Hugo Pérez Hernaíz
Shortly after the Consejo Nacional Electoral’s (CNE) first report, Capriles quickly conceded that Chavéz had won. In contrast to Manuel Rosales’ concession speech in 2006 he did not express doubts regarding the margin of victory. Consecutive claims of fraud have seriously hurt the opposition in the past, as people who believe in fraud theories will presumably tend to abstain from voting in following elections. Thus, Capriles’ reaction demonstrates an important change in the opposition’s electoral strategy.
However, claims of fraud by opposition activists were a not an unexpected reaction to the results. In the days prior to the elections, some polls seemed to show a possible closing of the gap between the two candidates and a close finish, perhaps even a surprise win by Capriles. The large crowds that attended Capriles’ closing rallies gave the impression that polls were underestimating his support. For many, the results of a 10-point difference came as a frustrating surprise. Conspiracy theories claiming electoral fraud naturally spread in this context. However, the quick response by opposition leadership to claims of fraud by some of their supporters was a welcome reaction. They seemed to have understood that mistrust in the CNE only backfires, resulting in decreased voter confidence in the electoral system and increased rates of abstention. As voter confidence and turnout are both crucial for the opposition in the upcoming regional elections this December, it would have made little sense to cry fraud this close to the elections.
Two days after the elections, on Tuesday 9, a group of people, presumably opposition supporters, gathered in Plaza Altamira–a public square in east Caracas that in the past has been the focus of opposition protests–and burned tires and trash. But they failed to attract support from opposition leaders. As in previous election aftermaths, posts claiming fraud started to appear in Noticiero Digital (an internet news page with a strong opposition bias) and on twitter. A quick and non representative monitoring of post titles on Noticiero Digital and of tweets posted on October 9 give a taste of some of the fraud accusations: “A computer technician detected inconsistencies in the CNE: Could it be fraud?”; “Fraud and the emperors clothes”; “A very clear fraud”; and “Proofs of the Mega Fraud.” Some posts reacted to the claim that alleging fraud would fuel voter abstention: “To claim fraud does not promote abstention, but to hide it does” and “A fallacy: Denouncing the MEGA FRAUD promotes abstention.” It is interesting to note that from Thursday 11 on, posts claiming fraud had decreased considerably. Noticiero Digital also ran an academic analysis rejecting the fraud theory and articles with titles such as: “A statistical analysis concludes that there is no evidence of fraud that could justify abstention”
An article by popular opposition reporter Marta Colomina (El universal 14/10/2012), argued that ventajismo (incumbent´s advantage) during Election Day had been rampant, with pro-government voters trucked to voting centers in military transport vehicles. She also alleged that National Guardsmen had gone to barrios with lists of people who were to be driven to the polls and paid 1,000Bs. for their votes. However, the article stressed that no fraud was committed by the CNE, and that the counting had been clean.
The opposition’s lack of fraud claims this year sets the election apart from previous ones. At a press conference the day after elections Capriles directly addressed the issue. He said that some people were “making stuff up” and asked supporters to put an end to “anti-politics” and to claims of non-existent fraud. When asked by a reporter about the violence in Plaza Altamira, he condemned it, but also claimed that he had received no information about. According to Capriles he first learned about the protest through a State TV channel that “suspiciously” was the first one on the scene, implying that perhaps the protesters were not even opposition supporters. He went on to insist that there was no fraud, but that the opposition had serious criticisms of the CNE for its handling of pre-elections ventajismo. Interestingly he announced that the results would be revised “center by center,” not to discover a supposed fraud, but to find out “where we went wrong and how can we improve our mobilization.” Leopoldo López also told the press, “In truth we have to ratify that those are the results. They are not the results we were expecting, the results we worked for, but they are the results.“
Concerns over Fraud Before the Elections
This election year opposition leadership directly confronted the mistrust in the CNE that had previously resulted in abstention by opposition voters. This was not a simple problem. The opposition felt the need to denounce the state’s use of public resources during the campaign and the CNE’s lack of control over this spending. However, this had to be done by the opposition without generating mistrust in it. Therefore, opposition discourse attempted to emphasize that the CNE was a well-audited institution and that voters could trust in its results. At the same time Carpiles, Armando Briquet, and Leopoldo López consistently denounced ventajismo, especially the use of cadenas by Chávez, and the CNE’s lack of control over them. However they also insisted that the voting machines had been fully audited by opposition technicians and that the CNE was technically capable of carrying out clean elections (for a detailed account of the pre-electoral opposition statements related to the CNE see our previous post here).
The pro-government campaign, for its part, claimed that the opposition was preparing a “fraud scenario” in order to generate post-election chaos. Jorge Rodriguez (chair of the Chávez’s campaign), for example, considered the opposition’s claim of ventajismo as proof that the opposition leadership was attacking the CNE and was unwilling to “recognize the referee” and, therefore, the results.
Opposition Reactions in Previous Elections and Mistrust of the CNE
In the December 3, 2006 presidential elections Chávez defeated opposition candidate Manuel Rosales by a wide margin (26%). Rosales quickly conceded Chávez’s victory but also claimed that the gap between the two was smaller than the results of the CNE had shown. This fueled opposition claim’s of fraud in the vote counting. Most of the theories about the fraud were spread through social network sites and posts on the popular news site Noticiero Digital, centered on the issue of automatization of the voting process by the CNE. Claims reflected the mistrust in how machines were handled, suggesting that machines were possibly “fixed” for a certain outcome.
Accusations of fraud have been common in recent years. Because they are usually made and spread through the Internet it is hard to tell just how much support they have. However, if we consider that fraud claims result in public mistrust in the CNE and its capacity to organize elections and carry out clean vote counts, we can use trust numbers as a proxy for measuring mistrust. The CNE enjoys a high level of public approval (62.6%); however, a recent study by Monitor Electoral, of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, shows that 88% of pro-government voters report either “confidence” or “high confidence” in the CNE. Conversely, only 20% of opposition voters report having confidence in this institution.
The opposition’s claims of fraud in past elections and the mistrust these claims produce in the CNE have largely worked to harm them in later elections. As an example, in the 2004 regional elections claims of fraud by the opposition and fears that the CNE could not ensure the secrecy of the vote led to the withdrawal of opposition parties from the parliamentary elections of 2005. This in turn produced a low turnout by national standards in that election (55% of the electoral registry), but also resulted in an almost complete pro-government National Assembly. Most opposition political leaders recognize that boycotting elections was a mistake that should not be repeated.