David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
One of the strengths of Venezuelan democracy is that the National Electoral Council (CNE) has the highest level of approval of any public institution in the country. Datanalisis’ most recent poll puts the CNE’s level of public approval at 62.6%, compared to the Armed Forces (59%) and the Supreme Court (51.2%). It has successfully carried out a myriad of elections and referenda in the last 12 years that have been considered fair and clean by international observers. However, the CNE has not been exempt from criticism: four of the five members of its ruling body are considered by the opposition to be close to the government, and it has consistently failed to limit government abuses in the use of state institutions for electoral propaganda. Here we look at the principal issues, debates and criticisms that have surrounded the CNE so far during the 2012 presidential campaign.
In May technicians from political parties were allowed to audit the Electoral Registry (RE) for the October presidential elections and the December regional elections. According to the RE, as of April 15 2012 (the date in which the RE was closed for new registrations) there were 19,119,809 voters (In the nine month leading up to April 15, 1,483,101 new voters registered).
During the auditing process, political parties of the opposition focused on reviewing the geographical distribution of voters. According to the RE 1,589,957 voters changed address and voting centers. For the opposition there was concern that the “migration” of voters could hide a political bias (meaning that voters from the opposition’s geographical strongholds had been migrated elsewhere). But according to the press release, although the opposition technicians found certain “discrepancies,” no such political bias was found.
A second concern was the possible presence in the RE of doble cedulación (double ID)–cases of voters with the same name and date of birth, that appear several times in the RE but with different ID numbers. An increase was indeed found–30,842 cases vs. the 18,057 cases found in the February 2011 revision—but such cases were found by the technicians to be statistically irrelevant.
Integrated Authentication System (SAI)
The SAI refers to the combined use of the ID card (cedula) and the fingerprint scan in order to identify voters. According to the CNE web page it amounts to a “biometrical tool for the identification of voters through which the elector will be able certify his or her identity in front of the voting machine using his ID number and his fingerprint.”
The SAI was also presented to technicians in May. Before the demonstration there was concern that the new authentication of voters system may cause undue delays in the polling lines and leave out registered voters. Another concern was that it could cause voters to lose confidence in the system, as they might believe their votes will not be secret. However, Súmate (an opposition NGO focusing on electoral participation) did assure that the SAI does not violate the secrecy of the vote.
The CNE’s demonstration of the SAI to the political parties seems to have been a success and did much to strengthen their trust in the system. Enrique Marquez (a representative of both Un Nuevo Tiempo (an opposition party aligned with the MUD) and Comando Venezuela at the demonstration), expressed satisfaction that the digital scans of finger prints were impossible to duplicate and that the process was trustworthy. However, there was concern regarding the time it would take each voter to vote. The CNE had claimed that the whole process would take under 1 minute per voter once at the voting table; however, the test done on member of the parties present at the demonstration averaged 86 seconds. The CNE said it would revise the process in order to reduce voting times.
Discussion of Rules for the Presidential Election
There was a lot of criticism in May and June regarding delays in publication of the rules and regulations for this election. They were finally published on June 7 and can now be downloaded from the CNE webpage. With respect to advertising the regulation says each candidate can only contract three minutes of airtime per day, while on radio it can take up to four minutes. In print media each campaign is allowed one half page of advertisements per day in standard newspapers and a full page in tabloid type newspapers.
The regulation also very clearly limits what can be said by public officials in public events and prohibits the use of public media programs for campaign message (see Articles 213 & 222).
Automated Registry System of Surveys (SARE)
The CNE also decided that it would standardize the technical information that is divulged with electoral tracking polls. Starting June 25, only firms that are registered in the SARE will be allowed to make their results public. According to the CNE, the survey agencies approved in the SARE will have a “technical file” that electors will be able to view in the CNE web page which will include the name of the survey, date of the data gathering, objectives of the survey, total population and sample and other statistical data. The survey agencies will have to register through the CNE web page. Luis Vicente León, from DATANALISIS, declared that the SARE could become a problem if the CNE asked for requirements that could not be rapidly fulfilled by survey agencies or if it becomes a mechanism for controlling what the surveys say. At this writing “technical details” of recent surveys can not be found in the CNE web page and the link appears to be inoperative.
The MUD and other organizations linked to the opposition have publicly denounced irregularities and anomalies that could affect the forthcoming elections.
