Comment: Labour, Venezuela, and the strange tale of “official observation”

Rob Marchant looks at just how free and fair the recent elections in Venezuela (won by Hugo Chavez) were, and how impartial the "election observers" were.


Rob Marchant is a political commentator and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

This morning, news came in of Hugo Chávez’s not entirely unexpected win in Venezuela’s presidential election. Now, today is not the time to review the man’s record in office on areas such as the economy, human rights or foreign policy, although these things are important – but, from this election result hangs an illuminating tale of the British left.

Despite Chávez’s regular use of state TV for campaign broadcasts, and concerns about voter intimidation, he has always gone out of his way to preserve at least an appearance of democratic choice to his electorate. The problem was, that with its hi-tech thumbprint identification, many voters were frightened away from using it, worrying their details might be used to find out how they voted (by the way, just think about how civil liberties groups would react to a national database of thumbprints in the UK).

This time, though, Chávez didn’t even try that hard to keep up appearances.

For the first time this election, there was no official, institutional election observation (EU, UN, and so on) other than the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a relatively new organisation rather dominated by Chávez and his friends among South American leaders. His supporters have recently become fond of quoting President Jimmy Carter of the Carter Centre, who praised their voting process. They fail to say other vital things outside the technical voting mechanism, such as media access, were criticised and remain unaddressed.

And, whether or not Carter was right, this time he was unwisely making a statement on Venezuela’s fairness without actually having sent observers; the Carter Centre, the only other 2012 invitee, rejected its invitation, sent only two months before the election, and no other institution was even invited.

It was also the first important election which he had a chance of losing (the only other which came close was a referendum about abolishing presidential term limits in 2007, but Chávez just kept right on going, until he got the answer he wanted two years later); no, this time it was UNASUR alone, and Chávez was left with a conundrum: how to lend credibility to elections in which it was sorely lacking?

Step forward, a few hundred helpful individuals from abroad, invited to “observe”. Now, we do not know whether people leaning towards Capriles balanced out in number those leaning towards Chávez. But the idea a few hundred individuals, however they might be chosen, can substitute for bona fide, independent electoral observation by a respected institution is absurd.

Think: why would a democrat want to abolish term limits on a presidency, if not to cling to power? Why would a democrat decline to invite election observers from the EU or the UN, after previously inviting them? Why would a democrat use the advantage of state TV over their opponent? Can you imagine the outcry if Obama were to do any one of these things?

And for the really hard questions, you cannot hope to know the answers: you have to use your gut from what you already know about the man.

Do we honestly believe this man would have gone quietly, had he lost? And that, with a government machine stuffed full of his own party members, he would not simply have supplied a different voting figure, had his state-of-the-art computer system produced an unpalatable one? The answers to these last two questions we will probably never know, but the fact that we cannot reasonably give a negative to them in all conscience leaves a highly unpleasant taste in the mouth.

And then there is the British connection. Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn Grahame Morris and Diane Abbott, long-time Chávez supporters, have been out in Venezuela for the elections along with such reputable figures as, er, George Galloway and Jody McIntyre.

More interestingly, with no trace of irony, Abbott and Corbyn Morris are going in the capacity of “official election observers”. Official observation, naturally, implies unquestionable neutrality. Diane Abbott even went to the trouble of tweeting me from Caracas that she “made a point of saying I wasn’t supporting a particular candidate”. But let’s look at that a little closer, shall we?

Abbott is patron of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign an organisation which claims to be a friend to Venezuelan democracy but, strangely, does not seem to contain a single supporter of Chávez’s opponent, Henrique Capriles. One of its stated aims is “To defend the achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution”, i.e. Chávez’s political movement.

In any event, the state apparatus is so stuffed full of Chávez’s party members, and the vital democratic dividing lines between party and state so faint, that anything which supports the Venezuelan government effectively supports the party of Chávez and the man himself. In short, the organisation might as well be called the Chávez Solidarity Campaign.

