Audit supports Chavez's victory in recall

Observers find no signs of fraud, but president's opponents not satisfied

August 22, 2004|By Vanessa Bauza | Vanessa Bauza,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

CARACAS, Venezuela - A two-day audit aimed at investigating allegations of fraud in last Sunday's presidential recall referendum confirmed President Hugo Chavez's overwhelming victory, but it did little to satisfy many opposition leaders, who claim that the audit was insufficient to detect perceived irregularities.

After comparing a random sample of paper ballots from 150 polling stations to the results produced by touch-screen voting machines, the Carter Center and the Organization of American States reiterated yesterday their initial judgment that Chavez's 58 percent win was legitimate.

"We respect the doubts the opposition may have," said Cesar Gaviria, the OAS secretary general. "We, the Carter Center and the OAS, can say the results published by the National Electoral Council are compatible with all our controls."

Opposition leaders, who requested the presence of international observers, rejected the audit as incomplete. They called for a wider investigation into the software and servers used by the touch-screen machines.

The referendum was an "electronic fraud which has mocked the popular will," Asdrubal Aguiar of the opposition coalition Democratic Coordinator said minutes after the audit results were announced.

Discord drags on

Most Venezuelans are tired of more than two years of violent confrontation between Chavez's supporters and opponents. The recall referendum, in which an unprecedented 73 percent of Venezuela's 14 million registered voters participated, was meant to be a democratic solution to the country's political crisis.

Almost a week after the referendum, however, possibilities for reconciliation continued to be blocked by the fraud allegations. A long-awaited dialogue seemed as unlikely as ever.

In a speech Friday night, Chavez said opposition leaders who refuse to accept defeat appeared "ridiculous in front of the entire world."

The leftist leader, who has won support by pouring millions of dollars in oil revenues into social programs for the poor, offered a bit of political advice to his opponents: "What you must do is definitively accept a result. ... You have 3 million and some votes. Work your popular base.

"You can't go around with that fury that Chavez must go," he said. "What is that? I invite you to converse, compatriots, to dialogue in peace about the ... future of Venezuela. ... Stop trying to deceive your followers."

Some opposition leaders called for marches this week to protest the election results. They continue to insist that the voting machines were rigged, and deeply distrust the five-member National Electoral Council in which Chavez supporters make up the majority.

Opposition exit polls last Sunday led many to believe that Chavez would be ousted with a vote of 60 percent to 40 percent. Instead, results showed the opposition getting only 42 percent of the vote.

Jesus Torrealba, spokesman for the opposition coalition, said the Carter Center and the OAS have acted in good faith to try to resolve Venezuela's political crisis. However, he said, they were too hasty in legitimizing Chavez's victory, which they did a few hours after the official election results were announced Monday morning.

The OAS and the Carter Center, which have observed about 50 elections around the world, initially conducted a quick count, which endorsed electoral authorities' results. They were confident that the additional audit would have detected any fraud.

They urged the opposition to accept the results and forge a path toward reconciliation, but added that they will continue to listen to the concerns of the opposition.

`Will be very difficult'

"In a democracy, it is very important for the winner to know how to win and for the loser to know how to lose, because democratic systems allow these conflicts to be resolved on that basis," Gaviria said. "If things remain as they are today, it will be very difficult for the country to reconcile. That's why I think it is important to work until any doubt is resolved."

Torrealba and others said the two-day audit of 150 voting stations was not conclusive because the paper ballots could have been tampered with while they were in the custody of military guards.

"Our international observer friends say they don't think the ballots were manipulated; we are allowed to differ from that [opinion]," Torrealba said.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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