Irregularities during the registration process
In May, executive secretary of Súmate, Eduardo Estevez, lamented that the CNE lent voting machines to government events, such as registrations drives for the missions, which could lead voters to think that their data could be archived and used latter. Opposition groups also claim that during the registration process more registration points were placed in states that traditionally favor the government. For example, according to the MUD, the pro-government State of Trujillo (pop. 762,083) had 94 registration points, whereas the pro-opposition State of Lara (pop. 1,957,998) had only 68 points. Thus, the percentage of growth of the registry was greater in states currently ruled by pro-Chavez governors: Apure (10.70%), Monagas (10.52%), Portuguesa (10.49%), Guárico (10.08%), Barinas (9.78%); opposition ruled states had less growth: Distrito Capital (4.26%), Vargas (6.02%), Miranda (5.15%), Zulia (6.30%), Mérida (6.51%). However, opposition-leaning states tend to be those with the highest percent urban population and traditionally have the highest participation rates.
Candidate Registration Process
After the registration process of the candidates on June 10 and 11, opposition CNE rector Vicente Diaz made explicit mention of advantages Chávez had been given during the event. According to Diaz, while the CNE prohibited Capriles from using the national flag in his event, Chávez was not so prohibited and indeed, it was widely used in his event. Also, according to Diaz, Chávez was allowed to greet his followers from one of the balconies of the CNE.
Abuse of Media
As with previous electoral processes, government use of public media and advertising resources for the campaign is a major concern. Since 2006 the CNE has refused 8 different requests by Rector Vicente that Chávez be investigated for using public funds for financing his electoral campaign. According to Diaz, Chávez broke the rules on February 24 by transmitting a cadena (government television programing that is carried live on all television and radio stations) lasting for more than three hours, for the founding act of his campaign organization: Comando Carabobo.
Following recurring criticism of the use of cadenas for electoral purposes, the Rectors of the CNE declared that they had no authority to regulate the cadenas. Government officials such as Andrés Izarra, Minister of Communication and Information, claim that the cadenas are not used for electoral purposes, only to inform of advances in the revolution. During a cadena of June 29, after an intervention by Tarek William Saab who spoke of the approaching elections, Chávez responded that such mention of elections had been inappropriate, since the cadenas were not electoral events. However in the same cadena, Chávez repeatedly referred to opposition candidate HCR in insulting terms.
A coalition of NGOs called Monitor Legislativo counted 13 hours of cadenas in 16 days in June. They also revealed that in June the AN approved $278 million in additional resources for 13 different state media outlets, including radio, television and print media. In Venezuela state media outlets are openly considered to be means for the government to publicize its projects and efforts. As such, in the current context, they end up being in permanent campaign for the Chávez government.
Súmate and others, including opposition rector Vicente Diaz, have suggested that the CNE is trying to foment abstention by propagating the idea that the voting machine is activated by the voter’s finger scan, leading to the suspicion that his or her vote will not be secret.
Indeed, in a CNE television spot showing people how the voting process works, it appears that the voting machine will be activated by the fingerprint scanning machine. The advertisement shows a diagram of a scanning machine connected to the electoral monitors’ table, and then the table connected to the voting machine. Súmate says this falsely suggests that the fingerprint scanner is connected to the voting machine running through the monitors’ table and could give the impression that the secrecy of the vote is in jeopardy. Tibisay Lucena, the president of the CNE, has in fact spoken (and so does the publicity spot) of the voters “unblocking” the voting machines through the fingerprint scans.
In an interview of Lucena published by El Universal on May 6, she was asked if the publicity by CNE did not focus too much on the finger print scans and not enough on the secrecy of the vote. Lucena answered that the secrecy of the vote was a “non-issue” that was being politically manipulated; she added that the CNE could not make a publicity spot to please each of the political organizations.
The RE includes around 40,000 new registered voters residing outside the country, bringing the total to 99,626.
Recently the CNE declared that the Florida Venezuelan resident’s electoral registry has been moved to New Orleans and that they will have to vote there. After the closure of the Venezuelan Consulate in Miami, expatriates in South Florida will have to travel to consulates in New Orleans or Washington in order to vote. This means around 20.000 voters will have to make the journey if they want to vote. Florida residents claim they will take the case to the Inter American Commission of Human Rights. And the MUD has said that it will take the case to the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The Venezuelan government claims that the closure of the consulate in Miami was the responsibility of the US government as it failed to “protect” its staff from threats.
