Venezuela votes -- Heavy rains add to doubts about turn-out
Everything was said to be ready for the vote during Sunday?s elections to the National Assembly ? except, perhaps, the weather and quite a lot of the people.
A continual downpour broke out over much of the country even before polling stations opened around dawn, and persisted for most of the day.
Even as the hour for voting stations to close approached, the clouds threatened to do it all over again.
National Electoral Council (CNE) President Jorge Rodr�guez announced at 11 o?clock on Sunday morning that polling centers in the States of Vargas, Nueva Esparta, Sucre, Bolivar, Monagas and Miranda would be allowed to stay open an extra hour after being affected by the rains, providing people were still waiting to vote.
Rodr�guez said 99 percent of the voting centers were up and running, and he promised that problems at the remaining few would be sorted out soon.
But the CNE chief had much less to say about the specter of high abstention, which has become a common feature of Venezuelan elections in recent years, and from some time before President Hugo Ch�vez swept on to the scene half a decade ago.
Some people went out early to vote, but there was little sign of the lengthy queues seen when President Hugo Ch�vez submitted himself to the test at the recall referendum which failed to remove him from power in August last year.
Interior and Justice Minister Jesse Chac�n explained away the absence of queues by claiming the system was working so well, with 27,300 voting machines in efficient operation. But there were signs that even the at the ruling Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) and its allies, who seemed to be facing something like a cakewalk, some officials were worrying that the rate of abstention could be high.
The reason for that, one activist explained, was that a low turn-out could discredit the result of the vote. This, he claimed, had been the aim all along of the opposition parties when they withdrew their candidates from the election at more or less the last moment last week.
In all, the people were being summoned to vote for 184 legislators, including 167 at the National Assembly, 12 at the Latin American Parliament and a further five at the Andean Parliament. Among the candidates for the Andean Parliament had been Henry Ramos Allup, Secretary General of Acci�n Democr�tica (AD), which was the first party to pull out of the race and start off an avalanche of withdrawals by other opposition candidates.
The parties have pleaded they had no alternative because the CNE was not running the electoral process correctly, and they claimed the result would be riddled with fraud. But the argument did not go down well with supporters who felt their party leaders had left them with nowhere to go and nobody to vote for.
?I?m not even going to get out of bed,? said one disgruntled middle aged man on the eve of the election, claiming this would be the first time he had not voted. His friend suggested they go and have a beer instead, and then roundly cursed as he remembered that Ley Seca banned the sale and consumption of alcohol in public all the way through to noon today.
The National Armed Forces (FAN) deployed 16,000 troops to safeguard voting centers and other election facilities, and about 100,000 across the country as a whole. However, Election Day was marred by a few threatening incidents, not least of all when an explosion blew up the Amuay oil pipeline. No injuries or worse were reported.
Vice President Jos� Vicente Rangel condemned the incident as a ?criminal and unacceptable act? against the nation and the oil industry which could not have any justification whatsoever. In an evident bid to pre-empt any premature finger-pointing, Attorney General Isa�as Rodr�guez declared that the explosion had nothing to with any political organization, although he didn?t say just how he knew this.
Rodr�guez said investigations had been launched into the explosion and several other incidents during the run-up to the vote. A small bomb had been thrown from a motorbike at the State Prosecutors Office, he said, and another two at the Fuerte Tiuna military base. Eleven people had been arrested in possession of Molotov cocktail bombs in Maracaibo, the capital of Zulia State. An arms cache including 49 mortars and a matching number of explosive packages had been found at an abandoned farmstead in Gu�rico State.
One person had been arrested after a fuss broke out at a polling station in Catia, west Caracas. Earlier, disorder had been reported on Saturday night elsewhere in the west of the capital on Saturday night, but calm appeared to have descended afterwards.
All seemed peaceful enough not far from there when President Hugo Ch�vez showed up at a school in 23 de Enero to vote shortly after noon, and he appeared to be in good humor. He saluted the crowd that had come to see him and joked that he missed the machines used to verify voters? thumbprints. The withdrawal of those machines by the CNE last week has been depicted as a minor triumph for the opposition, which had long claimed the equipment could be used to identify how a person had voted.
The parties who had withdrawn their candidates largely had little to say for themselves. The exception was the last to do so, Primero Justicia. Its leader, Julio Borges, who is set to disappear from the Assembly, said it wasn?t a day he?d want to repeat, and them claimed that the Venezuelans had voted with their silence.
OAS lauds deals
The Organization of American States (OAS) congratulated the opposition parties for settling their differences with the National Electoral Council (CNE) ? although by then they?d withdrawn their candidates from the election.
The chief of the OAS, the Chilean, Jos� Miguel Insulza, had declined to mediate on behalf of several opposition parties last week, arguing that as observers, his officials could not get involved in parties deciding whether or not they were going to take part in the election.
In effect, he told the parties led by Acci�n Democr�tica (AD) and the Social Christians at Copei to go and talk with the CNE and sort out their differences. This they duly did, and one result was that CNE President Jorge Rodr�guez decided not to use the much-questioned machinery that checks people?s thumb prints as they vote.
That decision was seen as a minor victory for the opposition, which had long claimed that the machinery could be used to establish just how a citizen had voted. Although Rodr�guez, who was appointed to the CNE at the government?s behest and has long been viewed with opposition suspicion, insisted this was not the case, he duly bowed to pressure in a bid to appear even-handed. The parties still spurned the election anyway.
The OAS sent observers right across the country to observe the electoral process, but in the end had little to report on Sunday. DJ Staff
By Jeremy Morgan
Daily Journal Staff