Controversy Surrounds Opposition Recall Referendum Petition

Chavez supporters site numerous reports that private employers are pressuring employees to sign petition against President Chavez.

Caracas, Nov 28 ( Government supporters say that the opposition is threatening and bribing people to sign the petition for recall referenda against President Chavez and legislators who support his government. In a press conference late this evening, Ismael Garcia read a long list of accusations coming from election observers around the country, from people who have been threatened with being fired if they did not sign the petition and in some cases bribed to do so. The accusations say that citizens are being asked by their employers to present proof that they have signed.

A key element in the accusations are little business card sized cards which are being distributed to citizens. On one side of the card people are supposed to write down their personal data, such as identification number, full name, and birth date, just as it is found in the electoral registry. The card provides a toll-free telephone number, so that citizens can look up exactly how their data is stored in the registry, in case there is any doubt as to how they this data is registered. On the back side of the card spaces are provided for entering the serial number of the petition form, the person’s signature, and one’s thumbprint. This is same information that must also be entered in the petition forms.

During Thursday’s press conference, President Chavez already said that these cards represent a very similar tactic that used to be employed by previous governments to win elections in Venezuela.

Labor Minister Maria Cristina Iglesias said that the cards represent a danger to workers’ rights and that if any employers use them to force their employees to sign, those employers should sign and invalidate their signature by either signing more than once or by entering a false identification number. The National Electoral Council (CNE) president, Francisco Carrasquero said that the charges surrounding the cards are being investigated. However, telling people to falsely sign is not an acceptable solution.

Sumate, the organization which is distributing the cards, was the main organization which organized the February 2nd petition drive, in favor of a recall referendum against President Chavez. The CNE invalidated that petition in August because the signatures were collected well before the citizen right to holding a referendum became effective. That is, the right to a recall referendum becomes a reality only once the elected official’s term in office has reached its half-way point.

Since then, Sumate has taken a much lower profile, especially since its status as a non-profit organization has been questioned and because of questions about how it was being financed. Sumate’s current campaign to inform citizens of their electoral registration information and of the procedures for participating in the recall referendum process is being funded by grants from the United States, via the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), according to Sumate’s director, Corina Machado.

Sumate says that the cards’ purpose is to provide citizens with accurate information about their registration so that their signatures are valid and to guard against fraud by allowing signers to find their signatures easily, via the petition form’s serial number, should there be any question about whether the person had signed.

Another controversy involving Sumate is its effort to place computers at all signature collection locations, with which citizens can verify their registration date before singing. The CNE, however, issued a declaration, saying that the computers are not permitted, primarily because Sumate was using an old electoral registry to verify the data and that over 400,000 new voters had been registered who are not in Sumate’s directory. Opposition legislators argued that the computers should not be allowed because they suspect that Sumate would try to enter people who are not registered and transfer their data into the official registry.

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