Since April’s presidential election Venezuela’s conservative opposition have been desperately trying to convince both the country and world opinion that the 1.5% win by Nicolas Maduro was a fraud, and that the real winner was Henrique Capriles.
Although this claim has been met with skepticism and outright dismissal by informed observers and regional leaders alike, it has been treated seriously by mainstream Western press and the U.S. government, with the latter so far refusing to recognise the Maduro presidency. Yet curiously, recent statements made by opposition politicians have undermined Capriles’ stance and risk giving the game away over the fraud claim.
Preparing to cry fraud
Suspicions that the opposition would attempt to claim fraud in the 14 April election began shortly after the death of late President Hugo Chavez. In the weeks running up to the election the opposition began to prepare the ground through a campaign to delegitimise Venezuela’s voting system as untrustworthy and the National Electoral Council (CNE) as biased toward the government.
Then, following Maduro’s pronouncement as winner by the CNE, Henrique Capriles refused to recognise the election result, demanding a 100% re-count. The next evening the opposition leader went further, calling on supporters to “vent their rage” over the result by going out onto the streets to bang pots and pans. Along with peaceful protest, this provoked attacks by far-right opposition supporters, resulting in 11 deaths and damage to Cuban-staffed health centres and other government social programs.
To accommodate the opposition and calm the political situation, on 18 April the CNE agreed to audit the 46% of the votes not already audited on voting day. Henrique Capriles initially accepted the deal, then rejected it, and now awaits the likely failure of his challenge to the result in the country’s Supreme Court in order to take his claims to international bodies.
The evidence stacked against the opposition
Now, whatever one may think of the politician in question, the charge of electoral fraud is serious, and if true would be a major setback for democracy in Venezuela and the region. Yet observers well informed on the nature of Venezuela’s voting system and National Electoral Council (CNE) reject the fraud claim as a near-impossibility. There are several reasons for this:
1) The functioning and safeguards of Venezuela’s electronic voting system, which would make successfully committing electoral fraud almost inconceivable. It is worth repeating that Venezuela’s electoral system has been described as the “best in the world” by former US president Jimmy Carter, the head of the Carter Centre electoral NGO. Following the 14 April election, even pro-opposition journalist Eugenio Martinez argued that the checks and safeguards of the process “leave little room for questioning” of the result.
2) The flimsy “evidence” presented by the Venezuelan opposition to support their fraud claim. This evidence has been cataloged and examined by VA.com’s Chris Carlson, who concluded that “every single example is either demonstrably false, or extremely implausible”.
3) The results of the CNE’s audits of the vote, both on and after voting day. The audits check that the electronic vote made by the elector matches against the paper vote emitted by the voting machine after voting. The paper vote is used as a kind of “receipt” by the voter to check that the machine has recorded their vote properly. So far, with 95% of ballot boxes audited the CNE reports 99.98% accuracy between the paper receipts and the corresponding electronic tallies.[i] Furthermore, a study by the Washington-based CEPR of the “hot audit” (the audit conducted on voting day itself) of 54% of ballots found that the statistical chance of the remaining un-audited votes containing enough errors to change the outcome of the election to be “less than one in 25 thousand trillion”.
None of this has prevented the opposition to continue to argue that the 14 April election was “stolen” from them. Indeed, Capriles has begun to embark on trips abroad to seek greater international support for his non-recognition of Maduro’s presidency.
Giving the game away?
However, in the midst of the proclamation of fraud, recent statements by the opposition themselves risk giving the game away.
Last week the CNE announced that municipal elections will be held on 8 December. Despite Henrique Capriles’ challenge to the 14 April presidential election being still lodged in the Supreme Court, opposition politicians responded to the CNE’s call for local elections with gusto, calling on their supporters to turn out to vote and predicting electoral victory.
Here’s what Carlos Ocariz, mayor of the Sucre municipality in Miranda state and a political ally of Henrique Capriles, had to say about the municipal elections.
“From here we pronounce ourselves and we say with emphasis that we’re ready for this new electoral process just around the corner. Although the CNE has shown itself as not very transparent in taking balanced decisions, as it always looks to benefit the political actors of the government, we have a leadership that we’ve achieved through our work and the figure of Henrique Capriles Radonski. This gives us strength to confront this new challenge and because of that we put out the call to exercise the right to vote, to keep fighting for the truth that Venezuela needs so much. We’ll thrash whoever they [Chavismo] put against us in Sucre as we’ve done in other electoral processes”.
If that statement comes as a surprise, the comments made by Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, executive secretary of the opposition’s MUD coalition, went even further. Of the municipal elections, Aveledo said “we’re going to participate with everything we’ve got” adding that “participating is the best way to show the bias of this power [the CNE]”. He then went on to affirm that “there, where the citizen votes, that vote cannot be substituted, no one changes that vote”.
Aside from the now-obligatory comments from opposition politicians that the CNE “favours” the government,[ii] there is a strikingly contradictory approach developed here by the opposition. On one hand, opposition politicians claim that the presidential election was “stolen” and that the CNE committed fraud in favour of the government. On the other, they ask their supporters to continue participating in elections organised by the CNE, demonstrate their confidence in electoral victory, and even defend the trustworthiness of the vote. So which is it? Do the opposition really think the electoral system is fraudulent and that they could be denied a legitimate victory, but are happy to participate anyway? Or are the opposition conscious that Venezuela’s electoral system is trustworthy and accurate, and therefore are aware that their fraud claim is, in fact, fraudulent?
Once again it is the opposition’s own conduct which is most revealing. Only sixteen months ago the MUD coalition asked the CNE to help organize the opposition’s own internal primary elections. At the time, Aveledo called the CNE “an excellent indication of democratic institutions in the country”. Further, before the presidential election last October, Aveledo hastened to assure opposition supporters that “in reality, the vote is secret”, a “reality” also voiced by Henrique Capriles on the eve of the 14 April election.
As such, it appears that the opposition’s strategy is not about overturning an election result that they know to be accurate. Rather, their aim is to de-legitimise the government and help provoke a political and economic crisis in which Maduro is either forced to resign or loses a recall referendum in three years. Seeking international pressure over supposed electoral fraud will be part of this strategy. Capriles said as much when he spoke to Reuters recently: “I think this government, in the current conditions of illegitimacy added to a deep economic crisis it's showing no intention of addressing, is going to cave in. What does that mean? Well, all the mechanisms are in the constitution: referendum, new election, resignation”.
Time will tell whether the opposition’s strategy is successful or whether the government and the Chavista movement will manage to steer a successful course in the coming period. In the meantime, global mainstream media should accurately inform on the opposition’s contradictory discourse behind their fraud claim…but don’t hold your breath.
[i] It should also be highlighted that the 0.02% inconsistency between the electronic vote and the paper receipt is not because the voter’s choice is recorded inaccurately, but due to a range of incidents such as voters destroying the paper vote by mistake instead of depositing it in the CNE’s ballot box.
[ii] The charge that the CNE lacks transparency and is closed in its attitude toward the opposition was addressed by Dan Beeton in an article for the CEPR here. In it, he writes: “Contrary to his (Capriles’) characterization of a biased and obstructionist CNE, as we have previously noted the CNE has made many concessions to the opposition, including 18 different audits, all of which involve witnesses from both parties. Capriles talks of numerous opposition observer complaints from throughout Venezuela on election day, yet our election live-blog on April 14 included numerous live reports from election monitors who talked to opposition representatives at dozens of voting centers in several states; few had any complaints, even less that could be considered serious. Capriles has shifted the focus of his attack to the electoral registry, but demographers from the Catholic University had reviewed the electoral registry prior to the election and found it trustworthy”.