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Venezuela Politics - 2000 - Election - General

Venezuela is a republic with an elected president and a unicameral congress. The Constitution, which entered into effect on December 30, 1999, also provides for a "Citizen Power" branch of government, which includes the Ombudsman, the Public Prosecutor, and the Controller General, and an "electoral power"--the National Electoral Council (CNE). On July 30, voters reelected President Hugo Chavez Frias of the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR). The MVR also won 92 seats in the 165-member legislature. According to international observers, the year's general elections were generally free and fair; however, there were localized technical problems and irregularities, and the process leading to the elections was a controversial and difficult one.

The date for the elections originally was set for May 28, but as that date approached it became increasingly apparent that the CNE had failed to organize the elections adequately. Constant changes to the voter database--which both the opposition and nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) alleged were intended to offer electoral advantage to President Chavez's supporters--made it impossible to complete programming of the electronic voting machines or carry out other necessary steps. The Supreme Court ordered a delay and gave responsibility for setting the new date to the National Legislative Committee (a panel serving as the country's legislature pending election of the National Assembly). The civilian judiciary is legally independent; however, it is highly inefficient and sometimes corrupt, and judges are subject to influence from a number of sources.

The Government's human rights record remained poor in some areas; although there were improvements in some areas, serious problems remain. During the year, the police and military committed extrajudicial killings of criminal suspects at an increased rate. Excessive use of deadly force by police and security forces was a serious problem; over 2,000 suspected criminals were killed in shootouts with the police during the first 8 months of the year. Investigations continued into the forced disappearances of criminal suspects by the security forces. Torture and abuse of detainees continued, and the Government failed to punish police and security officers guilty of abuse. While overcrowding was reduced in some prisons, prison conditions continued to be extremely harsh due to underfunding, poorly trained and corrupt prison staff, violence, and overcrowding in some prisons so severe as to constitute inhuman and degrading treatment. Arbitrary arrest and detention increased. Lengthy pretrial detention, and corruption and severe inefficiency in the judicial and law enforcement systems also were problems.

The perpetrators of extrajudicial killings act with near impunity, as the Government rarely prosecutes such cases. The police often fail to investigate crimes allegedly committed by their colleagues and characterize incidents of extrajudicial killings as "confrontations," even when eyewitness testimony and evidence strongly indicate otherwise. In addition, the civilian judicial system still is struggling to implement the new Organic Criminal Procedures Code and, in the meantime, remains highly inefficient and sometimes corrupt (see Section 1.e.). In the small number of prosecutions in which the courts convict perpetrators of extrajudicial killings and other abuses, the sentences issued are frequently light, or the convictions are overturned on appeal. The December 1999 Constitution established that trials for military personnel charged with human rights abuses would be held in civilian courts; however, the provision does not apply to military trials for cases that predate the new Constitution.

Print and electronic media are independent. There are state television and radio stations whose directors are named by the President but whose broadcast policies are autonomous. The Government financed and published the newspaper The President's Post during the first 6 months of the year. The President has a weekly call-in radio show on state-run Radio Nacional. At the President's discretion, his speeches or other public appearances may be declared a "national broadcast." All television and radio stations are required by law to preempt scheduled programming and transmit the national broadcasts in their entirety (on occasion, 2 or more hours) instead. A documentary-style "news program," varying in length from 5 to 15 minutes, produced by the President's staff, began airing in June. The program, which focuses heavily on the activities of the President and the Government, is produced one or more times a week. It is broadcast before regularly scheduled evening news programs. Like the national broadcasts, by law every television station must broadcast these programs.

The 1999 Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercise this right through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. The Constitution provides for the direct election of the President and unicameral National Assembly, as well as of state governors, state legislative councils, and local governments. Political parties organize, and their candidates are allowed freely to run for office and to seek the support of voters. The President has extensive powers; however, the legislature appoints the members of the Supreme Court, the National Electoral Council, and the so-called Citizen Power consisting of the Prosecutor General, Ombudsman, and Controller General.

At President Chavez's behest, the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) decreed general elections in order to "relegitimize" authorities elected under the (now-defunct) 1961 Constitution. The new Constitution, which went into effect on December 30, 1999, replaced the previous bicameral legislature with a unicameral body, and membership in the former could not simply be carried over to the latter.

The CNE, whose members were appointed on a temporary basis by the ANC at the end of December 1999, organized the elections. In making these appointments the ANC, citing an earlier Supreme Court decision acknowledging that it had "super-constitutional" powers, made no attempt to apply even in spirit the procedures set forth in the new Constitution regarding civil society participation in the selection process. This unilateral selection by the ANC (which easily approved a slate provided by its leadership) of the members of the CNE was criticized widely by the political opposition, media, and NGO's. These groups also criticized similar measures taken by the ANC in choosing its replacement body--the National Legislative Committee, as well as in making interim appointments to the Supreme Court and the Citizen Power. The CLN was an unrepresentative 21-member panel given responsibility in January for serving as the country's legislature pending election of the National Assembly. The CNE invited representatives from the campaign teams to participate in their work.

