- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Venezuela will invite international election observers to supervise its presidential vote next year, the head of the country’s electoral commission told reporters Wednesday.

“We want to invite people, institutions from all over the place, all over the globe,” said Tibisay Lucena, president of the Venezuelan National Electoral Council (CNE).

The October 2012 vote is widely seen as a referendum on leftist President Hugo Chavez’s 14 years in power. It also is expected to be close, given Mr. Chavez’s sagging popularity, Venezuela’s recessionary economy and the previously fractious opposition’s determination to unite around a single candidate.

But opposition activists and leaders, who have alleged voter fraud in past elections, have fretted that Mr. Chavez could rig the vote without a robust international election-monitoring effort.

“The opposition is more united than it has been in the past several years. Still, sharp differences remain and it is not clear how enthusiastically they will come together to back a single candidate,” said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Latin-American focused think tank. “Chavez is vulnerable but is very resilient and has money to spend.”

Mr. Chavez, who is being treated for cancer, said Monday he will return to Cuba next week for a medical evaluation of his treatment.

Late last month, the opposition umbrella group - the Unified Democratic Panel - wrote CNE to request election observers from the Organization of American States (OAS), the U.N., the European Union and the Union of South American States.

Ms. Lucena said it is “too early” to say whether the CNE would invite the OAS, with whom Mr. Chavez has often clashed. But she said Mr. Chavez has no authority to veto an invitation from the commission.

“It’s our decision, not the government’s,” she said. “We have the last word. We are an autonomous and independent body.”

Ms. Lucena noted that Venezuela had worked with OAS election-monitoring teams in the past and said she has no objection to doing so in the future.

In addition to administering the presidential and legislative elections, scheduled for December 2012, CNE also will hold February’s primary vote in which the opposition will select its presidential candidate, she said.

The leading would-be challengers are Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles Radonski and Zulia Gov. Pablo Perez. A poll last month showed Mr. Radonski, the 39-year-old front-runner, polling just 2 percentage points behind Mr. Chavez in a two-way matchup.

A third prominent opposition politician, former Chacao Municipality Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, announced his candidacy late last month. The Costa Rican-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights overturned a ban on him holding office that Venezuela had imposed due to corruption charges.

But Ms. Lucena said Venezuela’s high court will have the final word on the matter.

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