Venezuela: Elections to the National Assembly – another step on the road to democracy

As Venezuelans go to the polls this Sunday, Dominguez examines the media distortions regarding democracy in Venezuela and rebutts them, looks at the power and importance of the National Assembly, and the real nature of the opposition.

Venezuelans once again go to the polls 

Venezuelans vote on Sunday for the South American nation’s 165-seat National Assembly – its national parliament. This is the 16th national election or referenda since Chávez was first elected President in 1998. 

Venezuela’s last election was a referendum on the right of the President to stand again on 15 February 2009. This was endorsed by 54% of the electorate, against 46% opposing the measure. Sunday’s election is the first to take place against the backdrop of a recession in Venezuela, which has been hit hard by the world recession as have many other countries.

Media distortions, context and the truth about Venezuelan democracy

With these key elections approaching, there has already been a stepping up of media distortions about Venezuela internationally. In the run-up to previous election campaigns, the VSC has noted that the increases in false claims appear to be designed in order to de-legitimise the results and fairness of the elections internationally.

National Assembly elections take place every 5 years and the elected representatives have the power to pass legislation and also to block the president’s legislative initiatives (with the support of over a 1/3 of members). The assembly also has other specific and important powers (outlined in Article 187 of the Constitution) including approving the budget, initiating impeachment proceedings against most government officials (including ministers but not the President, who can only be removed through a recall referendum of the population) and appointing the members of the government’s electoral, judicial, and prosecutorial branches.

However the last time these elections were held in 2005, the oppositions boycotted them in order to seek to delegitimize the result which was to give a majority to supporters of President Chávez. Therefore this year, the one thing that is clear is that the Venezuelan anti-Chávez right wing opposition will inevitably increase its number of seats in parliaments as it will actually contest the seats. 

Some media coverage has already sought to portray the elections as representing a huge gain for anti- Chávez forces if the opposition can stop the pro-Chávez parties gaining two-thirds. However, this would be false. Whilst we can’t predict exactly what the opposition parties would have got in 2005 had they taken part in the democratic process, they did receive more than a third of the vote in elections in the 2006 Presidential elections , gaining 36.9% with 4.3 million votes. (See http://www.cne.gov.ve/web/estadisticas/index_resultados_elecciones.php.) Furthermore, in the previous year, in the 2004 recall referendum, the opposition to Chávez got 40% (3,989,008 votes) – again this was more than one-third (see http://www.cne.gov.ve/referendum_presidencial2004/.)
The results – and claims made in the international media by the Venezuelan opposition and others – on September 26 must be analysed against this background and context if these are to be fully understood.

Rebutting opposition myths: How Venezuelan elections are free and fair

Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) officially announced the opening of the electoral campaign for the elections to renew the 165 seats for the country’s National Assembly in August. The CNE, as with every previous election since 1999, has conducted a national campaign of information to ensure that voters are aware of every detail of a key aspect of exerting their rights as citizens: voting. This year is no exception, and any Venezuelan can easily access the CNE’s website to find out about any aspect of the coming elections of 26 September, including individual voting districts, the list of all candidates in every single district in the country as a whole, officials and representatives to every electoral district, how to cast the electronic ballot/vote and so forth (all of which can be found here: http://www.cne.gov.ve/web/index.php).

The effort goes, however, beyond informing the voter and ensuring their participation. Venezuela’s state institutions are constantly seeking to enfranchise people who had been traditionally excluded by the previous oligarchy-run system. Since 1999 and up to the 2009 referendum, an additional 7 million Venezuelans have been added to the electoral register, thus the 11 years of the Chavez government represent the largest expansion of voters’ participation in the history of the country. The CNE has furthermore, reported that for the 26 September elections, an additional 610,000 more voters have been registered in the country’s electoral rolls. Thus the number of officially registered voters who can cast their vote at the parliamentary elections is 17.772.768; the highest ever. Voting is not compulsory in Venezuela, but pollsters predict a high level of participation of about 70%+ on 26 September.
Whilst in reality it is the opposition in Venezuela who have sought to undermine democracy, of all the elections since 1999 (for president, parliament, governors, municipalities, and referenda), the year when President Hugo Chávez became the President of Venezuela, the country’s opposition has thus far recognised the results of only ONE of them, the 2007 constitutional referendum which the government lost by the smallest of margins (1% / about 50,000 votes). And at every election since 1999, Venezuela’s opposition have nationally and internationally sowed doubts about the probity of the country’s National Electoral Council and of the electoral system. 