Overall CNE Bias
The opposition has criticized the CNE for not acting as an independent and neutral power. Four of the Rectors are identified with government and only one with the opposition. Vicente Diaz says this imbalance means the CNE does not seek to control the Chávez campaign. To do so “there would have to be political will among the majority in the CNE to accompany me when I make demands—something that has not happened so far.”
During the candidate registration process, Rector Diaz said that the situation was like “one competitor is running on a flat 100 meter track while the other is running an uphill marathon with obstacles.” He clarified however, that “this has nothing to do with the electoral system,” which is “a logistical, operational and technological platform…that guarantees the vote.”
There will not be international observation from any of the institutions that have exercised that capacity in the past, such as the Organization of American States, the European Union, or the Carter Center.
On April 30 the Venezuelan government formally requested the Unasur to send “accompaniment” (not observations) for the elections. However, this would be Unasur’s first venture into electoral observation and it is still not clear what sort of contingent they could send and what would their capacities be. Unasur’s electoral commission consists of the heads of the electoral commissions of Unasur countries and it is unclear how much political will it would have to confront the Chávez government if necessary.
In a May 6 interview Tibisay Lucena was asked if, apart from Unasur, the CNE was considering other observation missions. She answered: “The accompaniment process will be similar to the one we have had in the previous years…We might extend some invitations, but observation missions of several months’ duration will not be necessary. The elections are guaranteed by the Electoral Power.” The term “accompaniment” refers to contingents of invited international guests that cannot freely circulate and do not have access to voting data or the technical capacity to verify a vote. It seems probable that the CNE will invite accompaniment missions from multilateral organizations such as ALBA and perhaps MERCOSUR.
At the end of May a high level group of opposition representatives met in Spain with Senators of that country in order to invite them to observe the October elections. Iñaki Anasagasti, Senator for the conservative Basque Nationalist Party, declared the willingness of the Senate to immediately send an observation mission in order to assess ventajismo (encumbent’s advantage) before the elections. However, it seems unlikely that such an observation mission would gain CNE permission.
The one observation outfit that has a CNE observation credential and the technical capacity to carryout independent observation is the Asamblea de Educación. Several other efforts have popped up to monitor the campaign. For example, Monitor Legislativo will be publishing a newsletter called Alerta Electoral 2012. And a group called the “Venezuelan Student Movement” centered at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello will be publishing an English language newsletter monitoring the elections called Operation Transparency aimed at the international community.
Electoral Conditions as Campaign Issue
Accusations of ventajismo have become a central part of the Capriles campaign. Armando Briquet, Capriles’ campaign manager, compares the situation to a David and Goliath struggle and frequently provides lists of government abuses in his daily press conferences. Diosdado Cabello, recently answered these accusations in the following terms: “There is no problem with ventajismo; rather what we have is a big advantage…they (the opposition) are crybabies. They have nothing more to say than: ‘I’m telling on you.’ They have been able to campaign by themselves for a whole year. The president only started yesterday and they are already screaming.”
One government strategy in recent months has been to publicly challenge the opposition to promise to honor the results of the elections as they (Chávez and the PSUV) have already said they would. It is not an unreasonable criticism given the opposition’s history of evidence-free accusations of fraud when they lose (for example, in the 2004 referendum which led them to abstain from the 2004 regional and 2005 legislative elections). The MUD’s lack of response to this challenge has been awkward.
In early July HCR publicly accepted the challenge, but countered by saying that there should be a broad agreement that included not only accepting the results but also “respect for electoral regulation: three minutes on television, not twenty hours, no radio and television cadenas. Let’s respect the electoral regulation; let’s respect the campaign. Zero sabotage. Don’t send groups of people [to our events] to try to generate problems and violence.”
The CNE is rightfully proud of having created one of the most advanced and secure election day platforms in the world. However, it clearly is not exercising due diligence with respect to what comes before election day. The opposition has begun to make this a campaign issue, but it is not clear how well it will work. In years past Venezuelan public opinion has shown itself a little tone deaf regarding the integrity of liberal democratic institutions (for example in 2010 when Chávez sought and obtained an 18 month enabling law in order to circumvent the newly elected National Assembly his popularity actually went up). However, hitting the message day after day for months could raise awareness and put the government on the defensive regarding this issue. It seems likely that the CNE will continue to highlight the integrity of the electronic platform and will not challenge the Chávez government or campaign for its abuse of public media. This increases the possibility that sectors of the opposition could use this ventajismo as the basis for not recognizing the results of the October election even if they lose by a large margin.