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Open Letter to The Economist re Venezuela's referendum

By Aleksander Boyd


Although I tend to agree with most of what you have printed in the recent piece "Debates and dilemmas," I feel compelled to point out some factual inaccuracies that may cast shades of doubt vis-a-vis the fraud claim.

Mention is made upon the studies conducted by Professors Hausmann and Rigobon, stressing on the conclusion that "...CNE did not use a random sample of voting machines in a post-referendum audit watched by observers from the Carter Center and the Organisation of American States..." May I remind you that in the report released by the OAS in conjunction with the Carter Center, one can read -beginning of page 2- that indeed the software utilized for the random generation of ballot boxes was not the one proposed by the international observers, namely the OAS and the Carter Center, but that selected by National Electoral Director Mr Jorge Rodriguez?

Furthermore, how could it be affirmed that "the Carter Center has run its own check on the data. It insists that the audit was random" (sic) when the official report states "The sample was generated by CNE staff using a simple software program..." (sic). Please do bear in mind that the utilization of said CNE software program was fiercely contested by opposition representatives, who were given the assurance by Carter Center and OAS officials that only the latter's software would be used. Moreover, how could the sample be considered random should one take into consideration that Electoral Director Jorge Rodriguez imposed which states and constituencies were to participate in the pool of voting centres from where the random selection of ballot boxes and tallies were to be produced?

Leaving aside the claims made by Tulio Alvarez with respect to abnormal registration of electors, it is but a disservice to the dissemination of factual and accurate information to convey that the fraud claim has resulted from the Hausmann & Rigobon study as a mere academic conclusion. On the contrary the aforementioned Carter & OAS report leaves no room for subjective interpretation as to whether or not the sample was randomly generated with an approved-by-all-parties software.

London 17 Sep. 2004

Venezuela's referendum

Debates and dilemmas
Sep 16th 2004 | CARACAS
From The Economist print edition

An opposition that cannot move on

STILL licking its wounds after being trounced in a recall referendum on the presidency of Hugo Chávez last month, Venezuela's faction-ridden opposition now faces a dilemma. The Democratic Co-ordinator, the opposition's umbrella body, claims that the referendum was a gigantic fix by the National Electoral Council (CNE). If so, it must demand a change of referee before taking part in elections on October 31st for state governors and mayors. Absent those changes, many opposition voters may stay at home in disgust. But to boycott this vote would hand President Chávez yet another victory.

A split is possible. Parties defending local posts, such as the once-ruling Democratic Action, are likely to take part, come what may. Smaller parties can afford the luxury of abstentionism. To add to the Co-ordinator's woes, it must try to choose a single candidate in each constituency.

Even to some of its own supporters, the opposition's vociferous cry of fraud in the referendum looks partly like a way to justify its defeat. In an increasingly technical debate among statisticians, some more serious claims have been made. A study by two Venezuelan academics (Ricardo Hausmann, an economist at Harvard, and Roberto Rigobón of MIT) concluded that the CNE did not use a random sample of voting machines in a post-referendum audit watched by observers from the Carter Center and the Organisation of American States, which compared paper ballots with the electronic result.

The academics, whose study was requested by an NGO linked to the opposition, compared two different indicators of voter intent: signatures on the petition calling for a referendum and an opposition exit poll. Both are imperfect, but in unrelated ways—yet both were closely correlated with each other and not with the official result. The only credible reason for this, they argue, is fraud. They also claim that in the unaudited machines, opposition votes were some 10% below the level predicted by the signatures; in the audited machines, they were not.

In response, the Carter Center has run its own check on the data. It insists that the audit sample was random, and that there was a high correlation between referendum signatures and opposition votes. The results of the audit “accurately confirm” the official result, it concludes.

Tulio Álvarez, a lawyer for the Co-ordinator, claims other irregularities. He says that almost 2m new voters were registered after the official deadline had passed. In some districts, he claims, registered voters exceeded the total population, and that “phantom voters” numbered hundreds of thousands. He also suggests that there was two-way electronic traffic between the CNE and the voting machines; this would make it possible for alterations before each machine printed its final tally.

The pro-government majority on the CNE dismisses the fraud claims. The observers insist that the referendum was clean. In a final report, César Gaviria, the OAS's departing secretary-general, regretted that the opposition had not acknowledged Mr Chávez's victory. There is no proof that any fraud would have reversed the outcome (though it might have inflated Mr Chávez's victory). The opposition would do well to recognise that—even if it is right to distrust the electoral authority.

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