Venezuelan recall referendum, 2004

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Template:Politics of Venezuela The Venezuelan recall referendum of 15 August 2004 was a referendum to determine whether Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, should be recalled from office.

The recall referendum was announced on 8 June 2004 by the National Electoral Council after Chávez opponents had succeeded in collecting the number of signatures required by the 1999 Constitution to force a vote. It was the first such recall vote ever faced by any democratically elected Head of State in the world. Venezuela is the only country in Latin America where a sitting president can be forced to resign in this way. Chávez resisted the recall vote using a combination of legal technicalities and – allegedly – threats and violence.

Contents

The petition

The recall mechanism was introduced into Venezuelan law in 1999 under the new Constitution drafted by the National Constituent Assembly and sanctioned by the electorate in a referendum. Under its provisions, any elected official can be subjected to a recall, provided that a prior petition gathers the requisite number of voters' signatures: 20% of the corresponding electorate. Thus, to order a presidential recall vote – for which the constituency was the national electorate as a whole – some 2.4 million signatures were needed: a massive grassroots political exercise.

Constitutional bases

The recall referendum is provided for in two articles of the 1999 Constitution:

Article 72: All [...] offices filled by popular vote are subject to revocation.
Once one-half of the term of office to which an official has been elected has elapsed, a number of voters representing at least 20% of the registered voters in the affected constituency may petition for the calling of a referendum to revoke that official's mandate.
When a number of voters equal to or greater than the number of those who elected the official vote in favour of the recall, provided that a number of voters equal to or greater than 25% of the total number of registered voters vote in the recall referendum, the official's mandate shall be deemed revoked and immediate action shall be taken to fill the permanent vacancy as provided for by this Constitution and by law.
Article 233: The President of the Republic shall become permanently unavailable to serve by reason of any of the following events: death; resignation; [...] recall by popular vote.
[...] When the President of the Republic becomes permanently unavailable to serve during the first four years of his constitutional term of office, a new election by universal suffrage and direct ballot shall be held within 30 calendar days. Pending the election and inauguration of the new President, the Executive Vice President shall take charge of the Presidency of the Republic.
In the cases described above, the new President shall complete the current constitutional term of office. If the President becomes permanently unavailable to serve during the last two years of his constitutional term of office, the Executive Vice President shall take over the Presidency of the Republic until the term is completed.

The signature collection drive

In August 2003, about 3.2 million signatures were presented, but these were rejected by the pro-Chávez majority on the National Electoral Council (CNE) on a legal technicality on the grounds that many have been collected prematurely, i.e. before the mid-point of the presidential term. In September 2003, The Economist reported that the government used a "rapid reaction" squad to raid the offices of the CNE, the government body overseeing the petition drive. The magazine also reported that the government punished Venezuelan citizens for signing the petition.

In November 2003, the opposition collected a new set of signatures, with 3.6 million names produced in a remarable four days. In February 2004, Roberto Abdul, one of the directors of Súmate, the (U.S.-backed) NGO that collected the signatures, stated that according to their own calculations at least 8% (265,000) of the signatures were invalid. The majority of the CNE rejected the petition, saying that only 1.9 million were valid, while 1.1 million were dubious and 460,000 completely invalid. Many of the signers denounced that they were called to sign the petitions in their workplace by their own managers and threatened with reprisals if they refused. The invalid signatures included people who had died many years earlier, infants, and foreigners. Of the signatures categorised as dubious, 876,017 all had the personal details written in the same handwriting except for the signature itself. Reaction to this decision resulted in nationwide riots that led to nine dead, 339 arrested, and 1,200 injured.

The petitioners appealed to the Electoral Chamber of the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the Venezuelan Supreme Court. The court reinstated over 800,000 of the disputed signatures, bringing the total to 2.7 million — well above the 2.4 million needed to authorize the referendum. However, about a week later, the Constitutional chamber of the TSJ overturned the Electoral chamber's ruling alleging that the latter did not have jurisdiction for that ruling.

