Debunking the Hugo Chávez “re-election” myth

Hugo Chávez may be dead, but the myth of his four consecutive re-election victories is still very much alive

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We all know Venezuelan elections aren't fair. But are they even free?
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Jacob Campbell
On 14 March 2013 17:50

Hugo Chávez may be dead, but the myth of his four consecutive re-election victories is still very much alive. With recent news that Chavez’s remains will no longer be embalmed, it’s time to bury that myth with the man himself.

The probable truth is that for at least eight years prior to his death, from 2004 onwards, Chávez was an unelected and illegitimate dictator.

In coming to this conclusion, I have purposely disregarded the arguments usually deployed by Chávez’s critics. Elections in Venezuela may be free, they say, but they are certainly not fair. Arguments based on this premise are half right; Venezuelan elections are not fair. But nor are they free.

How do we know this? First, some general observations.

In the last decade, the number of voters on the Venezuelan electoral roll rose from 12 million to almost 19 million, representing a suspicious increase in voter registration of 58 percent against a population growth of just 14 percent over the same period.

This has led to an absurd situation in which 14 of Venezuela’s 24 states now have more voters than people eligible to vote. Voter registration in the northern province of Delta Amacuro, for example, is fully 122 percent higher than its projected population.

Of those whose names feature on the electoral roll, 39,000 are listed as having been born at least 100 years ago, including 17,000 who would be old enough to remember life in the 19th Century.

On top of Venezuela’s estimated two to three million phantom voters, roughly one third of Venezuelans believe that the government will know how they vote. Despite assurances by government officials to the contrary, this fear is not unfounded; as participants in a 2005 audit of the country’s electronic voting machines discovered, the secrecy of the ballot can easily be compromised using the right computer software.

Venezuelans know all too well the ramifications of challenging the powers that be. After a petition to recall the president was made public in 2004, some 300,000 state employees who had signed it were either dismissed or threatened. Many of those whose signatures appeared on the petition – 2.4 million in total – found themselves suddenly unable to get government jobs or benefits.

With these general observations in mind, we turn now to the specifics.

In 2004, Hugo Chávez survived a recall referendum, reportedly winning 58 percent of the vote and renewing his democratic mandate. This is according to the pro-Chávez National Electoral Council, however. By contrast, an exit poll conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates predicted a result of 59 percent in favour of recalling Chávez. The nationwide poll, in which more than 20,000 voters were interviewed, had a margin of error of less than one percent.

Whilst a contradictory exit poll is not in itself proof of electoral fraud, a subsequent study, peer-reviewed by the International Statistical Institute, did find “statistical evidence to reject the official results given by the [National Electoral Council, ... which] do not reflect the intention of voters with statistical confidence.” The fact that the authors of the study calculated that the anti-Chávez vote was in fact closer to 59 percent – exactly the same figure produced by the PS&B poll – ought to set alarm bells ringing.

Likewise, after the 2006 presidential election, there were widespread concerns that the National Electoral Council had once again manipulated the official results, which were denounced as “incorrect” by Chávez’s opponent, Manuel Rosales. Soon afterwards, a panel of experts announced that they had found evidence of “important statistical inconsistencies” in the tallying of votes, including what seemed to be a numerical ceiling on ballots cast for Rosales programmed into numerous voting machines.

The legitimacy of the 2012 election, Chavez’s final re-election victory, ought to be equally questioned. Taking place against the backdrop of Freedom House’s declassification of Venezuela as an electoral democracy in 2009, and in the absence of international election observers (banned from the country since 2006), it is difficult to have any confidence in the official results.

Despite reportedly winning 55 percent of the vote, an earlier nationwide survey found that only 32 percent of Venezuelans wanted to see Chávez re-elected, whilst 55 percent said they wanted a “totally different” president. As in 2004, exit polls also predicted defeat for the incumbent.

Can we know for sure that last year’s election was rigged? No. But in the absence of impartial observers, and with Chávez’s record of electoral fraud, to assume otherwise would be a very long leap of faith indeed.

Jacob Campbell is UK Director of Stop the Bomb, and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy

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