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Op-Ed: Election Monitors Work to Build Nations' Trust

By Jimmy Carter

This op-ed was published in the Aug. 23, 2004, edition of the Miami Herald and the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

One of the primary goals of modern society is to enhance a worldwide commitment to democracy. With so many national differences concerning preferred electoral processes, it helps to have a general definition of a democratic government. The dictionary says it is "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections."

The Carter Center now monitors an average of five troubled democratic elections each year - so far a total of 51. Our prerequisites for involvement are to be invited by all major political parties and by the central election commission; to be assured that electoral procedures are fair and balanced among candidates, applied according to the law; and to be convinced that without our presence the election might not be successful.

A crucial requirement for inspiring trust is that we always remain absolutely neutral among competing candidates. It is also necessary for us to understand the complex interrelationships among the competing political contenders and be able to detect any fraudulent practices or intimidation that might subvert the free will of the citizens.

Our largest national challenge has been helping with the establishment of democracy in Indonesia, with elections held last month and five years earlier after decades of dictatorial rule. Perhaps our most intriguing involvement has been a series of elections and referendums held in Venezuela during the past six years. In both these cases, despite gloomy forecasts, the election processes have been honest and transparent and the results have expressed the will of the people.

In 1998, Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela when the two major political parties had fallen into disrepute after dominating the governments for 40 years. There was a subsequent referendum to approve a new constitution and then, in 2000, another nationwide election for local, state and national offices.

Chavez prevailed by close to 60 percent in both presidential elections, which were judged by us to reflect the will of the people, but a strong and determined opposition force remained determined to remove him from office.

We criticized the constitutional referendum for being too rushed to allow debate, and we said that some of the national legislative and local election outcomes in 2000 were uncertain given irregularities and poor audits. We did not question the presidential election, however, with its wide vote margin.

With tacit approval from Washington, a military coup against Chavez was successful in April 2002 and the United States immediately recognized the anointed leader, but an aroused Venezuelan public and condemnation of the coup by Mexico and other Latin American governments resulted in Chavez being restored to office after two days in custody. The next attempt to depose him was with a series of nationwide strikes that shut down oil production and almost destroyed the nation's economy. The government survived, but the political confrontation continued.

In January 2003, I proposed that a peculiar provision in the new constitution be implemented that provided for the people to decide in a referendum whether Chavez should leave office or complete his term. Both the opposition and the president agreed to abide by this decision, and the Organization of American states joined The Carter Center in reducing tension, ensuring communication between the contending political groups, monitoring the gathering of necessary petitions, and observing a recall referendum.

The Aug. 15 vote in Venezuela was the culmination of this process, and a large number of other international observers were invited, including Latin American presidents and members of the U.S. Congress. Because of intense distrust expressed by the opposition, extra care was taken to ensure secrecy and accuracy of the voters' decisions.

An electronic voting and tabulation system was developed by a Venezuelan-American consortium led by SmartMatic that permitted touch-screen voting, with each choice backed up by a paper ballot that was examined by the voter and then placed in a sealed box. We international monitors assured that the machines were tested in advance, and we observed the voting throughout the nation.

At the end of the voting day, results from each of the 20,000 machines were certified by poll workers and party observers and transmitted on telephone lines (CANTV, Verizon and others) to election headquarters in Caracas.

All paper ballots were retained under military guard in the local regions. As predicted by several public opinion polls and also confirmed by our independent vote tabulation, Venezuelan citizens once again expressed support for Chavez, this time by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin. He will now serve the remaining 2 1/2 years of this term (and be eligible for re-election).

A post-election audit is being conducted to assure that there are no significant disparities between the electronically transmitted data and the results obtained from counting paper ballots.

Our responsibilities don't end when the final votes are counted. There needs to be good-faith acceptance of the results by both winners and losers, and some degree of reconciliation if distrust or disharmony is deep. Especially in Venezuela, it will be necessary to establish a continuing dialogue between the government and the still-antagonistic opposition leaders. We have already begun this effort. Dr. William Ury, a world-renowned expert on mediation, will represent our center in Venezuela to pursue this goal.

Regardless of whether foreign governments approve of a political decision made by citizens of a sovereign and democratic country, the only legitimate recourse is to honor the decision, to cooperate whenever possible and to promote possible leadership changes through democratic means.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter chairs the Atlanta-based Carter Center, a nongovernmental organization advancing peace and health worldwide.

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