It is also difficult to imagine, had Capriles won, that the VSC would not have immediately challenged the result and campaigned for his ousting. But that last part, of course, is merely speculation.

Even in the cognitive-dissonance-soaked world of the far left, it is difficult to countenance the idea these MPs can reasonably claim to be honest brokers, neutral to both candidates. At least Galloway is honest about his love for Chávez; “Chavez fears no-one but God” and “Viva Comandante!”, he tweeted this morning.

Finally, Capriles has accepted the election result because, frankly, he has no choice. You cannot choose to stand and then decry the process when you lose. He made his bed, and he has to lie in it, for the good of his country. But that does not mean the election has been free and fair.

Neither can we really even know if Capriles would have been a better president than Chávez. But he certainly deserved the opportunity for Venezuelans to find out.

The simple truth is you are either fully democratic or you are not democratic at all. There are no in-betweens. You cannot be “almost democratic”.

But even if, against all odds, you believe Venezuela have just had free and fair elections, it is simply astounding to find our own Members of Parliament expecting us to accept the story they were acting as observers of unquestionable neutrality.

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106 Responses to “Comment: Labour, Venezuela, and the strange tale of “official observation””

  1. wj

    I’ll be interested to hear the reports from Galloway, Abbot and co – I believe Owen Jones also went out there on observation duties.

  2. Rob Marchant

    You have only to check their twitter feeds…rather amusingly pretending to be neutral, but occasionally something slips out.

  3. Owen Jones

    Rob – why don’t you actually do some homework before churning out pieces with no factual evidence? Jody Mcintyre and George Galloway are not official observers – they have not been invited by the Venezuelan election commission – and are presumably here off their own backs.

    The election commission is entirely independent, and its staff are (privately) made up of Chavez and Capriles supporters. The opposition invited the election commission to oversee their own internal elections. The observers – myself included – met with senior representatives of the opposition who made it clear they had “100%” faith in the commission and the electoral process, and had no question that it was an entirely free election.

    This is how the election works. Voters are identified by their fingerprints. They then vote in secret for a candidate on an electronic voting pad – the candidates are identified by their faces. Because Capriles had more parties backing him, he dominates the grid. As well as voting electronically, a slip is printed out with their choice and placed into a ballot box. 54% of ballot boxes are counted (above the international standard of 18%) and compared with the electronic results of each polling station. Every polling station has an observer from the opposition and Chavez camps. I interviewed about eight or nine opposition observers – not a single one had a single complaint, and the same report was passed on by other observers.

    It is all but impossible to commit fraud with this system. It is a far better system than the UK system, which is why Jimmy Carter described it as the best in the world of those he had monitored. The vote yesterday was a completely accurate reflection of the Venezuelan people. That is why the opposition have conceded with no fuss. You should also note that – before Chavez came to power – huge sections of the poor were disenfranchised, before the government launched a huge registration drive. And what do you mean by voter intimidation? I have seen absolutely no reports of such from anyone.

    As for the media – the private broadcast media – who have a 90% audience share – are *vehemently* anti-Chavez. So are the vast majority of newspapers. Some of them incited and supported a military coup d’etat against him a decade ago.

    If you were to come here and do a bit of research, you would realise how absurd your – with all due respect – appalling ill-informed analysis is.

  4. Owen Jones

    Also – there have been 15 democratic elections since Chavez came to power – all certified by international observers to be free elections. And Chavez lost one of them – the 2007 constitutional referendum – and simply conceded. What evidence is there that he would have not done the same this time round?

    It might be more honest if you simply admitted you strongly disagree with Chavez politically, rather than attempting to portray the government here as a dictatorship which nobody in Venezuela – the opposition included – believes is true, because it so self-evidently untrue.

  5. Thomas Coles

    “The simple truth is you are either fully democratic or you are not democratic at all. There are no in-betweens. You cannot be “almost democratic”.”

    I’m off to send a stern email to HRH Prince Charles.

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