As Venezuela’s opposition prepares for Sunday’s legislative elections, analysts say that even a strong nationwide vote in a free-and-fair election could translate into a meager number of seats due to gerrymandering and other actions by the government to help its allies.
“The regime discovered in 2008 that it was losing its electoral competitiveness, so they created a law in 2009 that changed the electoral system to their advantage in three ways,” said Amherst College professor Javier Corrales, co-author of a forthcoming book on President Hugo Chavez’s consolidation of power.
“It reduced the number of seats determined by proportional representation; it did away with a mechanism that gave the losing party in a district compensatory seats; and it enabled redistricting which turned out to be very biased in that government inserted more ‘Chavista’ districts into jurisdictions where the opposition was strong.”
Though Mr. Chavez will not be on the ballot Sunday, the vote is widely seen as a referendum on his nearly 12 years in power ahead of the 2012 presidential elections.
But the most immediate test Sunday will be for the opposition, which boycotted the 2005 vote and handed Mr. Chavez a rubber-stamp legislature. Now unified within a coalition called Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (Coalition for Democratic Unity), the regime’s opponents are seeking to regain their parliamentary voice.
Anabel Romero, professor of political science at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas, said that while the opposition faces “structural disadvantages,” it stands a chance of gaining 57 members in the National Assembly, which would deprive Mr. Chavez of the two-thirds supermajority he needs to pass special “enabling laws.”
Mr. Romero said that while it is unlikely the opposition would win the outright majority of the popular vote, a showing in the 40- to 50-percent range is within reach and would be seen as a moral victory - even if it did not translate into an equitable number of seats.
“Just as what happens in legislative elections in the U.S.,” he said, “we have to keep in mind that there is no a direct correlation between the number of votes nationally and the proportion of seats in the National Assembly.”
Mr. Alvarez defended the new electoral law, saying that “only a small number of electoral districts saw any changes.”
To many students of previous Venezuelan elections, however, the question of how the nature of and changes to Venezuela’s electoral system will skew the results is less important than whether the vote itself will be free and fair.
Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas program at the Carter Center, which monitored four Venezuelan elections from 1998 to 2006, said that with the exception of some irregularities in nonpresidential contests in 2000, the center had found no evidence of fraud - including in the 2004 recall referendum, in which official figures had Mr. Chavez surviving in a 59-41 landslide despite exit polls predicting the opposite result.
The University of Michigan’s Walter Mebane, a leading authority on election forensics, said exit polls are unreliable and poor indicators of electoral fraud. Analyzing past Venezuelan election data using a mathematical formula for which he has become well-known in his field, he said the numbers from 2000, 2006 and 2007 contain no red flags, but that there was compelling statistical evidence of fraud in the 2004 recall and more moderate evidence for last year’s constitutional referendum.
Gustavo Delfino, a Venezuelan academic who co-authored one of several peer-reviewed papers on the 2004 recall, said that “it is by now beyond a reasonable doubt that that vote was rigged.”
“To have truly free elections, you need an impartial electoral authority, you need transparency in vote counting, and you need voters to trust that their votes will remain secret,” he added. “In Venezuela, we still don’t have any of those things.”
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Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.
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