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To Appease Chavez Foes, Observers OK Partial Audit in Recall

Analysts say opposition risks alienating more voters and could face setbacks in other polls.

August 18, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — When disgruntled soldiers led a coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez in April 2002, the violence discredited Venezuela's opposition in the eyes of many voters. And when anti-Chavez entrepreneurs and oil executives backed a nationwide strike last year that devastated the economy, public antipathy only grew.

Now, with political leaders of the Democratic Coordinator opposition alliance refusing to accept defeat in Sunday's presidential recall vote, analysts say the anti-Chavez forces risk alienating even more Venezuelans and could suffer electoral setbacks in next month's state and local elections.

Two days after 58% of a record 8.5 million voters cast ballots to keep Chavez in power, opposition leaders Tuesday continued to insist that they had been deprived of victory by electoral manipulation and demand a manual recount.

Although international observers have deemed the vote free and fair, they and the National Electoral Council agreed to inspect paper records from 150 of the 8,300 precincts and compare them with electronic vote tabulations, former U.S. President Carter said. The process could take a day or two.

But the observers' concession to the partial recount held a hint of impatience with the opposition.

"We have no reason to doubt the integrity of the electoral system or the accuracy of the referendum results as announced," Carter said, explaining the recount as an act of appeasement. "Any allegations of fraud are completely unwarranted."

The Organization of American States likewise said it had no evidence of fraud. Echoing Carter's advice, the OAS chief and former president of neighboring Colombia, Cesar Gaviria, urged the opposition to recognize its defeat and move on.

"This country needs to accept the democratic result and move to a new era of understanding and political dialogue and agreement on the fundamentals," Gaviria said. "We have to close this phase and try something different."

Despite the judgment of the observers that the announced results matched those of their own independent "quick counts" and a partial audit of paper balloting records done early Monday, opposition politicians with aspirations to replace Chavez insisted that the vote had been manipulated.

"We denounce before the country and before the world that a massive violation against the will of the voters has been perpetrated in Venezuela," said Enrique Mendoza, governor of Miranda state and a potential presidential candidate.

Pompeyo Marquez, another senior figure in the opposition, vowed that the alliance would remain united against accepting the referendum results and "continue to fight."

But some opposition supporters in the business community hinted at wanting to break out of the adversarial atmosphere that has prevailed in Venezuela since Chavez was first elected president in 1998.

Lope Mendoza, president of the Con Industria manufacturers association, said his group was "open to dialogue" with the government and expressed hope that Chavez was sincere when he said Monday that he wanted to work together with his opponents for the good of the country.

In a commentary in the opposition-friendly daily El Universal, political analyst Alberto Garrido suggested that Chavez critics would have to face the consequences if they refused to "pass through this crack in the red wall," meaning Chavez's appeal for reconciliation. "When the door shuts, those on the outside will understand what Chavez means when he says that those who aren't with the revolution are against it," he said.

He noted the September gubernatorial and municipal elections, as well as next year's parliamentary vote, and implied that the opposition could suffer if it continued to impugn the integrity of the voting system.

Other analysts said the opposition was taking the only logical stance it could, given Chavez's influence over the electoral council and steadfast attempts to thwart the recall. "They're not damaging their image among supporters," said pollster Luis Vicente Leon. "They're doing exactly what their supporters expect of them."

Diplomats with long experience in Latin American politics warn that the opposition will likely fracture if the alliance leaders persist in demanding a united front in denouncing the results as fraudulent.

"There will probably be a significant split" between those willing to accept reality and those who remain strident, said one senior official who did not want to be identified. "It's too early to organize for the next presidential election, but there are municipal and state elections coming soon. They have to start to think about that."

By refusing to accept the government's victory, he said, the opposition leaders are exposing themselves to fresh criticism by the Chavistas that they are undemocratic and unwilling to cooperate with the president's programs aimed at easing poverty.

"The opposition always makes the same mistakes," said Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, adding that Chavez foes are trying "to stop the country from moving forward."

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