Venezuelans head to polls under heavy blanket of Chavismo, opposition claims

Soldiers guard the national elections headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela.

Soldiers guard the national elections headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela.  (2006 Getty Images)

On Dec. 6, an estimated 19.5 million Venezuelans will go to the polls to elect the men and women who will represent them in the National Assembly, an election considered key because for the first time since the year 2000 it may shift the balance of power away from Chavismo — or so the opposition hopes.

Yet Hugo Chavez’s and his 16-year-old Bolivarian Revolution control the electoral machinery to such degree that more than 1,000 polling stations have been strategically placed in key battleground states, cities and districts, and dozens have even been named after the late commander.

Thus, on that Election Sunday Venezuelans will vote in 61 new polling stations that carry Chavez’s name or allude directly to the his widely popular rule. Thirty of them stand in must-win districts for the opposition, which needs 84 seats to take control of the country’s National Assembly. It currently holds 65 seats.

In Zulia state’s second district, considered a key battleground, voters will cast their vote in polling stations ostensibly branded with names like “Chavez’s legacy,” “Behind Chavez’s dream,” “The sons of Chavez” and “Commander Francisco Javier Arias Cardenas,” a local governor and one of the military officials who joined Chavez in his failed 1992 coup against President Carlos Andres Perez.

In the last legislative election, in September 2010, Chavez’s party won here by just 1,188 votes — so the almost 3,000 voters from Zulia’s coveted second district could make a difference this time around, experts say.

“We think that the names won’t have an influence in the voters’ decision, but these are examples of the abuses make by the government ahead of the elections,” said Anibal Sanchez, from the opposition’s Mesa de Unidad Democratica (Democratic Unity Roundtable), to Fox News Latino.

When the creation of 1,012 new polling stations were announced back in August, Sanchez and many others in the opposition decried the fact more than a 100 would be located in places most likely favorable to the government, like buildings erected and donated by the government housing program, and protested the propagandistic nature of their names.

However, the National Electoral Council didn’t heed the complaints and greenlighted the new polls.

“And 916 of those have just one voting booth,” Sanchez said, “the kind of polling stations that historically have been more favorable to the government,” he noted.

Sanchez is referring to opposition’s presidential candidate Henrique Capriles’ claim that Chavismo won the 2013 presidential election fraudulently by adding votes in these one-booth stations — many of them are located in pro-government locations and where it is hard for the opposition to supervise the voting process.

All in all, next month 1,845,200 people will vote in one of the 5,974 one-booth polling stations. That is roughly 9 percent of the vote.

“We have special teams prepared to verify the process in those places, especially where we had problems back in 2013,” Sanchez told FNL.

But some remain concerned, saying that the opposition is still not as organized as it should be.

“In rural areas, the opposition has a lot of trouble making sure fraud is prevented. In Barinas, my home state, violent groups close to the government control some polling stations in municipalities like Andres Eloy Blanco,” said Benito Pena, a sociologist and professor at the Experimental University of Los Llanos.

Los Llanos, a vast tropical grassland plain that spreads across several states in central Venezuela, is a highly rural region known to be a strong Chavista bastion.

But according to the opposition, in recent years the state of Barinas has been tilting in the other direction and Dec. 6 will provide an opportunity to upset one of the two districts there.

Sanchez and others, however, say fighting fraud will be even harder this time around, because the National Electoral Council is denying the opposition’s request for international watchdogs to oversee the voting process.

Regardless, they said they have invited several international figures to watch the election process — even if from a few steps back.

“They won’t have the official credentials and won’t be able to enter the polling stations, but they will witness any abuse,” Sanchez said.

Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.

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