Again, the names of petition signers were posted publicly. The president of the Venezuelan Workers Confederation was quoted by the Associated Press as claiming that the Chávez government had begun firing petition signers from government ministries, the state oil company, the state water company, the Caracas Metro, and public hospitals and municipal governments controlled by Chávez's party. The Associated Press also quoted Venezuela's Health minister, Roger Capella, as justifying petition related layoffs by saying "all those who have signed to activate the recall referendum against President Chávez should be fired from the Health Ministry". He retracted these remarks several days later by saying that they were his own personal opinions and not a matter of public policy.

As a compromise, the CNE set aside five days in May 2004 to allow the owners of disputed signatures to confirm that they did, in fact, back the referendum call: this was known as the reparo process. At the end of that verification effort, the total number of signatures stood at 2,436,830, according to the CNE. Thus, the target had been reached and the referendum could take place. During these days thousands of forged ID cards and equipment to create forged ID cards were confiscated by the police. Supporters of Chávez believed that the opposition used these to forge signatures. The opposition believed that the equipment and the ID cards were planted. [1] (http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news.php?newsno=1284)

The CNE later admitted that 15,863 signatures of those signatures that were verified in May 2004 belonged to people who had died in 2003.

Timing

The date chosen was significant: Had the recall vote been held on 19 August or later, Chávez would have been into the fifth year of his six-year term and, had he been voted out, Vice President José Vicente Rangel would have taken over and served out the rest of Chávez's presidency. With the vote called for 15 August, Chávez was not yet into the last two years of his term in office; an unfavourable result would therefore have meant the calling of fresh presidential elections within the following 30 days. Chávez had expressed his clear intention to stand in the election, had he been recalled; the anti-Chávez factions, however, maintained that he would have been disqualified from doing so.

The ballot

The following question was put to the Venezuelan electorate:

¿Está usted de acuerdo con dejar sin efecto el mandato popular otorgado mediante elecciones democráticas legítimas al ciudadano Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías como presidente de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela para el actual período presidencial? ¿NO o SÍ?

Translated into English:

Do you agree to revoke, for the current term, the popular mandate as President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela conferred on citizen Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías through democratic and legitimate elections? NO or YES?

Thus, somewhat counterintuitively, a "yes" vote was a "no to Chávez" vote.

For the recall to be successful, there were three conditions:

  • A turnout of at least 25% of the country's 14.25 million registered voters.
  • More anti-Chávez votes than the number who voted for him in the 2000 presidential election (3.76 million).
  • More "yes" votes cast than "no" votes.

The day of the referendum

Polling stations opened their doors at 06h00 Venezuelan time on 15 August. Later in the day, faced with a 70% turnout, lengthy queues of waiting voters, and delays exacerbated by the use of novel electronic voting equipment and fingerprint scanners, the electoral authorities agreed to extend the close of voting on two occasions: a first four-hour extension of the deadline that took it to 20h00, followed by a further four hours announced later in the evening, which took it to 24h00. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who was in Venezuela to observe the electoral process, said of the patiently waiting Venezuelan electors, "This is the largest turnout I have ever seen."

All Venezuelans aged 18 and up whose names appear on the electoral roll were eligible to vote, including those resident abroad: polling stations were set up in the country's embassies and consulates abroad, including those in Mexico City, Tegucigalpa, Toronto, and New York City.

Results

Preliminary result

Francisco Carrasquero, president and one of the five members of the CNE, announced the preliminary result on national television and radio at around 04h00 local time on Monday, 16 August, after 94% of the votes had been counted:([2] (http://rnv.gov.ve/noticias/?act=ST&f=2&t=7761))

  • No:  4,991,483 = 58%
  • Yes: 3,576,517 = 42%

According to these early-morning results, the first condition (a quorum of 25% of the electorate) had definitely been satisfied. The second condition (more votes against Chávez than he received in 2000) would probably be satisfied (an extrapolation from the preliminary results, assuming that Poisson statistics correctly describe the uncertainties and that the so far uncounted votes are not biased with respect to the full sample, gives the total number of "yes" votes as 3.785 million with an error margin of about 0.002 million). However, the third condition (a simple majority: more people voting "yes" than "no") had clearly failed.

Final result

        Voters / Votes    %
  Eligible voters 14,027.607  
  Total votes cast   9,815,631 69.98%
  Total valid votes  9,789,637
  Total invalid votes  
  Total yes votes 3,989,008  40.74% 
  Total no votes 5,800,629  59.25% 

As the count progressed, results were posted on the CNE website (http://cne.gov.ve/resultados/).

