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.

  6. Rob Marchant

    Well, Owen, first it would help if you had read the article properly. Nowhere does it claim that Galloway and McIntyre are official observers. Thanks for the explanation about the process, but I already talked to a Venezuelan voter who had explained it to me in detail.

    The rather important point you seemed to have missed, Owen, is the futility of inviting individuals unskilled in doing election observation and without a set process to follow imposed by their organisation. Like, for example, the Carter Center, which strangely was not invited in time this time. And rather like every other reputable organisation used to carry out these kind of activities. Why do you think there is an observation operation mounted in such a Heath Robinson fashion,using individuals rather than institutions? Why are there no UN or EU observer missions, or even one from the Carter Center? Does this really not cause you even the slightest pause for thought, even for a minute, of why you were invited?

    And finally, would you not agree that an observer should be someone of unquestionable neutrality, rather than someone who has been a supporter of one of the candidates for years?

    With all due respect, that is.

  7. Rob Marchant

    I don’t think anyone mentioned the word dictatorship except your good self, Owen. A better word is pseudo-democracy. By the way, the important point is that earlier elections were clearly better-run. But you really need to answer the question of why the institutions who previously observed were either not invited or declined to come this time.

  8. Owen Jones

    Can you give me one piece of evidence that the election yesterday was not free and a completely accurate representation of the will of the Venezuelan people? How on earth is it possible to commit fraud in the system I have outlined, overseen by an election commission completely trusted by the opposition who invited them to oversee their own internal elections? Given the opposition believed this was an entirely free election, are they either less informed or less intelligent than you?

  9. Stephen Hildon

    Because the previous election were clearly fair so there was no need this time.

  10. Rob Marchant

    Hmm, logically that doesn’t really work, does it?

  11. Rob Marchant

    The pitch was queered long before the election, Owen, and you know it. The media access was not even. The stupidity of using a thumbprint-based system put people off from using it (in the UK it would clearly never have been allowed on civil liberties grounds).

    Also, yes there are still ways in the process itself. Are you aware, for example, that there does not exist any dispute resolution if the ballot box doesn’t agree with the electronic tally. The electronic tally is the master. How can you be sure of the independence of the civil servants organising the count? The Electoral Commission? The guy who reports the results to the press?

    There’s a few for starters.

    But most of all, WHY ARE THERE NO INSTITUTIONS OBSERVING THIS PROCESS, OWEN? Why on earth are they relying on people like you?

  12. Owen Jones

    And by the way, Jeremy Corbyn is not here. He is London. Where are you getting your information from?

  13. Thomas Coles

    Do international observers go into US, UK, German, French etc elections?

  14. Owen Jones

    A thumbprint-based system puts people off?! Are you serious? Is that why turnout was over 80%, i.e. the highest ever? It was designed precisely to build trust in the system – i.e. so people did not believe fraud was being committed. Once again – the opposition expressed their 100% faith in the system, so who are you to say otherwise?

    The count happens in front of the opposition and Chavez observers. Again, this whole argument is based on zero evidence.

    If you were here, you would realise how *ludicrous* your argument about the media is. 90% of the media is privately owned and almost unanimously anti-Chavez. And I don’t mean like in Britain – there are no guidelines enforcing impartiality here, and some of them are like Fox News on speed. The same goes for the newspapers. So why do you mean there isn’t an even playing field, given state TV – which can rightly be accused of bias – has a 10% share?

    I have interviewed representatives of the opposition leadership, and several opposition observers. No-one has raised any concerns. So given you don’t know really know what you’re talking about, who are you to override them?

  15. Sean Lynch

    If the thumbprint-based system put people off using it, why was turnout the highest it has been for decades? Or, was it just the opposition supporters who were put off using it?

  16. Rob Marchant

    Owen, can you tell me exactly what training and qualifications you have to be an election observer? Because I’m not sure how you know what you’re talking about.

  17. Rob Marchant

    Correct. Well done, you’re starting to catch on.

  18. Liz McShane

    hoping Rick Muir will write an article on this subject……

  19. Owen Jones

    Un. Believable. *No-one* in the opposition has made this claim. The system was designed by an election commission entirely trusted by the opposition, made up of both Chavez and Capriles supporters. Your entire argument is based on total ignorance. Beyond embarrassing.

    I note you haven’t answered my queries – because you have no answers – so we will leave it at that. I just think it reflects badly on Left Foot Forward to publish this dross.

  20. Rob Marchant

    Oh do stop being silly, Owen. You have not answered why no institutions are monitoriing this, or why they are not choosing independent observers but a few selected individuals without training and without their own independent procedures.

    The sad thing is that you cannot accept the reality, which is that you have gone out to Caracas as a useful idiot, Owen. You’ve been duped, mate.

  21. Rob Marchant

    Not sure of the relevance of this question. These countries have been stable democracies for hundreds of years, for a start.

  22. Alex Otley

    Don’t remember other countries demanding the UN monitor our elections…

  23. Stephen Hildon

    Yes it does. As Venezuela has previously proven itself as holding free and fair elections then there is no need for it to continue to be observed. You argument is akin to making a child to continue to swim with armbands when they have already proved they don’t need them. You have to draw the line somewhere.

  24. Stephen Hildon

    Your own article states that UNASUR is observing the election. You are starting to sound like a birther or truther.

