- The Washington Times - Monday, December 5, 2005

Turnout for Venezuela’s parliamentary election on Sunday, which was boycotted by opposition parties, was a mere 25 percent. Venezuelan officials were not sure who or what to blame for the low participation, which puts in question the validity of the vote and reflects poorly on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Jorge Rodriguez, president of the National Electoral Council, blamed the weather. “There was severe rain in some states today that impeded voting,’ said Mr. Rodriguez, who is seen by opposition parties as aligned with the Chavez government.

According to Mr. Chavez, the Bush administration kept many of Venezuela’s 15-million registered voters from turning out. The administration launched “another destabilization plan,” he said, adding that Venezuela’s opposition parties have “joined in the imperialist game and they’re pulling out of the election campaign.”

An assembly member of Mr. Chavez’s Fifth Republic Movement, Calixto Ortega, elaborated on Mr. Chavez’s conspiracy theory. “There is no doubt in my mind that the U.S. government is paying the opposition parties to stay away on Sunday,” Mr. Ortega told BBC. Needless to say, the Bush administration denied any plot to interfere with voter turnout.

Opposition groups said they decided to boycott the election because of concerns about the electoral process, particularly the confidentiality of voters. The low turnout for Sunday’s vote contrasts sharply with the more than 60 percent of registered voters who participated in last year’s presidential recall referendum, which Mr. Chavez survived. Those who did turn out on Sunday were clearly Chavez supporters. Although official results have not yet been announced, it appears that the Fifth Republic Movement won 114 seats and that the entire 167-member chamber could be filled with pro-Chavez lawmakers.

Since a two-thirds majority would allow the parliament to amend Venezuela’s constitution, many observers worry that the legislature may vote in favor of allowing Mr. Chavez to run for another term, a prospect which many pro-Chavez lawmakers have said they support. Mr. Chavez has already served nearly seven years and has often said he does not intend to retire until 2021.

Mr. Chavez has repressed dissenters using various methods throughout the years, but has attempted to maintain some of the procedures and rhetoric of democratic rule. His government retaliated against citizens who signed a petition in favor of the presidential recall referendum held in August 2004. Last year, Mr. Chavez maneuvered to stack Venezuela’s Supreme Court with loyalists — a move Human Rights Watch characterized as a “political takeover.”

Mr. Chavez’s increasing monopoly on all branches of power could destabilize Venezuela. On Saturday, apparent foes of Mr. Chavez bombed an oil pipeline that supplies the country’s largest refinery. Venezuela’s is the world’s fifth-largest petroleum exporter and a major U.S. supplier. Instability there could have worrisome repercussions for the U.S. and global economies.


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