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Venezuela: to vote or not? The opposition is damned either way

From The Economist

Originally published on Jul 14th 2005 | CARACAS | IT IS election time again in Venezuela—and will be for the foreseeable future. From now until 2021, just one year (2014) is guaranteed to be free of some vote or other. The results, too, may have a predictable feel. Since 1998, when he was first elected president, Hugo Chávez and his allies have defeated the opposition in no fewer than eight votes. Mr Chávez, a former army officer who now calls himself a socialist revolutionary, is not only Venezuela's savviest politician but its most popular, with an approval rating of over 70%.

Barring the unexpected, this suggests that the president and his allies will achieve sweeping victories in local elections next month, a parliamentary poll due in December and a presidential contest a year later. But they are taking no chances. They have engineered a partisan 4:1 majority on the electoral council (CNE), which has broken parts of the electoral law, for example, by last-minute switches in where electors vote. This month, in what looks like an effort to intimidate the opposition, a court consigned for trial on conspiracy charges four leading members of Súmate, an electoral pressure group which played a leading role in organising a failed recall referendum against the president last year. If found guilty, the four face jail terms of up to 16 years.

The government argues that Súmate is not an NGO, as it claims to be, but a disguised political party. Officials say it is plotting with the United States to overthrow Mr Chávez. The evidence? A small grant from the National Endowment for Democracy. This is a bipartisan body funded by the United States' Congress. Súmate says it used the money for workshops on democracy. Prosecutors argue it funded a plan “to destroy the [country's] republican system”.

One of the four, Súmate's telegenic vice-president, María Corina Machado, has recently been received by both George Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. To some in Venezuela's divided and inept opposition, this looks like an ill-judged attempt to anoint Ms Machado as its leader (something she denies). It was seized on by chavistas as further evidence of an “imperialist plot”.

Absurd though the charges against its leaders are, Súmate no longer looks like the neutral pressure group it once claimed to be. It risks going the way of other opposition-led organisations, such as the trade unions, business groups and the media. All were sucked into the vacuum left by the implosion of Venezuela's political parties and were weakened and compromised.

Nonetheless, Súmate's criticisms of the CNE are not easily dismissed. It says that the electoral register is no longer trustworthy and that a combination of voting machines and fingerprinting devices at polling stations threatens the secrecy of the vote. Jorge Rodríguez, the CNE's chairman, rejects these claims.

Many Venezuelans do not. Polls suggest that up to 60% of the electorate have doubts about the CNE's integrity, and that a similar percentage may not turn out next month. But turnout is always low in local elections in Venezuela, so deliberate abstention is unlikely to tarnish their legitimacy, while handing Mr Chávez victory on a plate. Divided over whether or not to abstain, the opposition seems headed for defeat either way.

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