Venezuelans voted Dec. 4 to elect a new National Assembly. The week before, four parties opposed to President Hugo Chavez had withdrawn from the race, calling for a boycott.
Chavez’s own party, the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR), won 114 seats and five pro-Chavez parties took the others in the 167-seat Assembly. Pre-election polls indicated pro-Chavez forces would have won a two-thirds majority even if the opposition parties had stayed in the race.
That’s the margin the Chavez government needs to pass constitutional amendments, including one that might remove term limits for Chavez and other officials. Previously, the MVR held only 52 percent of the seats.
Speaking at a press conference, Assembly President Nicolas Maduro of the MVR declared, “A new era is beginning. The people are now in the National Assembly; no longer does it belong to the elites.”
A preliminary report put voter turnout at 25 percent. In middle- and upper-class Caracas neighborhoods, where the boycott call was most widely heeded, only 10 percent of the voters showed up at polling places. Voter turnout in parliamentary elections was less than 20 percent in the pre-Chavez era, rising to 56 percent in 2000, when all parties were participating.
Responding to the low turnout figures, commentators friendly to the Chavez government said that in addition to the boycott, another problem was that candidates for the Assembly were selected by party leaders rather than through grassroots processes, and election campaigning was limited. Another factor was severe weather in many parts of the country, including the capital.
Despite the boycott call, only 556 candidates out of the 5,516 vying for election actually dropped out, along with 18 of the 355 contending political parties and social groups. Many candidates stayed in the race despite their party’s departure.
The parties boycotting the election had expressed concern that the use of computerized fingerprint scanners violated voter anonymity. Responding to opposition criticisms, the National Election Council announced before the election that the scanners would not be used. Even so, the anti-Chavez forces advocated a boycott.
Four hundred observers were on hand before and during the elections from the European Union, the Organization of American States and the electoral commissions of El Salvador, Colombia, Panama, Uruguay and Nicaragua. They overwhelmingly certified the election process as fair and free from fraud, in keeping with the experience of several recent elections there.
Days before the election, Chavez accused the Bush administration of engineering the boycott. “I denounce it before the world and hold responsible for this new conspiracy against Venezuela the very chief of the empire, Mister Danger, the president of the United States,” he said.
According to Vice-President Jose Vincent Rangel, “The U.S. Embassy has been very active, extremely active.” In fact, the National Endowment for Democracy, through its International Republican Institute, provided a yearlong course in electoral politics for 500 members of 11 opposition parties. Venezuelan opposition groups are said to have received $20 million over five years from the U.S. government. To support the contention that Washington had a hand in the boycott, analysts cite the precedents of similar election boycotts in Nicaragua in 1994 and in Haiti in 2000.
On Dec. 1, thousands of Chavez supporters appeared before the National Assembly building to oppose the boycott. Signs and banners invoked the memory of the mass mobilization that returned Chavez to power in April 2002 after an attempted coup by the right wing. One of the signs read, “We will turn Dec. 4 into April 13,” referring to the date of Chavez’s return to power.
Chavez’s opponents tried to flex their muscle in other ways. Explosions were set off in Caracas and other Venezuelan cities before the elections, and a small blast in the west of the country damaged an oil pipeline. The government mobilized an army force of 110,000 to protect polling places and public officials.
Some say charges of a “flawed election” will now be used as a pretext for anti-Chavez, right-wing machinations, both foreign and domestic, heightening the danger of an increase in political violence directed against Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution.