Chavez won and he won big. According to preliminary results, which have been ratified by all international observers, the lead over the opposition was about 15% - 58% in favor of Chavez and 42% against. Of course, the opposition, as a result of being misled by some of their leadership, is convinced that Chavez managed to steal 3.5 million votes in the most transparent, secure, and fair vote of the country’s history. Not only that, it broke its promise to recognize the results if international observers ratify it. What happened?
In few countries in the world would ten million people stand in line for up to ten hours, in the blazing sun, to cast a simple ballot that merely says “yes” or “no.” The long lines, however, were unnecessary. The National Electoral Council (CNE) miscalculated terribly, thinking that it could manage the anticipated large turn-out, the 2.5 million new voters, and voting technology that Venezuela had never used before. Originally the CNE had intended to increase voting centers, since the poorest neighborhoods, the barrios, had as few as one tenth the voting centers per capita as some middle class neighborhoods. The plan, however, was scrapped out of fear that people would not know where to vote and due to a lack of time. It thus was no surprise that these “mega voting centers” had to field kilometer-long lines and 12-hour waits in some cases.
Despite the general enthusiasm to vote, voting centers where there were technical problems and the lines thus were especially slow, citizens began to lose their patience and blamed the other side, the opposition or Chavistas, on the delays, saying that this was a coordinated plan of the other side. The main bottleneck did turn out to be the fingerprint scanners that were supposed to prevent people from voting more than once, using false identification cards of other voters. However, the reason the fingerprint checking slowed things down had nothing to do with technology. It generally took much less time to check one’s fingerprint (about 30 seconds) than to sign-in at the voting table. The reason it slowed the process down was that apparently an exceptional number of people assigned to staff the fingerprint scanners never showed up. Thus the lack of operational scanners slowed the process down tremendously.
Other than the delays, the voting as a whole proceeded smoothly and, unusually for Venezuela, with hardly an incident. The only serious incident, if one can call it that, was the spread of rumors, from relatively minor ones that suspected the other side being responsible for the delays, to perhaps the most serious one, which said already at noon that Chavez was losing 60 to 40.
But how could anyone know that? The answer is exit polls. In the days leading up to the vote, the opposition coalition Democratic Coordinator had announced that it would present results of its exit polls in the course of the recall referendum day. The Carter Center and the OAS, however, supposedly managed to convince the opposition and the media not to present exit polls before voting had concluded. Nonetheless, the opposition, via various important spokespersons, spread the rumor, particularly to any journalist who would listen, that Chavez was losing, according to “very reliable sources.” At one 1am the Democratic Coordinator even sent out an e-mail to foreign correspondents, making this claim.
A closer examination of their exit polling technique, however, seems to show that it was extremely unprofessional. Voting centers in the wealthy Altamira district, for example, had up to twenty pollsters, while not a single one was spotted in the barrios. If Sumate, the main organizer of the opposition’s polls, had been truly interested in making their polls credible, it should not have released its results early on in the form of rumors, thus contravening rules against doing so, and it should publish its methodology, to prove it did not merely poll in neighborhoods that tend to support the opposition.
Rather than being an accurate and honest measure of how people voted, the exit polls appear to have had the function creating a public opinion climate among observers, media, and the international community, which would help the opposition to discredit the official results once they were released.
When the official results were released, at about 4 am in the morning, electoral council president Francisco Carrasquero read off the results, saying that the “no” vote, against the recall of president Chavez, had gathered 58.25% of the vote and that the “yes” vote, in favor of the president’s recall, had gathered only 41.75% of the vote.
However, another interesting opposition strategy to prejudice the results had already been put into place. Days earlier the opposition insisted that the CNE release the results as early as possible and even threatened that if they did not, they would release their exit polls instead. So, when, three hours after most voting centers had closed, the CNE did announce the results, pro-opposition electoral council board members said that they rejected the preliminary results essentially because they felt they were rushed. Thus, the combination of the pro-opposition board members’ rejection of the preliminary results, the highly questionable exit polls, and the absolute conviction among members of the opposition that Chavez would lose, ended up convincing the opposition that the results were fraudulent.
Immediately following the electoral council announcement of the preliminary results, a group of opposition leaders said that they did not believe the council’s results and that their exit polling data indicated that the opposition had won, 59% to 41%. So, even though the electoral council is supposed to be the country’s final arbiter over elections results, everyone was now anxiously waiting to hear what the international observers had to say, specifically the Carter Center and the Organization of American States, which had the largest and most sophisticated delegations in the country.
Finally, about ten hours after the electoral council had announced its first results, former US president Jimmy Carter and OAS General Secretary Cesar Gaviria held a press conference and released the tension by telling the country what they thought of the results. They stated unequivocally that they agreed with the electoral council’s figures for the referendum: Chavez had won with a lead of about 15% over the opposition. Carter, when asked how he reconciles this with the opposition’s statements, said, “All Venezuelans should accept the results, unless the results are wrong, and we have not received any evidence for that.” The OAS and Carter Center reached their conclusions not just by failing to observe any evidence of fraud, but they conducted their own “quick counts” of selected voting centers, which verified the official results.
However, the opposition still says that there was fraud. Fraud not just of a minor sort, where a close vote against a candidate is turned into a close vote in their favor, but a massive fraud, where a 20% win for the opposition was supposedly turned into a 15% loss. That would mean a theft of 3.5 million votes (35% of 10 million) – a presumably unprecedented amount in the history of elections.
Opposition websites and statements from opposition leaders are now full of claims that a massive fraud has been perpetrated. The amazing thing about such a claim is that the opposition does not have even the slightest shred of proof or even circumstantial evidence for making such a claim. Their entire claim is based on their own highly questionable exit polls. (The pro-government campaign also conducted exit polls, by the way, which reflect the official results.) So the opposition is now demanding that the vote be audited down to every single paper ballot. In principle, some pro-Chavez electoral officials have indicated a willingness to do so.
In all of this one should keep in mind that the voting machines and the entire voting procedure are designed in such a way that if there had been fraud committed, the point at which it occurred would be detected almost immediately. The system is filled with redundant security mechanisms, including printed ballots, which would immediately show exactly where the vote had been altered.
It appears that the most likely consequence will be that the opposition will divide into a sector that will continue to insist that there was fraud and one that will recognize the reality of their loss and will work with the government. The sector that continues to insist on fraud will probably be made up of small parties that have little to lose, either in the upcoming regional elections or in business with the government, such as La Causa R, Primero Justicia, and Movimiento al Socialismo. The ones that will work with the government or will at least recognize the results, are the chamber of commerce and Accion Democratica, which is one of the few parties that still has a chance to win posts in the regional elections. There is a third sector of the opposition, the radical far right, which is the sector that has sponsored terrorist attacks and paramilitary activity within Venezuela, which will probably use the fraud claims of the small parties as an excuse to re-launch their violent campaign.
Despite all of this, the Chavez government has been re-legitimized and is now stronger than ever. The opposition has now not only lost its military base, due to the coup, its oil base, due to the oil industry shut-down, but now it will have also lost every last shred of credibility if it continues to insist that it won the recall referendum.