Venezuela’s Presidential Recall Vote to be Held August 15

Venezuela's electoral commission decided to schedule the presidential recall vote for August 15. A semi-computerized ballot system will be used

Caracas, Jun 8 ( — Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE), in a 4-1 vote, decided tonight that the date for the recall referendum against President Hugo Chavez will be August 15.

CNE vice-president Ezequiel Zamora, who is accused by many of sympathizing with the opposition, voted with the majority. He explained that he agreed to the date after assurances had been made that the results would be announced prior to August 19 and that the date of the vote would be binding for the determination of whether there will be a new presidential election, should the president’s mandate be revoked.

Opposition supporters have long feared that the recall referendum could be scheduled after August 19 because, according to most interpretations of the Constitution, this is the cut-off date after which the vice-president would replace the president, to serve out the remainder of the term, instead of holding new presidential elections. However, some constitutional experts have said that actually the cut-off date is January 19, 2005.

The difference in the dates can be traced to how one interprets the constitution’s requirement that if the president is recalled in the last two years of his term, the vice-president becomes president for the rest of the term. That is, due to transitional provisions in Venezuela’s new constitution, President Chavez’ term is actually six and a half years, not six, as the constitution normally specifies. This means that if one considers the last two years to begin after the first four are over, then the cut-off date for no presidential election would be August 19, 2004. However, if one counts backwards, from the end of Chavez’ term on January 19, 2007, then the last two years begin on January 19, 2005.

Automated system to be used

Another controversial issue that the CNE addressed was the use of an automated system to conduct the recall vote. CNE president Francisco Carrasquero announced that they have decided to opt for the automated system over the manual one, which traditionally has led to claims of fraud.

The CNE recently decided to purchase 21,000 voting machines from a US-Venezuelan consortium to conduct all votes. These machines allow voters to cast their ballots on a touch-screen and to then print out their vote on a paper ballot and drop it into a conventional ballot box. According to the CNE this would making counting the vote results practically instantaneous and more transparent, but would also allow re-verification via the paper ballots.

The opposition, however, has said that it rejects the voting mahines because it suspects that the CNE will use the machines to manipulate the vote. Pro-Chavez legislator Luis Tascon reacted to this claim, though, by saying that it is the opposition that wants less transparency. “They want to commit fraud with the manual process as they have done in the past. They want to fake the results at the polling stations. Technological tools [such as the voting machines] guarantee transparency, are auditable, and guarantee that the voter’s ballot is respected,” said Tascon in a recent press conference.

According to Tascon, the opposition has many supporters who work within the CNE bureaucracy and could, theoretically, make votes disappear. With the combination of a completely transparent computerized process and paper ballots, this type of fraud would not be possible.

Yes or No?

Another decision that the CNE will have to make soon is how to formulate the ballot question. The constitution requires the question to be formulated so that the answer is a simple “yes” or “no,” but it does not say which answer would mean the recall of the president. The opposition has been basing its recall campaign on a “yes” vote, in favor of the president’s recall. However, some pro-Chavez constitutional experts have suggested that “yes” would mean Chavez is not recalled and “no” that he is recalled. Also, CNE president Francisco Carrasquero has said that neither side will dictate how the CNE formulates the ballot question.