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Venezuela: Troubling decisions by the CNE

By Seth Antilles, Citigroup's country economic & market analysist

13.02.04 - On Wednesday night, the electoral board (CNE), in a 3-2 vote, decided to force a recount of signatures in 13 out of 23 states. The origins of the decision are based in the brief history of the validation process. During the review of the first 13 states, the number of signatures that were invalidated was very low, not surprising given the tremendous organizational efforts of the opposition during the signature gathering process. Consequently, upon completion of the review of the first 13 states, pro-Chavez factions of the CNE toughened the validation requirements.

All signatures that shared the same handwriting in the remaining 10 states would be placed into a “questionable” pile. These “questionable” signatures, those with the same handwriting, were labeled “planas”. By all appearances it seems that the rules of the game were changed mid way through the signature review process in order to prevent the opposition from triggering a recall referendum (RR) on the presidency by a landslide. Instead, the RR has been put at risk, because it now seems possible that the CNE could rule that there are an insufficient number of signatures to trigger a RR on the President. Wednesday night’s decision by the CNE claims to apply equal standards to both all signatures. In fairness to the CNE, the same standards should be applied to all the signatures. The real injustice was committed once the rules of the game were changed after the validation of signatures for the first 13 states was completed.

A Strike Against Electoral Rights

Should “planas” be separated from valid signatures? When former President Jimmy Carter was in Venezuela several weeks ago, he stated that the will of the voter should be given priority over technicalities. His comment was intended to highlight a basic electoral principle of modern democracies: there should be no discrimination based on one’s ability to read or write legibly. The fact that there are many “planas” is in part due to the low education level in Venezuela. Not surprisingly, given that the average education level among Chavez supporters is lower than the average education level of opposition supporters, the percentage of “planas” among the signatures gathered by the Chavistas against opposition congressmen is far higher than those signatures gathered by the opposition for a RR against President Chavez.

The less educated are not the only ones who did not sign for themselves. Elderly people may not have signed for themselves. In other cases, having officials sign for citizens was both a time saving device and a way to prevent errors. Importantly, each time an individual signed, four observers were present, two individuals trained by the CNE, plus two witnesses, one being a representative from the opposition, and one being a representative from the Chavista side. If there were objections to who was doing the signing, they could have been raised at the time of the signing.

Lessons Learned

Several observations can be drawn from the recent behavior of the CNE:

1) There are enough valid signatures to trigger a RR on the President.

2) The CNE appears to have acquiesced to pressures from the executive branch, which explains their decision to change the rules of the game in the middle of the validation process.

3) The CNE has created yet another hoop for the opposition to jump through and;

4) the CNE’s credibility as a fair arbiter has been severely shaken.

The latest CNE ruling has put the social and political equilibrium on tenuous ground. The electorate is once again angry and frustrated. Another major misstep by the CNE could close off an electoral exit to the crisis, and pave the way to mass protest marches. A major march is already planned for Saturday (tomorrow).

What next?

According to the CNE, the signatures from these 13 states should be reviewed over a two-day period. The number of questionable signatures will certainly grow. The “questionable” signatures will not automatically be invalidated, in our view. Such a decision by the CNE would be seen by the opposition as a blatant abuse of citizen electoral rights, and would trigger an immediate institutional and social crisis with an uncertain outcome for President Chavez--not a desirable outcome for the Chavez administration.

There is a proposal before the CNE to grant a five-day window for individuals to come forward and claim the "questionable" signatures as representing them. While the CNE board has announced that a final decision on the RR will come before February 29 and the OAS and Carter Center have state publicly that they expect a decision from the CNE no later than February 28, technicians at the CNE have stated that delays until March 10 are possible due to procedural issues. The CNE appears to have raised a significant obstacle to a RR on President Chavez. But unlike previous attempts to bring about political change, the opposition is operating with two important advantages. First, opposition protests in the past were seen by many inside and outside Venezuela as attempting to achieve a political transition through undemocratic means. In contrast, today the opposition is clearly pursuing political change through peaceful, democratic, and constitutional mechanisms. Consequently, there is greater sympathy domestically and internationally for the political process favored by the opposition.

Second, there are more than enough signatures to trigger the RR on President Chavez, and the evidence has been distributed to key international actors. The electorate seem convinced there are more than enough signatures as do the OAS, the Carter Center, and the US government. As much as the CNE is attempting to introduce subtleties to the validation process, the reality is that there are no subtleties, the signatures are there, and key actors cannot be fooled. While the latest obstacle presented by the CNE may be considerable, the democratic right of the opposition is too powerful, the will of those who signed is too strong, and the evidence is too obvious for the CNE to deny.

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