- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has convulsed the democratic process once again — challenging the international community to come up with an effective response. On Tuesday, the country’s electoral committee in effect tried to trump a presidential recall effort through technical obstruction. Mr. Chavez has a particular flair for these kinds of actions, using democratic institutions to cloak harsh behavior. So, what is the international community to do?

In the latest sleight of hand, Venezuela’s electoral committee set unforgiving parameters for reconfirming nearly 1 million signatures supporting a recall referendum. Although the petitioners followed established guidelines, the electoral committee is now bringing up technicalities to demand that petitioners reconfirm their signatures.

The Carter Center and the Organization of American States (OAS) have taken issue with this decision, saying that the committee could have validated existing signatures through computer programs designed to detect forgeries, or, in the event a confirmation process was called for, that only those disputing their signatures be asked to step forward.

Nonetheless, the Carter Center and the OAS have decided to continue to monitor the recall process. This couldn’t have been an easy decision. The electoral committee is clearly not overseeing the process in good faith. On the other hand, if the organizations were to roundly denounce the committee and withdraw their observation, the president would triumph by default. The presence of these groups lends undeserved legitimacy to the process, but it is also the only bulwark against fraud. Their decision to remain was the better one.

Now, the OAS is mediating talks between the opposition and government officials. Some observers believe it is likely these talks will lead to a wider timeline for signature confirmations. This would be welcome.

Most serious observers believe Mr. Chavez would likely win an early election if he were to lose a recall referendum, given his level of support and the opposition’s disorganization. That would leave the country with the status quo. But such a scenario would give Venezuelans the constitutional process they desperately seek. It is difficult to imagine that Mr. Chavez would be able to govern the country effectively without confronting the risk of a recall referendum or early election. In recent days, hundreds of thousands of people have protested the committee’s decision, with several killed in street violence and hundreds jailed. The country looks like a police state.

Historically in Venezuela, politicians have disappointed. This reality was quickly illustrated after the Chavez coup in 2002, when the new government became responsible for the deaths of several citizens. So, rather than look to personalities, the international community is left with institutions and processes to support. For this reason, Mr. Chavez’s manipulation of the electoral committee is so destructive.

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