  25. ala rota

    let us Venezuelans be “da people” here. We won! Period. Go question Bush/Gore’s election and the fairness of the us electoral system!

  26. Stephen Hildon

    Yes Germany was an especially stable democracy from 1933 to 1945. US wouldn’t let people with the wrong colour skin vote up until the 1960s. Uk only been a proper democracy since WWI.

  27. Andrzej Orzechowski

    Rob – you should watch this John Pilger’s documentary:
    Then you will understand that the truth is you are either fully democratic or PR/media democratic (like in USA, Poland and many other countries where media describes Chavez as a threat to democracy 😉

  28. ala rota

    particularly when you know that there ain’t no fairness in the us electoral system; where a Suprme Courtt appointed by right-wing presidents (for life) decide domestic and foreign policy, (see Citizens United). Zealousy when it’s convenient. Go see if it’s fair that a child can die of starvation in the us, AND IT happens as we speak. You people make me sick!

  29. Eretico Rosso

    there is not a single bit of factual evidence re electoral misdoings in Venezuela in this article – just a number of personal attacks on a few members of the British Left (something completely not relevant). The sentence in bold about democracy is clearly intended as a punchy line – instead it is just a platitude that means absolutely nothing. The author has clearly very little to say about Venezuela, if anything at all.

  30. Alex Otley

    What I get from this is that the result was fraudulent because the Carter Centre chose not to accept its invitation and because George Galloway entered the country (presumably on a tourist visa) and announced his endorsement of Chavez on Twitter. The far-right Heritage Foundation in the US probably approve of this nonsense, but sadly for you Capriles conceded the election without complaint.

  31. robertcp

    You say in the article that you either fully democratic or you are not. Then you say in your response to Owen that pseudo democracy is a better word than dictatorship to describe the Venezuelan political system. I am confused. Can you confirm that Chavez is not a dictator?

  32. Rob Marchant

    Ok, fair point. Democracies. But established democracies don’t really need observers. The point is, you only need them when people question the system. No-one does here, but they’re questioning it there.

  33. etonmess

    This Rob bloke (never heard of the guy) isn’t much cop. On his blog he just quotes the Evening Standard. Assuming he’s some random Tory. My guess he’s Dan Hodges in a pretend beard.

  34. Rob Marchant

    This piece is about the British left as much as it is about Venezuela. I’ll decide what’s relevant to my piece, not you.

  35. Duncan Davis

    “you are either fully democratic or you are not democratic at all” – surely that makes our own elections ‘not democratic at all’ since the FPTP electoral system can hardly be called completely democratic. Also we have an unelected head of state, an unelected 2nd chamber and a large proportion of our public services run by unaccountable corporations. In all honesty Venezuela has a much more democratic system than we do and while I don’t claim their system is perfect, it’s one of the best in the world.

  36. etonmess

    ‘They’ being you, the Tea Party, the Daily Telegraph, UKIP and the Heritage Foundation.

  37. robertcp

    History is not your strong point! Most black people in the US have only able to vote from the 1960s. In France the Fourth Republic collapsed in the late 1950s and there was the little matter of Vichy France. Brtitain has only had universal suffrage since 1918 at the earliest. The classic though is Germany. Hitler, Honecker and Ulbricht were such great democrats!

  38. Rob Marchant

    No, “they” being a significant number of Venezuelans, human rights groups, and electoral observation missions (even the Carter Center is not without criticisms). Oh, and Reporters Without Borders.

  39. Stephen Hildon

    Chávez came to power in 1998 so they have had 14 years of running elections. I wonder how long after Franco died did Spain have to be observed. Both the 2006 and 2012 Mexican presidential elections were considerably suspect, but the massive protests there were ignored by the western media. Observing an election is not an easy task. In Mexico in 2006 there were less than 700 observers for over 100,000 polling stations.

  40. Rob Marchant

    Yeah, already conceded the “stable” point above. Do try to keep up, Robert.

  41. Rob Marchant

    Yes, and my point is that the organisation is hardly credible as a monitor. It’s stuffed full of Chavez sympathisers. It’s like saying I’m going to be audited…by my mum.

  42. robertcp

    Okay, Stephen made exactly the same point as me at about the same time, which is why it was not on my screen when I made my comment.

  43. stevie c

    ripped to shreds by Owen Jones. Embarrassing.

  44. Eretico Rosso

    you decide, no-one cares.

  45. Terence Macdonald

    And you are neutral?

  46. alexis de tocqueville

    ‘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”.’

    That’s risable. Care to name any country that is ‘fully democratic’ Rob? What does ‘fully democratic’ even mean?

  47. Alex Otley

    It’s nonsense. To somehow claim that the Venezuelan election was equivalent to elections in North Korea (1 candidate, mandatory voting, no secret ballot) is totally hysterical.

  48. Rob Marchant

    Nope. And don’t pretend to be.

  49. Paul Armstrong

    Exactly, an ill informed, ignorant gobshite.

  50. Gareth Nicholas

    Rob, you’ve failed to provide any examples of actual foul play, just baseless slurs justified by nonesense like “you just have to use your gut”(!) The sad thing is that you cannot accept the reality that Venezuelans voted for Chavez because he has improved their lives. You’re going along with a Neo-Con propaganda offensive as a useful idiot, Rob. You’ve been duped, mate.

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