On 18 August, the CNE published a report which stated that, with 96% of the ballots accounted for, the results were 5,553,209 "No" votes (59.06%) and 3,849,683 "Yes" votes (40.94%). [3] (http://www.cne.gov.ve/notideta.asp?id=419)

On 26 August, the CNE published a press release with the final results of the count. The figures indicated in that bulletin are shown in the table opposite. The press release can be seen (in Spanish) here (http://cne.gov.ve/notideta.asp?id=428).

Aftermath

Endorsement

Missing image
CarterGaviria.jpg
Endorsing returns showing that Chávez won the recall vote, international monitors César Gaviria (L) and Jimmy Carter (R) answer questions during a joint OAS and Carter Center press conference in Caracas on August 16, 2004.

The day before the polling, former U.S. President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter of the Carter Center, who had deployed extensive networks of electoral monitors to oversee the referendum, expressed confidence that the vote would proceed in a calm and orderly fashion. "I might project results that will be much more satisfactory than they were in 2000 in Florida," said Carter. [4] (http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/afp/20040814/en_afp/venezuela_referendum_040814224915)

On the afternoon of 16 August, Carter and OAS Secretary General César Gaviria gave a joint press conference in which they endorsed the preliminary results announced by the CNE. The monitors' findings "coincided with the partial returns announced today by the National Elections Council" said Carter, while Gaviria added that the OAS electoral observation mission's members had "found no element of fraud in the process". Directing his remarks at opposition figures who have made claims of "widespread fraud" in the voting, Carter called on all Venezuelans to "accept the results and work together for the future". [5] (http://edition.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/americas/08/16/venezuela.recall.ap/index.html)

Fraud claims

At 15h50 local time on 15 August, CNE rector Jorge Rodríguez and CNE president Francisco Carrasquero announced on national television that they had found an audio CD where a faked voice of Carrasquero declares that the anti-Chávez opposition has won the referendum with a total of 11,436,086 "yes" votes, and that Chávez's mandate is thereby revoked. Since this was several hours before the closing of the polling booths, and since Carrasquero declared the recording to be fake, this appears to be a case of attempted sabotage of the referendum. The attorney-general has been called on to conduct a full inquiry into this incident and to locate and arrest those responsible for the spurious audio recording. [6] (http://newswire.indymedia.org/en/newswire/2004/08/808090.shtml), [7] (http://www.aporrea.org/dameverbo.php?docid=19524)

Journalist Fausto Malavé told the Venezuelan opposition press that the recording was an evident parody that had been circulating in city streets for at least two months, claiming that it was surprising that it was only brought into public attention by now. He also expressed concern at the increased importance that is being attributed to it by the CNE. [8] (http://www.eluniversal.com/2004/08/15/revo_ava_15A483829.shtml)

Separately, a number of both opponents and supporters of Chávez demonstrated outside several electoral locations both inside and outside the country, claiming that they were being prevented from voting because they did not appear in the official registration lists. Specifically, 300 Venezuelans in Colombia, as reported by the Venezuelan opposition press, apparently could not vote for that reason, which some have attributed to slowness or negligence of the CNE in going over the necessary paperwork. The Venezuelan ambassador in Colombia stated that his office had filed the proper documents on time and thus the CNE would be responsible for any potential problems. [9] (http://www.eluniversal.com/2004/08/15/revo_ava_15A483849.shtml)

Missing image
Oppositioncrying.jpg
An opposition supporter cries as Chávez appears on television to give his victory speech after the electoral commission announced that, according to preliminary results, almost 60 percent of voters wanted the president to remain in power.