And every single such campaign to discredit Venezuela’s elections as not free or fair has found a sympathetic ear in most of the international media, with many pretty much unambiguously echoing Venezuela’s oligarchy’s efforts to discredit the country’s electoral system. It was ostensibly these grounds – the alleged unreliability of Venezuela’s electoral system – that was used as an excuse by the opposition not to participate in the 2005 parliamentary elections. This remained the case even though their request for the withdrawal of the planned use of electronic counting machines was granted by the government, as the opposition withdrew anyway. Yet, elections are invariably declared free and fair by international observers, including from the Organization of American States, the European Union and the Carter Center, amongst many others.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that Venezuela’s elections are probably the cleanest in the world -they are certainly the most observed- national opposition spokespeople, notably but not exclusively, Henry Ramos Allup (national leader of the Accion Democratica party) and Maria Corina Machado (candidate for the Primero Justicia party and head of Sumate, the NGO which famously organised the collection of signatures to oust president Chavez from office with the 2004 recall referendum) have made various TV and public appearances sowing doubts on the CNE’s probity. Both Ramos Allup and Machado signed the infamous ‘Carmona’ decree on April 12, 2002, during the short-lived coup d’etat against President Chávez; a decree which abolished all of Venezuela’s democratic institutions. 

In contrast to the aforementioned claims of the opposition, the automated voting system is subject to 15 audits that are witnessed and verified by representatives from all the political parties. Routine checks are also carried out before, during and after the election. Seven such audits have taken place so far this year; audits which have included representatives from the opposition, from the PSUV and other parties that support the Chavez government, plus specialists and international observers. They audits have all been, as on previous occasions, to everyone’s satisfaction, and the rest of the audits will take place after the poll.

Nor is it true, as it is repeated ad nausea by much of the corporate media, that the Venezuelan government has majority control over the Venezuelan media. The opposition has overwhelming quantitative superiority over the government on TV, even greater control and ownership in the realm of radio stations and even greater still in newspapers. Furthermore, according to a study conducted by the CNE the opposition has had 75.4% of the TV electoral propaganda broadcasts so far in this campaign (see http://www.vtv.gob.ve/noticias-nacionales/42932). 

The real nature of the Venezuelan Opposition and its reliance on US Funding

When looking at the policies, claims and attitudes of Venezuela’s opposition it is particularly important to understand their relationship with the US and their reliance on US funding for their campaigns against the Chávez-led Government. It has, for example, been reported and evidenced that US agencies such as the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED), USAID, IRI and such like, have given Sumate massive amounts of money. Sumate is clearly part of the US destabilisation efforts against Venezuela, and the US has given it enormous importance. (1)

Today, opposition outfits, including many disguised as NGOs such as Sumate, continue to receive millions of dollars of US taxpayers’ money.  In a recent article, Eva Gollinger (see full piece at http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/5623) outlines in depth the aims of this funding and the work of these groups, observing that “A report commissioned by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and published in May 2010 by the Spanish Foundation for International Relations and Foreign Dialogue (FRIDE) revealed that this year alone, international agencies are investing between $40-50 million in anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela. A large part of those funds have been channeled to the opposition coalition, Democratic Unity (MUD), and its campaign for the upcoming legislative elections on September 26.” She adds that “A majority of [such] funding comes from US agencies, particularly USAID, which has maintained a presence in Venezuela since 2002 with the sole intention of aiding in President Chavez’s removal from power,” before concluding that “There remains no doubt the Venezuelan opposition – in all its manifestations – is a product of the US government. US agencies fund and design their campaigns, train and build their parties, organize their NGOs, develop their messages, select their candidates and feed them with dollars to ensure survival.

