Opposition seeks recount in Venezuela recall vote

Move could backfire with voters in elections next month, analysts say

August 18, 2004|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CARACAS, Venezuela - When disgruntled soldiers led a coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez in April 2002, the violence discredited Venezuela's opposition in the eyes of many voters. And when anti-Chavez entrepreneurs and oil executives backed a nationwide strike last year that devastated the economy, public antipathy only grew.

Now, with political leaders of the Democratic Coordinator opposition alliance refusing to accept defeat in Sunday's presidential recall referendum, analysts say the anti-Chavez forces risk alienating even more Venezuelans and could suffer electoral setbacks in next month's state and local elections.

Two days after 58 percent of a record 8.5 million voters cast ballots to keep Chavez in power, opposition leaders continued to insist they had been deprived of victory by electoral manipulation and demanded a manual recount.

Although international observers have deemed the vote free and fair, they and the National Electoral Council agreed to inspect paper records from 150 of the 8,300 precincts and compare them with electronic vote tabulations, said former President Jimmy Carter. The process could take a day or two.

But the observers' concession to the partial recount contained a hint of impatience with the opposition.

"We have no reason to doubt the integrity of the electoral system or the accuracy of the referendum results as announced," Carter said, explaining the recount as an act of appeasement. "Any allegations of fraud are completely unwarranted."

The Organization of American States likewise said it had no evidence of fraud. Echoing the advice of Carter, OAS chief and former president of neighboring Colombia Cesar Gaviria urged the opposition to recognize its defeat and move on.

"This country needs to accept the democratic result and move to a new era of understanding and political dialogue and agreement on the fundamentals," he said. "We have to close this phase and try something different."

Despite the judgment of the observers that the announced results matched those of their independent "quick counts" and a partial audit of paper balloting records done early Monday, opposition politicians hoping to replace Chavez insisted that the vote was manipulated.

"We denounce before the country and before the world that a massive violation against the will of the voters has been perpetrated in Venezuela," said Enrique Mendoza, governor of Miranda state and a frequently mentioned potential candidate in the next presidential election.

Pompeyo Marquez, another senior figure in the opposition, vowed that the alliance would "continue to fight."

But some opposition supporters in the business community hinted at wanting to break out of the adversarial atmosphere that has prevailed in Venezuela since Chavez was first elected president nearly six years ago.

Lope Mendoza, president of the Con Industria manufacturers association, said his group is "open to dialogue" with the government and expressed hope that Chavez was sincere when he said Monday that he wants to work with his opponents for the good of the country.

In a commentary in the opposition-friendly daily El Universal, political analyst Alberto Garrido suggested that critics of Chavez would have to face the consequences if they refuse to "pass through this crack in the red wall," meaning Chavez's appeal for reconciliation.

"When the door shuts, those on the outside will understand what Chavez means when he says that those who aren't with the revolution are against it." He noted the September gubernatorial and municipal elections, as well as next year's parliamentary vote, and implied that the opposition could suffer if it continues to impugn the integrity of the voting system.

Other analysts said the opposition was taking the only logical stance it could. "They're not damaging their image among supporters," said pollster Luis Vicente Leon. "They're doing exactly what their supporters expect of them."

Diplomats with experience in Latin American politics warn that the opposition will probably fracture if the Democratic Coordinator leaders persist in demanding a united front in denouncing the results.

"There will probably be a significant split" between those willing to accept reality and those who remain strident, said a senior official who did not want to be identified. "It's too early to organize for the next presidential election, but there are municipal and state elections coming soon. They have to start to think about that."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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