by Francisco Dominguez, September 23, 2010
Venezuelans vote on Sunday, September 26, for the South American country's 165-seat National Assembly – its national parliament. This is the 16th national election or referenda since Hugo Chávez was first elected president in 1998. Venezuela’s last election, on February 15, 2009, was a referendum to remove presidential term limits. This was endorsed by 54% of the electorate. Sunday’s election is the first to take place against the backdrop of the world recession, which has been hit Venezuela hard, as it has in many other countries.
With this key election approaching, there has been a stepping up of international media distortions about Venezuela internationally. In the run-up to previous election campaigns, the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (VSC) has noted that the increase in false claims appear to be designed in order to delegitimise the results and fairness of the elections.
National Assembly elections take place every five years and the elected representatives have the power to pass legislation and also to block the president's legislative initiatives (with the support of over one-third of assembly members). The assembly also has other specific and important powers (outlined in Article 187 of the constitution) including approving the budget, initiating impeachment proceedings against most government officials (including ministers but not the president, who can only be removed by a majority of the population through a recall referendum) and appointing the members of the government's electoral, judicial and prosecutorial branches.
However the last time National Assembly elections were held in 2005, the opposition parties boycotted them in order to seek to delegitimise the result, which was to give a majority to supporters of President Chávez. Therefore this year, the anti-Chávez right-wing opposition will inevitably increase its number of seats in parliament as it will this time contest the seats.
Some media coverage has already sought to portray the elections as representing a huge gain for anti- Chávez forces if the opposition can stop the pro-Chávez parties gaining a two-thirds majority of assembly seats. However, this would be false. While we can’t predict exactly what the opposition parties would have got in 2005 had they taken part in the democratic process, they did receive more than a third of the vote in elections in the 2006 presidential elections, gaining 36.9% with 4.3 million votes (see http://www.cne.gov.ve/web/estadisticas/index_resultados_elecciones.php). Furthermore, in the 2004 presidential recall referendum, the opposition to Chávez got 40% (3,989,008 votes) – again this was more than one-third (see http://www.cne.gov.ve/referendum_presidencial2004/.) The results – and claims made in the international media by the Venezuelan opposition and others – on September 26 must be analysed against this background and context if they are to be fully understood.
Venezuelan elections are free and fair
Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) officially announced the opening of the electoral campaign for the National Assembly in August. The CNE, as with every previous election since 1999, has conducted a national information campaign to ensure that voters are aware of every detail of their voting rights. This year is no exception, and any Venezuelan can easily access the CNE's website to find out about any aspect of the coming election, including individual voting districts, the list of all candidates in every district in the country, officials and representatives to every electoral district, how to cast the electronic ballot/vote and so forth (all of which can be found here.
The effort goes, however, beyond informing the voter and ensuring their participation. Venezuela's state institutions are constantly seeking to enfranchise people who had been traditionally excluded by the previous oligarchy-run system. Since 1999, and up to the 2009 referendum, an additional 7 million Venezuelans have been added to the electoral register. Thus the 11 years of the Chavez government represent the largest expansion of voter participation in the history of the country. The CNE has reported that for the September 26 election, an additional 610,000 voters have been added to the electoral roll. Thus the number of officially registered voters who can cast their vote at the parliamentary elections is 17,772,768; the highest ever.
Voting is not compulsory in Venezuela, but pollsters predict a high level of participation of more than 70%.
While in reality it is the opposition in Venezuela that has sought to undermine democracy, of all the elections since 1999 (for president, parliament, governors, municipalities, and in referenda), the country's opposition has thus far recognised the results of only one, the 2007 constitutional referendum, which the government lost by the smallest of margins (1% or about 50,000 votes). And at every election since 1999, Venezuela's opposition have nationally and internationally sowed doubts about the probity of the country's National Electoral Council and of the electoral system.
And every single campaign to discredit Venezuela's elections as not being free or fair has found a sympathetic ear in much of the international media, with many echoing Venezuela's oligarchy's efforts to discredit the country's electoral system. It was the alleged unreliability of Venezuela's electoral system that was used as an excuse by the opposition not to participate in the 2005 parliamentary elections. They boycotted even though their request for the withdrawal of the use of electronic counting machines was granted by the government.
Yet, Venezuelan elections are invariably declared free and fair by international observers, including from the Organization of American States, the European Union and the Carter Center, amongst many others.
Despite overwhelming evidence that Venezuela's elections are probably the cleanest in the world – they are certainly the most observed – national opposition spokespeople, notably but not exclusively Henry Ramos Allup (national leader of the Accion Democratica party) and Maria Corina Machado (candidate for the Primero Justicia party and head of Sumate, the NGO which famously organised the collection of signatures to oust president Chavez from office with the 2004 recall referendum), have made various TV and public appearances sowing doubts about the CNE's probity. Both Ramos Allup and Machado signed the infamous "Carmona" decree on April 12, 2002, during the short-lived coup d'etat against President Chávez; a decree which abolished all Venezuela's democratic institutions.
