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. 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?

  2. Owen Jones

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

  3. Thomas Coles

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

  4. 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?

  5. 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?

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