With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that the opposition’s message for this election as with all previous ones, is intensely negative, exaggerated and strident, but has not been able to formulate a programme of government or a vision of Venezuela that might be inspirational. Worse, through the well rehearsed pronouncements of their spokespeople about ‘defending democracy in Venezuela’, they frequently let out some of their true views, such as that: 
• they profoundly dislike Venezuela’s’ social missions (on winning several municipalities and governorships at the 2008 elections, they launched a spate of physical attacks against anything that resembled Chavista social missions in those constituencies which they won);
• they intensely oppose the presence of the thousands of Cuban doctors and other Cuban specialists who are improving the lives of millions of Venezuelans in these social programmes; 
• they ferociously denounce Venezuela’s bilateral agreements with other Latin American countries – especially Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, the Caribbean and so forth – which they present as a robbery to Venezuelans rather than mutually beneficial examples of regional co-operation; 
• many of their national leaders have absconded (mainly in Peru and Miami) avoiding trials for gross acts of corruption; and the opposition rallies unconditionally behind any member of the oligarchy who is caught engaged in corruption activities (2.)

Furthermore, during former Colombian President Uribe’s desperate effort to cause a serious confrontation, perhaps even a military confrontation, with Venezuela in the last weeks of his presidency, the opposition sided with Uribe against Venezuela. (See Chavez-Santos Summit in Colombia: UNASUR-brokered peace breaks out, http://www.zcommunications.org/chavez-santos-summit-in-colombia-by-francisco-dominguez). Chavez’s agility to positively respond to Colombia’s President Manuel Santos to hold a summit and take decisive steps to undo the cobweb of deceit and aggression woven by his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, boosted Chavez’s standing in his own country, in Colombia and in the whole region (it did so for Santos as well) and left Venezuela’s opposition stuck in the uncomfortable position of pretending they had never supported Uribe and that were always for peace, ‘friendship with Colombia’ and so forth. In this sense, the whole saga was politically very damaging for them.


The key battles in the coming parliamentary elections on September 26, as in previous elections, will take place in the main cities, namely, Caracas (which elects 10 MPs), Carabobo (10 MPs), Lara (9 MPs), Miranda (12 MPs), Anzoategui, Aragua and Bolivar (8 MPs each), and Zulia (15 MPs), that is to say, the main and most populated urban centres. Polls on the whole – most pollsters in Venezuela broadly speaking share the opposition’s politics -have indicated that Chavismo is likely to win a majority of seats. (See for example, The Miami Herald’s Hugo Chávez looks to keep control of Venezuela’s parliamentary seats, 9 Sept, 2010, http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/09/15/1827049/hugo-chavez-looks-to-keep-control.html ). 
But until Venezuelans cast their vote on 26 September nobody can know in advance the actual results. What we do know for sure is that the electoral process will be as clean and as transparent as it has been up to now. What we also know is that Venezuela’s opposition, despite repeated appeals by the CNE, President Chavez, and spokespeople of the PSUV, has not declared yet that it will recognise the results. Finally, we also know that, whatever the result, the Chavistas will recognise them.

Footnotes: 1)  So much so that on 31 May 2005, President Bush received Maria Corina Machado at the Oval Office in the White House (http://www.life.com/image/53002610). 
2)  Such as the recent case of  Francisco Mezerhane, head of the Banco Federal, in which the evidence (although the case is still pending) points to the robbing of Venezuelan depositors of hundreds of millions of dollars, the creation of hundreds of ghost companies, and the illegal use of thousands of ordinary Venezuelan’s names -including forging their signatures- with the purpose of carrying out fraud. Mezerhane is currently  in Miami and the opposition have rallied to his defence presenting his case against him by the government as political persecution – (see:http://www.noticierodigital.com/2010/08/mezerhane-se-defiende-de-gobierno-por-persecucion-en-su-contra