VENEZUELA: International Observers Ratify Chavez’s Triumph in Referendum

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Aug 16 2004 (IPS) - Although the opposition complained of fraud, the international election observer missions monitoring the recall referendum in Venezuela agreed Monday that President Hugo Chávez had won, and said they found no signs of fraud.

Although the opposition complained of fraud, the international election observer missions monitoring the recall referendum in Venezuela agreed Monday that President Hugo Chávez had won, and said they found no signs of fraud.

Nobel Peace laureate and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary-General César Gaviria said in a joint news briefing in Caracas that Chávez survived Sunday’s referendum.

“Our information coincides with the partial results presented by the National Electoral Council (CNE),” said Carter.

“The results are compatible with our figures, and we have not found any elements of fraud,” said Gaviria.

In the early hours of Monday morning, the CNE issued a report containing the preliminary results, according to which 58 percent of the ballots tallied up to that point were in favour of Chávez completing his term, until January 2007, while nearly 42 percent called for his removal.

But the initial report was only approved by the three pro-government members of the CNE, and was rejected by the two opposition members.

With 94 percent of the votes from the electronic polls tallied, 4.99 million voted “No” to the revocation of Chávez’s term, and 3.57 voted “Yes”, said the president of the CNE, Francisco Carrasquero.

Just over 10 percent of the electorate cast their ballots under the old manual voting system, and those results are not yet in.

“These numbers are based on 90 percent of the electorate, and it is impossible for the tendency to be reversed,” said another member of the CNE, Jorge Rodríguez.

The opposition members of the CNE, Ezequiel Zamora and Sobella Mejías, denounced a few alleged procedural irregularities.

The leaders of the Democratic Coordinator opposition coalition, which links around 50 political parties, business and labour organisations and civil society groups, had initially cried fraud and appeared on radio and TV stations early Monday to say they did not accept the outcome.

However, Gaviria said “the opposition should review their results,” and indicated that the projections of the international observers coincided with the preliminary outcome announced by the election authorities.

Carter said an initial count by Súmate, the opposition alliance’s technical arm, found that 55 percent of voters were in favour of Chávez and 45 percent against.

While thousands of Chávez’s followers gathered outside the government palace to cheer their leader and hear his first post-referendum speech, the opposition did not call on their supporters to take to the streets.

“We are going to dedicate ourselves to gathering the evidence to demonstrate to Venezuela and the world, and to the international bodies, the gigantic fraud committed against the will of the people,” said Ramos.

Political scientist Luis Salamanca told IPS that “the result announced by Carrasqueño sounded prefabricated, and if it is true, then abstention was high, which doesn’t fit with what we observed in the streets on Sunday.”

From the early hours of Sunday morning, the longest lines ever seen in elections in this South American country formed outside the voting stations. Carter said that in the more than 50 elections monitored by his organisation, he had never seen such a turnout.

The deadline for closing the polls was postponed twice, and they stayed open until midnight, although some did not actually close until 02:00 local time.

Chávez pronounced “a great victory for the constitution” that was rewritten at his behest in 1999, and which created the possibility of activating a recall referendum for elected officials.

“This is the first time this has been done on planet earth, and I am pleased to be the first president to submit himself to the people’s judgement halfway through his term and to be ratified” in office.

Chávez called for unity and reconciliation, and sent “a hug to our brothers and sisters who voted ‘Yes’.”

He added that his social revolution would now be deepened.

The charismatic, populist Chávez, who was first elected in 1998 and re-elected under the new constitution in 2000, has created a long list of social programmes for the poor, who form his support base.

These efforts have included an adult literacy campaign, a programme under which thousands of Cuban doctors have brought primary health care to the slums, micro-credit schemes for the poor, special markets in low-income neighbourhoods providing food at subsidised prices, and soup kitchens.

Referring to his victory and using terminology from Venezuela’s national sport, baseball, Chávez also said “the ball must have fallen right in the middle of the White House. It’s a present for Bush.”

The president was alluding to the constant verbal attacks he has received from the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush.

The markets reacted favourably to the announcement of Chávez’s triumph, especially the oil market. Analysts like Jon Rugby, with Commerzbank in London, said a Chávez defeat would have generated uncertainty, which would have been reflected in the price of oil.

Venezuela is the world’s fifth largest oil exporter and one of the top four suppliers of the United States, to which it exports 1.5 million barrels a day.

But the international reactions were cautious as governments waited for Carter and Gaviria to give their final opinions on the referendum. A communique from the French Foreign Ministry said it was premature to make a statement until all parties had accepted the results.

And a few minutes before the start of the press conference offered by Carter and Gaviria, a U.S. State Department spokesman in Washington, Tom Casey, refused to comment until first hearing what the international election observers had to say.

The voting went smoothly on Sunday, and Carter and Gaviria congratulated the Venezuelan people for the massive turnout. The head of the Carter Centre said more than 10 million of the 14 million registered voters came out.

However, four people were killed in isolated incidents. A pro-government activist was shot in the early hours of the morning on his way to vote, reportedly caught in the middle of shooting between criminals in his neighbourhood in southwestern Caracas.

In a poor neighbourhood on the east side, several people threw stones at voters as they stood in line, and a soldier, responding to the aggression, accidentally shot and killed a woman.

In Maracaibo, a city in western Venezuela, a heated argument over the results of the referendum spiralled and one local resident opened fire on those who disagreed with him, killing two young men.

Monday was like a day of mass hangover in the capital, with a climate something like that of New Year’s Day, with everyone exhausted after spending up to 15 hours in line outside the voting stations.

Chávez declared the day a holiday for public employees, and urged private businesses to do the same. Most shops in downtown Caracas remained closed, and only a few pharmacies and cafes opened their doors.

Rafael Díaz, a tired-looking cashier in a bakery, said “The best thing is that it’s all over. Now the only thing left is to get to work.”

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