Contrary to opposition claims, the automated voting system is subject to 15 audits witnessed and verified by representatives from all political parties. Routine checks are also carried out before, during and after the election. Seven such audits have taken place so far this year; audits which have included representatives from the opposition, from the United Socialist Party (PSUV) and other parties that support the Chavez government, plus specialists and international observers. These audits have all been, as on previous occasions, to everyone's satisfaction, and the rest of the audits will take place after the poll.
Nor is it true, as is repeated ad nausea by much of the corporate media, that the Venezuelan government has majority control over the media. The opposition has overwhelming support from TV stations, even greater control and ownership of radio stations and greater still of newspapers. Furthermore, according to a study conducted by the CNE, the opposition has had 75.4% of the TV electoral propaganda broadcasts so far in this election campaign.
Opposition's reliance on US funding
When looking at the policies, claims and attitudes of Venezuela’s opposition it is important to understand its relationship with the United States and its reliance on US funding for its campaigns against the Chávez-led government. It has, for example, been reported and evidence provided to show that US agencies such as the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED), USAID and International Republican Institute have given Sumate massive amounts of money. Sumate is clearly part of Washington's destabilisation effort against Venezuela, and the US has given it enormous importance. 
Opposition outfits, including many disguised as NGOs such as Sumate, continue to receive millions of dollars of US taxpayers’ money. In a recent article, Eva Gollinger outlines in depth the aims of this funding and the work of these groups, observing:
A report commissioned by the National Endowment for Democracy and published in May 2010 by the Spanish Foundation for International Relations and Foreign Dialogue revealed that this year alone, international agencies are investing between $40-50 million in anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela. A large part of those funds have been channeled to the opposition coalition, Democratic Unity (MUD), and its campaign for the upcoming legislative elections on September 26.She adds that a "majority of [such] funding comes from US agencies, particularly USAID, which has maintained a presence in Venezuela since 2002 with the sole intention of aiding in President Chavez’s removal from power”, before concluding that there "remains no doubt the Venezuelan opposition – in all its manifestations – is a product of the US government. US agencies fund and design their campaigns, train and build their parties, organize their NGOs, develop their messages, select their candidates and feed them with dollars to ensure survival".
With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that the opposition's message for this election, as with all previous ones, is intensely negative, exaggerated and strident, but has not been able to formulate a program of government or a vision of Venezuela that might be inspirational. Worse, through the well-rehearsed pronouncements of their spokespeople about "defending democracy in Venezuela", anti-Chavista parties frequently reveal some of their true views, such as:
- they profoundly dislike Venezuela’s social missions (upon winning several municipalities and governorships at the 2008 elections, the opposition parties launched a spate of physical attacks against social missions in the constituencies they won);
- they intensely oppose the presence of the thousands of Cuban doctors and other Cuban specialists who are improving the lives of millions of Venezuelans in these social programs;
- they ferociously denounce Venezuela's bilateral agreements with other Latin American countries – Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, the Caribbean and so forth – which they present as robbery to Venezuelans rather than mutually beneficial examples of regional cooperation;
- many national opposition leaders have absconded (mainly to Peru and Miami) to avoid trials for gross acts of corruption; and the opposition rallies unconditionally behind any member of the oligarchy who is caught engaged in corrupt activities.
Chavez's agility in responding positively to Colombia's new president Manuel Santos summit and take decisive steps to undo the aggression boosted Chavez's standing in his own country, in Colombia and in the region (it did so for Santos as well) and left Venezuela's opposition leaders stuck in the uncomfortable position of pretending they had never supported Uribe and were always for peace and friendship with Colombia. The whole saga was politically very damaging for them.
The key battles in the parliamentary election on September 26, as in previous elections, will take place in the most populated urban centres, namely Caracas (which elects 10 MPs), Carabobo (10 MPs), Lara (nine MPs), Miranda (12 MPs), Anzoategui, Aragua and Bolivar (eight MPs each) and Zulia (15 MPs). Opinion polls (most pollsters in Venezuela broadly speaking share the opposition's politics) indicate that Chavismo is likely to win a majority of seats.
But until Venezuelans cast their vote nobody can know in advance the result. What we do know is that the electoral process will be as clean and as transparent as it has been in previous electoral contests. Despite repeated appeals by the CNE, President Chavez and spokespeople of the PSUV, the opposition has yet to declare that it will recognise the results. However, whatever the result, the Chavistas will recognise them.
 So much so that on May 31, 2005, President Bush received Maria Corina Machado at the Oval Office.
 Such as the recent case of Francisco Mezerhane, head of the Banco Federal, in which evidence (the case is still pending) points to the robbing of Venezuelan depositors of hundreds of millions of dollars, the creation of hundreds of ghost companies and the illegal use of thousands of ordinary Venezuelans' names -- including forging their signatures -- with the purpose of carrying out fraud. Mezerhane is currently in Miami and the opposition has rallied to his defence presenting his case as "political persecution".