Tuesday, August 24, 2004

In Venezuela, the opposition continues to have doubts about the legitimacy of the Aug. 15 presidential recall referendum. If President Hugo Chavez is serious about bringing about post-referendum reconciliation, he should recognize the opposition’s ongoing concerns and legitimate political role and strive to establish the utmost transparency in reviewing the referendum results.

According to the results, 59 percent of Venezuelans voted against recalling Mr. Chavez, while 40 percent voted in favor of a recall. Opposition leaders allege the process was marred by fraud, but instead should be making specific requests for reviewing the results, such as a recount of paper ballots. Such a request could gain momentum if lead opposition members were to pledge to potentially concede defeat, were the recount to support Mr. Chavez.

Also, the opposition may be making a mistake by looking so narrowly at referendum day itself, since there is no clear evidence of fraud. Avi Rubin, a Johns Hopkins professor who is conducting a statistical analysis of the results, cautioned that some patterns are bound to be discovered within a large number of voters.

The opposition has also pointed to exit polls by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, the pollsters of former President Clinton, which predicted 59 percent support for a recall. The U.S. firm used members of Sumate, which helped organize the recall initiative, as field-work volunteers. Interestingly, on the day of the referendum, Sumate had predicted a 20-point defeat for Mr. Chavez but later projected only a five-point defeat. Early the next morning, Sumate reported its data indicated Mr. Chavez prevailing with 55 percent support — which tends to support official results.

The Carter Center said its own quick count, which takes a sampling of votes at the polling stations, differed with official results by less than 1 percent. On the night of the referendum, the Carter Center said it conducted an audit to compare paper ballots with electronic results, and found only a 0.02 percent discrepancy. The center also said it was only able to audit a miniscule 82 machines, since voting lasted longer than expected, and therefore on Aug. 19-21 conducted a second random audit, which also confirmed the official results. Opposition leaders refused to participate in the second audit.

The opposition should continue calling for a paper-ballot recount, but should not focus exclusively on the referendum after such a recount is held. The opposition also should continue pointing to Mr. Chavez’s other glaring transgressions, such as his intimidation of and retaliation against the Venezuelans who signed onto petitions that made the referendum possible.

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