abroad have complicated matters.

The validation process basically consists in allowing those who had their name entered without their consent to have them removed. To do this one has to present oneself in person and ask to be removed from the list and in depurating the completed forms of those who are not on the electoral register: the underage and foreigners or those who should no longer be: the dead. Unsurprisingly the dead, as has been traditionally the case, voted.

The CNE has found itself in a quandary, if it disallows the suspect signatures it could be disallowing some well-intentioned ones, if it allows the signatures it could be validating illegal ones. Its ingenious solution is to ask the signatories to reconfirm. Un-reconfirmed suspect signatures will not be valid.

The opposition has cried foul, it has indeed done more than that, with some members denouncing the CNE, the Government, the President and everything else while others are, some more some less, actively fomenting violent protests.

The Organisation of American States and the Carter Centre, which have been observing the collection and validation process, have not used the word fraud for either side. What they have done is publicly disagree with the CNE on the assisted signatures while reminding Venezuelans of their constitutional right to protest, an action which might give some governments who might have been considering asking/accepting their help pause for thought.

In play is not only the activation of the referendum, two more years of Chavez if it is not, but the number of signatures that the opposition will start with if it does go ahead. This is a serious matter, as the inevitable calls of fraud if the required number of votes is not reached in the referendum will, depending on how far away they are now, be either more or less believable.

The most believable accusation against the CNE is that it is dragging its feet. If true and if it does so long enough, a successful referendum will get rid of Chavez but not the Government. The Vice President will take over. As for the Opposition most observers will admit to some fraud, the question is how much.

That leaves us with a question and an observation. Why would the supporters of a predominantly middle class movement need help writing out their names and, a populist president in a country with 80% poverty is hard to remove democratically.