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Independent Observers: Venezuela’s Election a Model of Democracy

The testimony of outside observers runs counter to media reports that have called the election undemocratic, “free but not fair” and said the vote exposes Chavez’s “clown-prince system of rule.”

Despite media reports to the contrary, observers who monitored the election process in Venezuela say the system was free, fair, efficient and a model for democracy that bears watching.

Jimmy Carter isn’t the only one lauding Venezuela’s presidential system – calling it “the best in the world” – since the northernmost South American country reelected its leftist President Hugo Chavez on Oct. 9. An observer with the National Lawyers Guild called the country’s voting process an example of “democracy in action” and said that Venezuelans from both parties had “confidence in the integrity of the process.”

Azadeh Shahshahani visited polling stations in low-income districts, questioned poll observers from the opposition and spoke to voters as on observer of Venezuela’s election. Shahshahani, an attorney, was one of 224 international monitors that included judges, parliamentarians, human rights activists and Nobel Peace Prize winners invited by the country’s independent National Electoral Council.

Her testimony runs counter to media reports that have called the election undemocratic, “free but not fair” and said the vote exposes Chavez’s “clown-prince system of rule.”

“Free and fair elections are only one feature of a democracy, but in Venezuela, elections have become something more,” wrote Shahshahani and her colleague Susan Scott. “A national project which knows no party and constitutes a major investment.”

The article notes that the Bolivarian project of “21st Century Socialism” is a fundamentally democratic project. ” The 1999 Bolivarian Constitution was itself drafted by an assembly of elected members with significant popular input and was adopted in a national referendum by a 72 percent popular vote,” she wrote. “The system has been used by unions to elect leadership and even by the opposition to elect its standard bearer in a primary last February.”

With this emphasis on participation, Shahshahani says voter registration has climbed from 11 million in 1998 to nearly 19 million in 2012. Similarly, the number of polling places has risen from 20,202 in 1998 to 38, 239 in 2012.

The election had a voter turnout of 80.9 percent, according to Shahshahani. Ballots are cast on an electronic machine. Along with choosing a candidate, voters choose a political party that has endorsed a candidate. Identity is verified through fingerprints and on the screen are the political party’s logos and candidate’s photos, which has helped increase the voting participation of people who may be illiterate, she said.

After the voter chooses a party and a candidate on a machine, a paper ballot is then printed with their choice to ensure there are no irregularities. Then the paper ballot is placed in a box. Each polling station has an observer from both political parties. In the days she was in Venezuela, Shahshahani visited six polling stations.

In addition, 54 percent of the paper ballots are counted and checked against the results of the electronic report, said Shahshahani. “Being able to double-check the results is great. It’s clear that they are trying to do their best to ensure that any glitches are taken care of, and the process is as transparent and error-proof as possible.”

The problems she witnessed at some of the polling stations were “long lines; a power outage; and in one case, a machine that had shut down. But these were not systemic problems as far as I know.”

Experts on Latin America say this divide between the reality of the election and how it has been framed in US media comes with a political backdrop that seeks to delegitimize the country’s process of social transformation.

“The thing that strikes me most about Venezuela’s election is how, if you are an American, you hear this story about them and it’s as false as a story as I’ve ever experienced,” said Antonio Gonzalez of the Southwest Voter Education Project. Gonzalez was present as an unofficial observer at elections in Mexico in 1997, El Salvador in 1991 and 1993 and, officially, in Nicaragua in 1990.

“The Venezuelan elections are to a fault well-organized and well-resourced. Participation is typically massive and sophisticated, and the technical side is very efficient and very effective. That’s been true for years now in Venezuela,” he said. “The process is a total victim of corporate establishment propaganda that has dominated the mainstream media and stained the reputation of an electoral process that is really undeserving of that reputation. It’s a really good example of a bipartisan establishment effort to – if not destabilize the Venezuelan transformational process – certainly to besmirch it and discredit it.”

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, says that while there is a lot of bad media coverage on a lot of issues, for Venezuela “you are quite literally only getting the tea party view. There is almost no other country or even foreign policy issue that is quite that distorted.”

Chavez won 55 percent of the vote, compared to his opponent Henrique Capriles who secured 44.14 percent. Weisbrot notes that if a president in the United States won by 11 percent we would consider it a landslide.

The reason for the media onslaught, asks Weisbrot? “It’s fairly simple in a lot ways,” says Weisbrot. “Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves. That is going to make them an important country, and that is going to make the US government interested in determining who runs the country.”

Washington’s meddling in the affairs of Latin American countries with leftist leaders has a long history, from Reagan’s support of the Contras in Nicaragua to connections with the ousting of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. A short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez was tied to senior US officials in the Bush government.

But it isn’t just about Venezuela, says Weisbrot. “Venezuela is one country out of a continent that has changed drastically. These are some of the most important political changes in the world in the past decade, and anyone in the US that thinks that progressive change is important should be looking at this region.”