CARACAS — America Arrieta’s vote is more valuable than the laundry machine and refrigerator she says the ruling party gave her last week.
As she waved the green banner of an opposition candidate at a rally over the weekend, Arrieta said she has voted for President Hugo Chávez in the past — but has lost faith in the man.
“Chávez can give me anything he wants,” she said of the gifts reserved for party faithful. “But he can’t tell me how to vote.”
As this nation of 27 million goes to the polls Sunday to elect the National Parliament, some say Chávez and his party are bending rules and ignoring the constitution to gain the upper hand.
Critics point to new voting districts and electoral laws that make it virtually impossible for Chávez to lose his parliamentary majority; the National Electoral Council, the overseer of the vote, being stacked with Chávez partisans, and government candidates who have deep pockets and a media empire at their disposal.
Pollsters say the nation is almost evenly divided between supporters of Chávez’s Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, and the coalition of opposition parties.
But most believe the PSUV will maintain its control of Congress and perhaps even hold onto the two-thirds majority Chávez needs to rubber-stamp his initiatives. One reason is an American tradition: gerrymandering.
The government recently carved out several new voting districts that observers say maximize the pro-Chávez vote while sapping the opposition’s.
While it will only take 20,000 votes to elect a congressman in the Chávez-friendly state of Amazonas, it will take 400,000 votes to elect one in the opposition stronghold of Zulia, said Luis Vicente Leon of the Venezuelan polling firm Datanálisis.
“The equilibrium of the national assembly will not depend on
the total vote the president gets, but the geographic and regional location of those votes,” he said. “Without a doubt, it’s a system built to the government’s needs.”
In addition, a new law that changes the way candidates are assigned to various districts will leave some areas over-represented and others lacking.
“The constitution calls for proportional representation, and this system no longer provides that,” said Luis Enrique Lander, the director of Ojo Electoral, one of four national groups monitoring the race. “Now it’s a quasi-majority system. The winners won’t take everything, but they will take almost everything.”
Calls to the National Electoral Council were not returned, but Venezuela’s ambassador to Washington, Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, defended the new districts as a blend of proportional representation and majority rule that, while imperfect, give the nation’s more than 40 political parties a voice.
“Venezuela has a vibrant multiparty system that doesn’t exist in the United States where, for example, not even a third party is viable because it doesn’t have a system of proportional representation,” Alvarez wrote in an e-mail. “When you look at this issue carefully, the oppositions’ complaints are not valid.”
Chávez has called the grumblings a ploy by an opposition that has failed to connect with voters and is resorting to attacking the rules.
“Even when our revolutionary forces win, when we emerge victorious . . . they are going to cry fraud,” Chávez told the state news agency. “They are going to try to rile up the country and try to generate violence.”
Since campaigning began in earnest, Chávez has been an almost daily presence on television, leading marches and headlining party events — despite a constitutional ban on public officials actively participating in campaigns.
When the opposition balked at the president’s stumping earlier this month, the National Electoral Council, or CNE, rewrote the rules to allow all public officials to join the fray.
“What is supposed to be the maximum arbiter of the electoral process is completely subservient to the executive branch,” said Ezequiel Zamora, who worked at the Supreme Electoral Council for 26 years and briefly served on the CNE before stepping down in 2004 to protest irregularities. “They treat Chávez like the owner of a big hacienda called Venezuela.”
While the CNE has slapped some TV stations for giving candidates too much air time, it has failed to rein in the government, said Delsa Solorzano, the spokeswoman for the opposition coalition.
On a single day last week, the government broke into regular programming on all TV stations for three hours and 39 minutes and also ran four hours of PSUV campaign ads, she said.
“These are channels that belong to all Venezuelans,” she said. “We’ve gone to the CNE to protest — even taking video proof — but we have never gotten a response.”
The blurring of state and party resources occurs on a smaller scale, too.
On Saturday, hundreds of people lined up in the Petare neighborhood to buy subsidized cooking oil, rice and beans at a government-run market called Mercal. PSUV campaigners had staked out the entrance, handing out literature.
Inside, Jorge Amorín, an assembly candidate, signed autographs and hugged potential voters. He said he didn’t see any conflict in using the market as a campaign site.
“We’re here to talk to the people and show them this [market] is an achievement of the revolution and that, ideally, we should keep a national assembly that will pass laws that keep benefiting the poor,” he said. “But we’re not driving around in cars provided by the government. No public office gave us money to make T-shirts. That doesn’t happen.”
However, Amorín said the opposition governor in this district had used state equipment to hang campaign posters and had used the municipal police to chase him away while he was campaigning in his party’s primaries.
In the past, Chávez’s foes have said the systematic irregularities amount to fraud. In 2005, the opposition boycotted the legislative elections, saying the results could not be trusted.
This time, the accusation has not been lobbed — at least not openly.
The opposition may have learned from previous mistakes, said Leon, the pollster with Datanálisis.
Claiming fraud is “like spitting into the air,” he said. Opposition voters stayed home fearing “their vote wouldn’t be kept secret or that it wouldn’t count.”
Now in his 12th year in office, Chávez is fond of flashing his democratic credentials. Since taking office, he has held 14 elections and said this one will be another free and fair referendum on his progressive agenda.
Unlike in some past votes, international observers from the OAS, EU and Carter Center were not invited to monitor the run-up to the election. Instead, some 150 international delegates will be allowed to be present a few days around the vote.
Appearances matter to Chávez, said Armando Durán, a former foreign minister who is now a resident fellow at the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami.
“The biggest error that you could make is to believe that these are normal and regular elections in a democratic society,” he said. “Chávez’s trap is the varnish of democracy.”
As she swayed to the music at the opposition rally, Arrieta said she knows all about appearances. Many people in her neighborhood claim to be Chávez supporters for the handouts or the jobs, but won’t vote for his party.
As for the appliances, she’s thankful for them but said they were cheap imports that won’t last long. “They’re the kind that run for five years and then you have to throw them away,” she said. “Hopefully, they’ll last until the next elections.”
That won’t be long. Chávez is running for president again in 2012.
Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/09/19/v-print/1832998/chavez-bends-elections-foes-decry.html#ixzz109xNdtr2