After fourteen years of Hugo Chávez’s personalist leadership, Venezuelans took their first steps into a brave new world of political contestation on April 14 when they elected a president to fulfill Chávez’s term. The fireworks that marked the aggressive campaign are, in a sense, still going off.
The unexpectedly close special presidential election between interim president Nicolás Maduro and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, with a difference of 1.8 percent of the vote (or 272,865 votes), was followed by postelection turmoil in the streets and opposing international calls for either a vote recount or immediate recognition of Maduro’s slim victory.
After losing by 11 points to the recently deceased Hugo Chávez last October, Capriles turned in what by opposition standards was a terrific result. Emboldened by winning a record-high 7.3 million votes, and troubled by the lack of fairness in campaign conditions, Capriles called for a full recount and refused to accept the results until it was carried out. Turnout reached approximately 80 percent, half a percentage point less than in October, once again making it clear Venezuelans value the ballot.
The Terms of an Audit
Semantics surrounding Venezuela’s automated voting system bogged down this recount demand, and international calls for a recount further confused the discussion. But these are not just pedantic semantics.
The National Electoral Council (CNE) and Supreme Court head rejected the calls for a “recount,” arguing that it would mean a return to the manual voting method of the past, which was discarded because of suspected fraud fifteen years ago. The CNE did, however, eventually agree to an “audit.”
In Venezuela, citizens vote on touch-screen voting machines and receive a paper receipt to confirm their electronic vote. They deposit the slip in a ballot box to be available for a “citizen verification” of the electronic vote in slightly more than half of the voting tables after the close of the polls on election night. The legal vote is the one registered in the voting machine and printed out from the machine, with copies going to the central election headquarters, the election workers at that voting table and all of the party witnesses present.
Though publically Capriles had called for a “recount vote by vote,” on April 17 the campaign formally requested an audit of the system, including a comparison of the paper receipts and electronic tally sheets along with the number of voters recorded in the manual voters’ log, as well as an audit of all of the remaining “voting instruments,” including the fingerprint registration machines.
The next night, the CNE offered to expand “citizen verification” to include all of the ballot boxes in what they term a technical audit, an attempt to verify the consistency between the paper receipts and electronic tally sheets, and Capriles publicly accepted. The audit is expected to take one month. In eight years of using these machines, no discrepancies have been found in the post-election audits and none is expected to be found this time.
For now, the battle over semantics, and underlying principles, continues as the Capriles campaign is in a dispute with the CNE over what else the audit should encompass.
The opposition claims three types of irregularities occurred that could affect the election results—inconsistencies in the number of voters and number of votes in some locations, serious shortcomings in the quality of voting and grossly unequal campaign conditions.
The additional materials requested by the campaign are meant to allow them to investigate some of the shortcomings they and national observers identified, including coerced voting in the form of persons assisting voters who did not need assistance; and possible double-voting and impersonating other (dead) voters. Records from Venezuela’s fingerprint identification machines, which were introduced precisely to prevent double voting and impersonation, as well as registers of “incidences” in the voting place, could help determine the extent of such potential irregularities.
Other complaints involving the ousting of opposition party witnesses from a number of voting centers, thus preventing the opposition from monitoring those locations, and intimidation of voters by government-affiliated motorcycle gangs, are serious charges. But it is more difficult to measure their impact on the vote count. Finally, complaints affecting the competitiveness of the election, such as unequal campaign financial resources or media access, were submitted prior to the election, but are impossible to quantify the impact on the actual vote.
Underlying the Dispute
If the dispute is at one level semantic, underneath it there lies a fundamental demand for recognition from each side. The government argues it won the election with 51 percent of the vote and should be able to govern as the winning majority, without “co-governing.” It points out that the opposition technical experts have participated in sixteen different audits of the voting system before and after each election, and have repeatedly declared the automated machines to be secure and accurate, and the vote secret.
The opposition argues that for the first time since Chávez became president in 1999, they represent half of the country and should be recognized as such, rather than be excluded and unprotected by the government. They want to have their views taken into account on decisions of national import, such as how to increase productivity and reduce crime, and participate in the appointment of public authorities, such as justices and election authorities.
But until the election dispute is resolved, the opposition will not recognize the legitimacy of the Maduro government, and the Maduro government will not talk with those who fail to recognize its legality and its legitimacy. Both leaders face internal factions and pressure to demonstrate their strength and combativeness.
More pressing in the long term are the deeper issues. Maduro leads a movement that both espouses revolutionary ambitions and rests its international and national legitimacy on its electoral mandate. In a revolutionary process, principles cannot be compromised. Yet the electoral logic and the 1999 constitution require negotiation and compromise in some circumstances in such a divided nation. For example, a two-thirds vote in the legislature is needed for essential decisions, which in turn requires building coalitions across party lines to move forward.
Capriles leads a heterogenous alliance that has often denied in the past that it was in fact a minority in the country. Although the largest part of the alliance believes in the secrecy and security of the vote, a small, vocal sector continues to raise the specter of fraud, sowing doubt in the minds of opposition supporters not only about this election but future elections.
Thus Venezuelan leaders are at a stalemate. The postelection audit offers the first opportunity for dialogue. The opposition complaints deserve to be investigated based on the evidence they submit through formal channels. If no evidence is found to change the results, then the opposing candidate should accept the results and acknowledge the legitimacy of the victor. If evidence is found that could impact the voting results, then further investigation would be merited to determine if the election should be partially or completely redone. In either case, a review of the voting and campaign conditions for future elections is merited.
Jennifer McCoy is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University and director of the Carter Center’s Americas Program.
Michael McCarthy is a professional lecturer at Johns Hopkins-SAIS and a consultant to the Carter Center on Venezuela.