The Carter Center and our Council of Freely Elected Heads of State were invited by the major candidates and the National Electoral Council to serve as observers for the elections on December 6, when a new president was to be chosen. This would be our 18th election in this hemisphere.
Although Venezuela has had a stable democracy for four decades, this was a different and challenging time. The two major parties, COPEI and AD (equivalent to the Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S.) have fallen into disrepute, so that their nominees had little chance of receiving any appreciable public support. This meant that independent candidates were the only ones with a real chance of being elected.
The leading candidate, according to latest polls, was Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez, a 44-year-old charismatic populist who was the most fervent in his commitment to make drastic changes in the political system. His major challenger was Henrique Salas Romer, a Yale graduate who also promised to change the existing political structure.
Chavez had led an unsuccessful coup attempt against the incumbent government in 1992, was incarcerated, never put on trial, and later released by President Caldera. He seemed to appeal to a poorer constituency than Salas, and was feared by the elite establishment, while still enjoying some support from the business community.
The other candidates seemed to rank quite low in the polls, including Irene Saez (former Miss Universe endorsed by COPEI party) and Luis Alfaro (77-year-old leader of the Accion Democratica party). Four days before the election, both of the old political parties renounced their endorsed candidates and shifted support to Salas, in an attempt to prevent a Chavez victory. This was the situation when we arrived.
The other confusing factor was a new electronic system for counting votes at the polling places, where each marked ballot was fed through a scanner that tabulated the returns. At the end of the voting day, the machines would indicate the results and automatically transmit them by telephone and satellite to central election headquarters in Caracas. About 8 percent of the voters were in small voting constituencies or remote areas not served by this telephonic system, where manual counting would take place.
When we arrived on Friday, it was generally believed that Hugo Chavez was still ahead in the polls, and that the concerted effort to defeat him was not likely to succeed. Irene Saez had agreed to COPEI's decision, but Alfaro continued claiming to be the AD party's nominee. The National Electoral Council ruled in favor of the parties' decisions, which caused some confusion among the voters and also within the electronic machines, which could not be reprogrammed at this late date. Again, as in the past, the endorsement of the discredited parties had a negative effect on public opinion, but Salas supporters hoped that the electoral capabilities of the parties (get-out-the-vote) might more than compensate for the negative effect.
We had a strong monitoring team of 40 members from nine nations, managed by Dr. Jennifer McCoy and headed by former Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, former presidents Patricio Aylwin (Chile) and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (Bolivia), and me. Carter Center supporter Ron Burkle generously donated his plane for the leadership team's travel to Venezuela, and he accompanied us on the observation mission. There were other foreign observers, including teams from the Organization of American States and the European Community. After briefings about the process, our two-person teams were dispatched throughout the country on Saturday.
Our private meetings with candidates and political parties revealed the usual pre-election degree of paranoia and suspicion. It seemed clear to pollsters that the endorsement of the major parties had hurt Salas and been of some small help to Irene. In our meeting with Chavez, we urged him to be gracious in his potential victory statement and careful not to violate constitutional principles as he moved to implement his promises to change the political system.
He listened carefully, and responded that he would like for The Carter Center to assist him in dealing with the major legal issues and in bringing other leaders into the process. Like other heads of state, he wants to be accepted as a legitimate leader.
Another fact that everyone accepts is that Venezuela has been terribly mismanaged and shot through with corruption, and is now something of an economic basket case, with a deficit of 8 percent of the budget, crude oil prices less than $8 a barrel, and unemployment and inflation very high. Despite these intransigent problems, campaign rhetoric has raised excessive expectations among the poor and working class citizens. Under the best of circumstances, the next president will be facing formidable challenges.
On election day, our teams were out at 6:15 a.m. observing the opening of the polling places. Voting officials were recruited by lottery (like the U.S. military draft for Viet Nam), with the top officials being well educated. In the poorest sites, some of them didn't show up, and other party observers were recruited to assist. This is the first place we have monitored where voting could commence whenever the officials were ready. Among the 40 or so mesas (voting stations) we visited during the morning hours, the first votes were cast from 6:30 to 9:00 a.m.
The general practice was to have one vote counting machine for each three mesas (about 2,250 registered voters). Almost all the machines were working perfectly, but one was rejecting all the paper ballots from one of the three mesas at that site (they may have been damp or miscoded), and hundreds of people were waiting (fairly patiently) in line. We started manual voting for that group of voters and moved on to other sites. Our observers around the nation had not reported any serious problems by noon.
When the last voters cast their ballots, the mesa presidents instructed the machine operators to turn a key, which transmitted the results electronically to CNE headquarters. Then the printer was actuated, which printed out the results for officials at each separate mesa to examine. Our teams visited 252 sites, and found that there were minor problems with the machines in only 6 percent of the locations.
Early returns or exit poll results are prohibited by law prior to the first announcement of results by the electoral commission. The first polls closed at 4:00 p.m., and the last votes were cast by 5:00 p.m. We arrived at the electoral headquarters at this time, and found that 56 percent of the returns had already been received. It was obvious from the beginning that Hugo Chavez was winning a huge victory, with about 57 percent of the total votes.
His major opponent, Salas Romer, received about 39 percent, meaning that the two independent candidates who advocated dramatic change got 95 percent of the total. Irene Saez was third with only 3 percent, but is likely to play an important political role in the future.
We had a series of discussions the day after the election, with the regional director of UNDP, business leaders, former president Carlos Andres Perez, Salas Romer, and Hugo Chavez. One suggestion was that The Carter Center arrange a quiet and private discussion among about 20 Venezuelan leaders and 10 or so foreign experts, the purpose of which would be reconciliation among leaders and advice on how President-elect Chavez can carry out his primary campaign commitments. The decision about this proposal will be made by Chavez and other Venezuelan leaders, and we will assist if requested.
The monitoring team leaders believe strongly that U.S. travel restraints against the president-elect should be lifted immediately (His visa requests in the past have been denied because of the unsuccessful coup attempt.). We agree that this would be a graceful act, which all Venezuelans would appreciate