- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2004

This Sunday’s presidential recall referendum in Venezuela may not be the watershed event Venezuelans, oil executives and observers had hoped for. Polls indicate the referendum could be close, with President Hugo Chavez holding a slight lead. A close vote could lead to allegations of fraud and rising tensions in Venezuela, neutralizing the democratic resolution the referendum was supposed to bring.

To recall Mr. Chavez, the opposition must at least match the 3.76 million votes he received when he was re-elected in 2000. New elections would be held in 30 days if Mr. Chavez is recalled. The Venezuelan Supreme Court has not yet decided if Mr. Chavez could run in such an election. If he survives Sunday’s voting, he would finish his term.

The United States and other countries hardly want Venezuela, the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter, to become once again a cauldron of explosive unrest. The prospect of the referendum has maintained calm for the past few months.

Apart from the potential closeness of the vote, other factors could undermine faith in outcome. The Venezuelan electoral council has imposed unreasonable limitations on international observers, such as barring them from voicing an opinion during the electoral process and limiting each monitoring organization to 40 observers nationwide.

Still, the Carter Center and the Organization of American States (OAS) maintain they can conduct credible observation of the referendum, and have been authorized to watch the closing of polling centers and vote counts. Also, the electoral council said the results are likely to be announced speedily, about three hours after voting ends, since Venezuelans will be using high-tech voting machines.

Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program for the Carter Center, suggested that her organization is prepared to deal with post-referendum tensions. “Generally, electoral observation includes dispute resolution after the vote,” she said. U.S. lawmakers, part of the U.S.-Venezuelan Interparliamentary Forum, will also be observing the process and could play a role in urging the defeated party to accept the results.

Should Mr. Chavez win, the opposition should continue to play a vigorous, democratic role in challenging some of the president’s heavy-handed moves. Mr. Chavez has improperly stacked the Supreme Court with loyalists — a move that prompted stinging criticism by Human Rights Watch. An organ of the OAS criticized a July decision by a chamber of the Supreme Court to uphold a law requiring journalists to obtain licenses, noting that the decision would have implications for freedom of the press.

Should Mr. Chavez lose, a victorious opposition must learn to deal productively with Chavez-aligned lawmakers and other officials, and see the referendum as a turning point in their political behavior and tactics.

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