After the first preliminary result was broadcast, the opposition Coordinadora Democrática implied that a fraud may be taking place, as it has stated that its own data gives the "Yes" vote 59% and the "No" vote 40%. The entity has also told the press that no opposition representation was present when the votes were counted and that the physical ballots have not yet been taken into account. [10] (http://www.eluniversal.com/2004/08/16/revo_ava_16A483983.shtml) It has also stated that it sympathises with the declarations made by the CNE's Mejías and Zamora. [11] (http://www.eluniversal.com/2004/08/16/revo_ava_16A483983.shtml)

Partial audit of the results

While stressing they had found no indications of fraud, the OAS and Carter Center monitors announced on Wednesday, 18 August, that they would conduct a check of the results at 150 randomly selected sites. This review, conducted by the monitors in conjunction with the CNE, would entail comparing the audit trail recorded by the electronic voting equipment with the individually printed ballot papers. Some sectors of the opposition, however, have refused to participate in this process, arguing that the fraud lay deeper inside the machines. According to ranking opposition member Nelson Rampersad, many of the machines "simply stopped recording 'yes' votes once a ceiling had been reached".

On Saturday, 21 August, the international observers reported that their audit of the selected machines supported the official result: "The type of check used in this audit of the electronic system doesn't leave us much doubt regarding the result," said Gaviria. "We cannot say categorically there was not fraud," he added, "We are saying we didn't find it."

Claims of foreign interference

Several months before the recall took place, it was revealed that Súmate (the main group behind the recall effort) had received a USD $53,000 grant in September 2003 from the United States National Endowment for Democracy, an organisation funded by the United States government. The grant, earmarked for "election education", was used to collect millions of signatures required to set the recall in motion. [12] (http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0811/p07s01-woam.html) The government is now prosecuting four Súmate officials for accepting this money. However Venezuela's current legislation contains not explicit prohibition for NGOs to accept foreign funds but rather establishes that politicians can not be funded by foreign entities. It has to be borne in mind that Hugo Chávez received $1.5 million early in 1999 from the Spanish group BBVA according to investigations revealed by Spanish top judge Baltazar Garzon [no prosecution action has been started in that regard]. Furthermore the government does not seem to be willing to prosecute other NGOs for having received monies from the National Endowment for Democracy.

Chávez supporters see the Súmate scandal as another example of the U.S. intent to overthrow him. Senior U.S. administration officials met with Venezuelan opposition leaders in the months and weeks before the abortive 2002 coup d'état, although the administration has insisted that they did not support the coup. [13] (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/04/20020416-5.html) [14] (http://www.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/04/16/US.Venezuela/) [15] (http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,685531,00.html)

Claims of media bias

Chávez supporters have alleged international press bias, asserting:

  1. At least one Reuters article, dated either 6 March or 3 June 2004, and distributed by MSN, illustrated an article about a demonstration by people opposing the president by showing a photograph of what really seemed to be a march by supporters, not opponents, of Chávez. [16] (http://www.indymediapr.org/news/2004/08/4018.php)
  2. It has been claimed in the international press that the opponents of Chávez would include "most of the country's news organisations". [17] (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A1407-2004Aug14.html)
  3. Early on Monday morning, 16 August, the Washington Times published a UPI/CNN report presenting the preliminary results announced by Carrasquero of the national electoral council (CNE), but referring to Carrasquero and the CNE with the single word show, i.e. not mentioning the fact that the result was announced by the CNE. Given that the CNE is a more neutral body than Chávez, this version of the article suggested to the casual reader that the initial result is more likely to be biased than it really is. The relevant phrases from the article [18] (http://washingtontimes.com/upi-breaking/20040816-063521-6310r.htm), were:
    • Chávez claimed Monday he won a recall election,
    • initial vote counts show 58 percent voted to keep Chávez in power.
    A later version of the article does include an attribution of the result:
    • According to the tally released by Venezuela's National Electoral Board, or CNE,
  4. The article continues by quoting an opposition leader who claims that massive fraud took place, but fails to state the well-known evidence which suggest that the fraud claim is unlikely: the numerous pre-referendum polls, both by opposition and by pro-Chávez groups, during the previous few months and weeks predicted the No vote to win by a margin of between 5% and 31%; the 16% margin of the preliminary result is consistent with this, suggesting that no major fraud took place. For example, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc. and DATOS, both commissioned by the opposition, found margins in favour of No by 5% and 12% respectively in June 2004 [19] (http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1228); Datanálisis found a margin of 14% in favour of Chávez in June [20] (http://narcosphere.narconews.com/story/2004/8/1/185820/8839); while on August 11, Robert Jensen claimed that recent polls ranged from 8% to 31% for margins in favour of the No vote [21] (http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2004-08/11jensen.cfm).

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