Elections were scheduled by the ANC for May 28 for every elected office in the country; more than 35,000 candidates ran for some 6,000 offices. On March 28, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court dismissed two suits that challenged the constitutionality of the election law and consequently the scheduled date of May 28 for the elections. However, as the scheduled date approached, it became increasingly apparent that the CNE had failed to organize them adequately. Constant changes to the voter data base--which both the opposition and NGO's have alleged were intended to offer electoral advantage to President Chavez's supporters--made it impossible to complete programming of the electronic voting machines or carry out other necessary steps.

Faced with the prospect of a chaotic and highly contested election, the CNE decided at the last minute to serve as a friend of the court in a pending suit by two NGO's before the CNE seeking delay of the election. On May 25, the Supreme Court ordered the delay and gave responsibility for setting the new date to the CLN. This decision also gave the Controller General oversight powers over the CNE.

The members of the CNE resigned following the delay, after the CLN formally requested their resignations. After some initial reluctance the CLN agreed that a "national roundtable," on which some of its members and representatives of civil society would sit, would choose the new Council. That new Council included nonpartisan civil society members, including its president. Observers generally agree that the new National Electoral Council, chosen by the CLN on June 3, organized the elections in a competent and fair way.

The CLN set the date for the elections at July 30. It also decreed that, for practical reasons, those elections would be limited to president of the republic, national and state legislators, governors, and mayors, with election of municipal and parish councils to be held on October 1. The CLN noted that July 30 was the earliest date by which even the smaller-scope elections it had now decided on could be held, as the new CNE had to redo almost all the preparatory work of its predecessor. The CLN also noted that to include municipal and parish councils in the July 30 vote would triple the number of candidates and offices and, for organizational reasons, would postpone the vote for several months and further prolong the country's period of constitutional transition. Citizens, including many members of the opposition and media, generally regarded these arguments as valid. However, leading presidential challenger Francisco Arias Cardenas criticized the decision of the CLN to split the elections and hold the first component on July 30, a decision that he alleged was intended to put him at a disadvantage. In July a confidential report by the Controller General was leaked to the press; the report identified deficiencies in the work of the CNE.

During the election campaign, DISIP agents carried out searches of the offices of the opposition governor of Merida state, despite the fact that, upon taking office in 1999, the Chavez Government declared that the DISIP and other intelligence agencies no longer would be used for domestic political purposes. While the stated reason for the operations was to gather evidence for corruption investigations, the timing of the searches gave the impression of political harassment.

On July 30, voters reelected President Chavez with 59 percent of the vote. His challengers, Francisco Arias Cardenas and Claudio Fermin, received 38 percent and 3 percent respectively. Chavez's supporters won a majority (92 seats) in the 165-seat National Assembly, although not the two-thirds majority required to pass most important pending legislation. His supporters also won half the governorships. The Organization of American States and observers from various countries were of the opinion that, despite some technical irregularities, the vote was generally free and fair. A limited number of voting machines failed to accept ballots or otherwise broke down, and there was disorganization at some polling places, but in the opinion of observers these were localized problems. Standard backup procedures for voting machine failure, such as placing ballots in sealed boxes for later manual counting or processing by functioning voting machines, were followed. However, some of the losing candidates alleged fraud. For example, Arias maintained, among other things, that voting machines were programmed to undercount votes received by him. He and other disappointed candidates were pursuing existing administrative and judicial remedies at year's end. Losing candidates for several governorships alleged that fraud or irregularities affected the outcome of the voting. The CNE investigated these allegations, ordered recounts in some cases, and determined that the disputes were valid in several states, in which it ordered partial revotes. The CNE's follow-up work to the July 30 elections continued at year's end.

On December 3, voters participated in elections for municipal and parish councils and voted on a controversial referendum on labor issues.

In December the President and the National Assembly replaced the interim appointees to the Supreme Court and the Citizen Power in a process that was criticized by the political opposition, the media, and NGO's, who argued that the procedures set forth in the new Constitution regarding civil society participation in the selection process were not followed. The Ombudsman and others challenged the selection procedure in the courts; however, the appointments were made and the new officials took office in December, despite the fact that the Supreme Court had not yet ruled on the legal challenge.

In November the National Assembly passed an "enabling law" that gave President Chavez the authority to legislate by decree on selected issues related to the economy, reorganization of government ministries, and crime. However, only one law had been passed using these new powers by year's end.

Women and nonwhites participate fully in government and politics; however, they remain underrepresented in senior leadership positions and national elective office. The National Assembly's Family, Women, and Youth Committee promotes political office-holding opportunities for women. In the July 30 elections, women won 20 seats as deputies in the 165-seat legislature. In August President Chavez named 3 women to his 14-member Cabinet as Ministers of Labor, Trade, and Environment. In December President Chavez appointed Adina Bastidas as vice president.

Indigenous people traditionally have not been integrated fully into the political system due to their limited knowledge of politics, low voter turnout, geographic isolation, and fewer economic and educational opportunities. During the year, 300 Yanomami, with the assistance of the Amazonas state ombudsman, filed suit over obstacles they faced in registering to vote. The Yanomami argued that the Government's slowness in providing national identity cards, which are required to register to vote, was infringing on their right to suffrage. The Supreme Court ruled against the group's request for an exception to be made to the registration deadline, and they were unable to vote in the July 30 elections. The group of Yanomami subsequently was able to register, and they voted in the December municipal elections. The new Constitution reserved three seats in the National Assembly for indigenous people, and these seats were filled in the July 30 election. There are no indigenous members of the Cabinet.




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