Caracas, Venezuela, March 27, 2006—In the latest electoral concession to the opposition, Jorge Rodríguez, the president of the Venezuelan Electoral Council (CNE), announced Friday not to seek another term.
“[The opposition] will have to find another excuse for not participating in the electoral calendar,” Rodríguez told a press conference.
Immediately, the opposition reacted with skepticism with his decision not to seek reappointment. “With [Jorge Rodriguez's] exit nothing changes if they don't take concrete steps for people to be convinced that the system is trustworthy, because people are not going to vote and there will be extremely high abstention levels come hell or high water,” said Henry Ramos Allup, head of opposition party Acción Democratica.
Last December, in the Parliamentary elections, the major opposition parties dropped out at the last minute because they said the Venezuelan voting machines were not reliable and the CNE could not be trusted. This decision came as a “surprise” to the European Union Observer Mission, as the CNE had conceded to enough opposition demands that earlier in the week many of the same parties that dropped out had told the Organization of American States that they believed “the secrecy of the vote in this process will not be violated” and that they would definitely participate.
Some government officials and some observers have said that the opposition dropped out of the race not because of the CNE, but because they were likely to lose. Others said opposition nonparticipation was a plot to destabilize the country. “We’re heading toward an electoral strike of a subversive character,” said Vice-President Jose Vincent Rangel in the days leading up to the election.
José Silva Pineda, the head of the European Union’s observer mission also said that lack of confidence in the electoral system may not be due to any technical problems in the electoral system, and that the feeling of mistrust was created by the campaigns singularly focused on the electoral process. He described the attitude toward voting in the country with a parallel to travel safety, saying, “For example, traveling by plane is safer than traveling by car, but still there are people who are more afraid of traveling by plane than by car – it is a feeling.”
Since the parliamentary elections, the major opposition parties have put together a list of demands which they say must be met before they agree to run in the presidential election this December. The first is the election of a new electoral council, a goal which is made substantially easier by Rodríguez’s withdrawl. However, another member of five member board of the CNE, Oscar Battaglini, who is widely criticized for being too close to the government, said he will accept a nomination to be appointed director of the electoral body in an interview on the Venezuelan the government’s TV channel. The Venezuelan parliament, 100 percent controlled by pro-Chavez coalition parties after December’s opposition drop out, votes for members of the CNE.
Rodríguez, who was nominated by government supporters, came under fire for questioning signatures on the 2003 referendum to recall President Hugo Chávez which appeared to be written in the same handwriting. Since, he has been an outspoken critic of some members of the opposition, making comments such as, “The presence of [some] non-traditional political actors, such as many of the private mass media …have acquired a political belligerency and often direct the agenda of political actors.” Later he and the other members of the CNE, had been criticized for errors in the electoral registry.
A CNE-commissioned independent audit of the electoral registry, conducted by CAPEL (Electoral Advising and Promotion Center) of the Inter-American Human Rights Center (IIDH) stated, though, “The technical team of IIDH/CAPEL did not find evidence that imply a delegitimation of the electoral registry of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” The CAPEL report further stated, “None of the sensitive inconsistencies, which are determinant for the reliability of the electoral registry surpassed 5% of the allowed for margin of error.”
CAPEL audited the entire electoral registry of 14 million registered Venezuelans, checking it for duplicate ID numbers, duplicate names, and other inconsistencies. CAPEL also examined databases of deceased, the citizenship registry, and visited a random sample of 14,000 registered voters at their registered address. For one of the potentially most likely causes of voter fraud, whereby the same person votes more than once, using the name of a deceased person, CAPEL found 54,951 cases. Rodriguez explained that prior to the last election the CNE had already removed over 400,000 names of deceased persons from the electoral registry and that removing newly deceased individuals is not yet as automatic as it needs to be. The nearly 55,000 deceased in the voter registry represent 0.38% of the entire registry.Sumate, the electoral watch group whose leaders are being charged with treason for having used U.S. government money for supervising and promoting the August 2004 recall referendum, rejected the audit. Although Sumate (“join up”) had long called for an independent audit of the electoral registry, a Sumate press release said that the CAPEL audit had been “conducted behind the back of the country,” implying that citizens were insufficiently informed about the auditing process. CAPEL, according to the CNE, has conducted audits of electoral registries in many Latin American countries over the past ten years.