Q & A on Venezuela's Electoral Stalemate

Q & A on Venezuela's Electoral Stalemate

Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s political heir, won Sunday’s snap election by an unexpectedly narrow margin. With more than 99% of the votes counted, Maduro secured 50.7% of the vote, while opposition candidate Henrique Capriles of the Democratic Union coalition won 49.1% of the vote, according to Venezuela’s National Electoral Council. Roughly 230,000 votes separate the candidates. Capriles did not accept the results and is demanding that electoral authorities carryout a 100% audit.

Regarding a  possible recount, what is the position of Maduro and of the  National Electoral Council (CNE)?

After the National Electoral Council gave the official vote tally last night, the CNE’s four pro-government rectors stood up and left the stage. The lone opposition rector stayed and announced that he was requesting a 100% audit of the paper ballots, and attention to the documentation of 3,000 irregularities alleged by the Capriles campaign. This clearly means there is no consensus within the CNE for carrying out such an audit. Their announcement that they will proclaim Maduro president today makes such an audit seem even less likely.

In his acceptance speech, Maduro several times supported the idea of going to a recount. However, campaign manager Jorge Rodriguez later suggested that going to an audit of the paper ballots would be like going back in history and that the opposition wanted to do that because they were specialists in stealing votes. Rodriguez’s voice is important not only because of his position as campaign manager but because he was president of the CNE for several years.

Is an audit feasible? What are the options and mechanics for implementing a recount? Is there a timeline for a possible audit?

Venezuela uses electronic voting machines that emit a paper ballot which the voter then deposits in a sealed box. In all elections 53-54% of these boxes are subject to citizen audit immediately after the election. Citizens who were selected to work a given election table and witness from political parties go through the votes one by one. That process takes a couple of hours. However, for the CNE to do an actual official 100% audit using trained CNE personnel, it could take weeks. Much more feasible would be an audit of the “voting acts.” At the end of the vote, each voting machine emits an act that is then reviewed and signed by those who worked the table and served as witnesses. These acts should have an identical count as the paper ballots. However, with both of these possibilities there will inevitably be problems doing a 100% audit: boxes of votes and voting acts can get lost, misplaced or intentionally destroyed.

Is it likely that an audit could overturn the results and make Capriles the winner?

It is unlikely that an audit of paper ballots would show a different result from the electronic tally. The paper ballots are actually produced by the machine itself when a citizen votes. This system was developed at a time in which there was a lot of distrust in the idea of electronically tabulating and transmitting the votes. The paper ballot was a backup. But the electronic machines have been audited many times by international, national and opposition technicians. More likely to affect the vote totals will be inclusion of the international vote (which will be overwhelming for Capriles) and addressing the 3,000 irregularities the opposition says it has documented. Even then, however, the vote’s outcome is unlikely to be reversed.

Is the CNE autonomous and neutral?

It is important to remember that under the Venezuelan Constitution the “Electoral Power” is officially an independent branch of government. So it could well say it is not going to agree to the 100% audit. That would allow Maduro to respond that while he is willing to go to the 100% audit, the CNE is autonomous and he has to respect that. While the CNE is formally autonomous it is hard to regard it as neutral. One of the five rectors is associated with the opposition while the other four are associated with the governing party. The two most recent rectors-who were supposed to represent civil society and be non-partisan-renounced their membership in the Socialist Party just days before being selected by the National Assembly in 2009. Over the past year they have not done due diligence in ensuring fair campaigns in Venezuela’s three elections, although the election-day voting platform itself is solid.

Capriles says they found 3,000 irregularities. What is the nature of these irregularities and what does this mean for the election as a whole?

The opposition showed a stack of paper documenting what they said were 3,000 voting-day irregularities, but they did not say what they consist of. It is likely that they don’t describe widespread fraud but relatively small issues that range from machines that didn’t work, to people who couldn’t vote, to the use of state vehicles to bring pro-government voters to the polls. It may be that some in the opposition thinks that Capriles could perhaps be pushed over the top if these issues are taken into account, plus the vote tally of international voters and a potentially different tally from an audit.

What would happen if the CNE declines doing a recount? Would Capriles’ supporters take to the streets? Could violence erupt?

The opposition would be understandably frustrated and upset. In 2004 when the CNE disqualified enough signatures to prevent a recall referendum, the opposition mobilized in what they called “la guarimba”-closing down streets with protests, burning trash and tires. Last night there were some similar protests in the Eastern part of Caracas. If they do that again it would be a gift to the government, since it would allow them to paint the opposition as undemocratic and allow them to change the subject away from complaints about the vote, towards keeping public order. In 2004 the opposition took a serious hit in its popularity because of la guarimba. They would probably do better to simply engage in everyday politics and organize for future electoral events against what is a weakened governing coalition.

Leading up to the election, polls showed Maduro ahead with a double-digit margin. What happened and why were the results so close on election day?

There is still a lot of analysis to be carried out about this election result. What seems most likely is that clear Chavez supporters, which amount to approximately 35% of the population voted for Maduro. However, a significant percentage of the independents that voted for Chavez in 2012 were not impressed with Maduro. They either voted for Capriles or stayed home.

What are the implications of the election results for a Maduro administration and his leftist coalition?

The vote itself does not show that the Chavez coalition has fallen apart. It shows that its electoral block-which consists of the Chavez coalition and independent voters-cannot be taken for granted by “Chavismo without Chavez.” That said, this electoral result will likely stress the Chavez coalition insofar as it will inevitably make many think Maduro was not the right successor to Chavez. The fact that he went from a 15-20 point lead to less-than-2 point victory can only raise doubts.

What has been the role of the United States in the electoral process and how should the U.S. respond to this electoral crisis?

The U.S. would do well to stay on the sidelines.