October 16, 2017
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s National Electoral Council proclaimed candidates with the socialist movement founded by the late President Hugo Chavez won a vast majority of the 23 governorships at stake in Sunday’s election, results the opposition immediately rejected and which threatened to further divide the nation.
An hour before results were announced, the opposition’s command centers had been filled with smiles and jubilation. Leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told a room filled with journalists and supporters that while he couldn’t share the preliminary results, they showed a victory of “historic dimensions” for the Venezuelan people.
But shortly before Tibisay Lucena, president of the government-stacked council, declared the results, opposition mayor Gerardo Blyde came out to warn that leaders believed the official count would be off.
“We have already alerted the international community and we are alerting the country,” he said. According to the CNE, socialist party candidates won 17 of the 22 races in which the outcomes were considered irreversible. One race was still too close to call a victor. In all, 61 percent of the nation’s 18 million voters participated in the election, far higher than many people had anticipated in a country where many have grown disenchanted and apathetic.
Lucena and others praised the vote as an example of Venezuela’s democracy but Blyde claimed fraud. “Neither the Venezuelan people nor the world buy that story,” he said of the results. The disputed result threatened to heighten an already tense standoff between the government and opposition.
The election comes during one of the most turbulent years in recent Venezuelan history. Four months of anti-government protests that began in April left at least 120 people dead, mostly young men in their 20s and 30s. In August, a new pro-government constitutional assembly was installed, ruling with virtually unlimited powers after an election that was boycotted by the opposition and that electoral officials were accused of manipulating by more than 1 million votes.
Maduro said he had “absolute faith” in the CNE’s results but would ask the constitutional assembly to request an audit in order to extinguish any doubts that the results were inaccurate. “A triumphant victory for chavismo!” he proclaimed, referring to the name used for his predecessor’s movement.
The regional elections were originally scheduled to take place last December, but the electoral council postponed the vote after polls indicated socialist candidates were widely slated to lose. They were repeatedly delayed for a variety of reasons, including a requirement for political parties to “renew” their status with electoral authorities.
Then in May, during the height of opposition protests, Lucena announced the elections were being scheduled for December, after a vote for delegates to a constitutional assembly in July. Opposition leaders blankly refused to participate in the July vote, choosing instead to mount street protests in hopes of pressuring Maduro into canceling the vote. The vote continued as planned and CNE rectors proclaimed that more than 8 million Venezuelans participated in the election for delegates. International voting software company Smartmatic came out days later to assert that Venezuelans electoral officials had deliberately altered turnout results.
The new assembly charged with rewriting Venezuela’s constitution quickly removed the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor and declared itself superior to all other branches of government. Assembly delegates also decided to move up the delayed gubernatorial elections to October.
Projections by independent pollsters showed opposition candidates would win a majority, if not nearly all offices, while socialist party contenders were expected to claim a small handful of victories.
Still, opposition candidates vying for votes proved to have their work cut out with them. Many young supporters who had participated in the street protests are upset at leaders they perceived and disorganized and unable to unite behind a single strategy on how to loosen Maduro’s grip from power. Others were skeptical any change might happen at the ballot box, given the electoral council’s repeated favoring of the ruling party and accusations of fraud.
Meanwhile, pro-government candidates like Hector Rodriguez waged competitive campaigns, trading the polarizing red shirts identified with the socialist party for neutral colors. Rodriguez’s campaign focused largely on resolving the daily problems of Venezuelans and healing the divisions that have come to define the nation.
It was a message that resounded with voters like Sergio Camargo, a private security guard who backed Rodriguez. “I hope that after this vote, the people against the government of President Nicolas Maduro are more sensible and let him govern,” he said before getting on a bus to vote Sunday.
Electoral experts voiced repeated concern at several changes made by the CNE in the lead-up to the vote, though many believed that the vote count was likely to be accurate. Unlike the July vote, opposition parties would be on site to compare paper print-out tallies with the electronic ones in the final tally. The CNE was also slated to use Smartmatic software utilized in the 2015 legislative race, the last national electoral faceoff between the government and opposition.
The CNE did not allow the opposition to remove several candidates who lost in a September primary, despite an electoral law permitting political parties to substitute contenders up until 10 days before the vote. Less than three days before voting, the council also announced it was moving more than 200 voting centers, predominantly in opposition strongholds.
Council officials defended the relocations as a security measure in areas where violent protests took place in July. Opposition-arranged buses transported voters to the new sites Sunday — some of which were nearly an hour away. Other voters from middle-class neighborhoods were sent to vote in poor communities where crime is high.
Susana Unda, a homemaker who voted for Carlos Ocariz, the opposition’s candidate in populous Miranda state surrounding Venezuela’s capital, used her truck to transport voters whose polling sites were relocated.
“I was born in a democracy and I want to die in a democracy,” she said. Lucena said earlier Sunday the election was proceeding with the lowest number of reported irregularities that Venezuela had seen in an election, but the independent Venezuelan Electoral Observatory reported several incidents of voter intimidation.
Luis Lander, the group’s director, said those incidents included reports of pro-government supporters on motorcycles threatening voters gathered at polling sites. He said the number of voting centers that opened late was also higher than in previous elections.
Attention is now likely to shift to any impact such irregularities might have had. “There is a wide disparity between the poll numbers and the results which show that these elections were not free and fair and don’t reflect the will of the people,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
The opposition called for an audit and urged Venezuelans to mobilize on the streets Monday in support. Government supporters called on detractors to respect the results and said the count is proof that the movement started by Chavez remains alive and well, despite Maduro’s low approval ratings.
“The cradle of the revolution doesn’t surrender,” said Argenis Chavez, the late president’s brother and declared winner of the race in Barinas, where Hugo Chavez spent his early years.
Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.