Monday, August 16, 2004

Chavez declares referendum victory, but is battle over?

By Mike Caeser, Christian Science Monitor, August 17, 2004

CARACAS, VENEZUELA – At 4 a.m. Monday, 12 hours after polls were originally supposed to close and as questions swirled about the voting process, President Hugo Chávez declared victory in a saga that was more than two years in the making.

"The Venezuelan people have spoken, and the people's voice is the voice of God," Mr. Chávez told supporters outside the presidential palace. Venezuelans turned out in record numbers Sunday to vote to recall Chávez or confirm his mandate, which extends until the end of 2006.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who helped monitor the referendum, endorsed returns showing that Chávez won the vote. "Our findings coincided with the partial returns announced today by the National Elections Council," Carter told a news conference.

The announcement appeared to deflate opposition claims of widespread fraud in the voting.


Before the referendum, many observers had also questioned the electoral council's decision to use an electronic voting system which had not been used in any previous election, and which they said was vulnerable to manipulation. As well, they decried the revelation that a government agency owned an interest in the company which developed the machines' software and had an employee on the company's board of directors. The government later promised to sell its interest and remove its employee from the board, though it is unclear if they actually did.


Many also criticized the use of a fingerprint-reading system supposed to ensure that nobody voted twice. During the voting, that system contributed to blocks-long lines outside many polling centers. Some voters in neighborhoods dominated by the opposition charged that the government was sabotaging the voting process.

"I arrived at 5 a.m. and we've advanced [in line] 200 meters," said Evelyn Moro, a civil engineer who was still waiting in line after noon.

The electronic voting machines also emitted paper receipts with the voter's choice, which were deposited in boxes at polling stations. However, a number of voters said they have voted 'Yes' for the recall only to discover that the paper ballot was printed with "no."

"I told the [poll workers] that I wanted to vote again, and they told me 'no,' that I'd already chosen," and dropped the ballot into the box, says Deisy Castro de Diaz, a nurse.

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