Before I left for Venezuela as part of a contingent of independent election observers, including my colleagues Diane Abbott MP, The Guardian's own Seumas Milne, Independent columnist, Owen Jones, and Hugh O'Shaughnessy, the respected writer on Latin America, much of the British media and the political establishment were singing from the same hymn sheet. The argument followed along fairly predictable lines; the incumbent Hugo Chavez was facing his strongest challenge yet, the opposition was united, and its strong leader, Henrique Capriles, charismatic and healthy. Chavez was alternatively barely to be seen, his support was faltering, his health was failing and the Venezuelan economy was rapidly becoming a basket case.
When I arrived in Caracas, it soon became apparent that the election the British media was reporting wasn't the same election campaign being experienced by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Venezuelans.
In the hours leading up to the close of the polls it was clear there had been a huge turnout. In fact fourteen and a half million Venezuelans voted, or over 80% of the electorate. We visited some of the polling stations in downtown Caracas en route to the count which stayed open while everyone who was queuing cast their vote, even though the polls officially closed at 6pm local time. As I witnessed the unprecedented lines of poor people - some old and infirm - but all in good humour, waiting patiently to cast their vote in the heat of the midday sun, I felt quite emotional - and wished we could see similar levels of enthusiasm for democracy in Britain.
Before Venezuela went to the polls, some of the noisiest critics of Hugo Chavez were supporters of two previous British prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. After the election, from which Chavez emerged victorious, the disbelief continued. It was echoed in our media, with a presenter of Radio 4's Today Programme Evan Davies saying "but he [Chavez] only got over 54% of the vote". In fact, the Venezuelan leader won over 55% of the popular vote - a feat not matched by either Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair when they were at the peak of their popularity. In fact Chavez recorded 8.133m votes, a number which has never before been matched by any Venezuelan presidential candidate in the country's history. Chavez's total votes in a potential electorate of less than 19 million was almost the same as the number of votes won by Labour at the last General Election even though the British electorate is two and a half times bigger. But then perhaps in the long list of crimes attributed to Chavez is the stark reality that he has so convincingly won a fourth term.
Yet, in the hours before the declaration, the rumour mill was fuelled by speculation from bogus exit polls published on the internet in the Western broadcast media and by false reports of tanks on the streets, led to a suggestion - even by some British media that Chavez had in fact lost.
Of course, former prime minister Tony Blair once admitted that he would have liked to have served a fourth them, and many of his supporters agreed. Some in the media asked why Labour would wish to dump a leader who had been so successful at winning elections. After all, Tony Blair managed more than 42% of the vote in 1997. Supporters of Lady Thatcher echoed these sentiments in 1990. The 'Iron Lady' also won three elections and recorded over 42% of the vote in 1987. Unfortunately for Tony Blair, the Iraq War had a major bearing on his poll ratings and his last election in 2005 saw Labour win just nine and a half million votes from an electorate of more than forty five million.
What is crystal clear is that Hugo Chavez has demonstrated that he has a strong mandate. He won a clear majority in 22 out of 24 states including even Miranda State in which Opposition Leader Henrique Capriles is Governor. Chavez had faced down his toughest opponent yet in Capriles who enjoyed the support of big business as well as almost every national newspaper and commercial TV and radio station, and tacit US support to boot. He ran a well funded and slick PR campaign outspending Chavez by three to one
So what of the charges that this was not a free and fair election? For a start Capriles and his supporters have not disputed the results, and former US President Jimmy Carter pointedly said that that Venezuela's voting process is much more modern and accurate than the electoral system in place in many part of the United States. While there, I had every opportunity to visit polling stations and see how the system worked. I was also able to compare it with our own. For a start no absent or postal votes are accepted. The latest finger print technology is used to prevent abuses such as impersonation or multiple voting and no alcohol sales were allowed in the run up to the poll. The process is subject to intense scrutiny by representatives of all of the political parties, and there were seventeen separate audits before the result was declared. The opposition went on record as saying that they were "confident in the security and secrecy of the vote". The voter registration lists in Venezuela are significantly better than our own, containing 97% of all eligible voters. Although 0.3% of the electoral register included electors who had passed away, this is a figure that is comparable with other democratic countries. Opponents of Hugo Chavez, in Capriles' Mesa de Unidad Democratica or 'MUD' judged that the increase in the electorate was fair, expected and in line with other countries. The pro-Capriles MUD also concluded that the 3% of voters who had migrated within the country, and were struggling to figure out how to cast a vote in 2012's elections, affected both candidates in roughly equal measures. In fact not a single respected political or media figure in the world has alleged any wrongdoing in the way the votes were both cast and counted.
Some in the West also complained that television coverage was pro-Chavez. Again, this was not what I witnessed when I switched on the television or indeed when I spoke to supporters of both candidates. If anything Capriles got a much more positive hearing than Chavez from the commercial television network providers. The state owned TV channels of which there are five, attract just 5% of the national audience figures. They were more supportive of Chavez. Pay per view TV attracts 31% of viewers nationally and the remaining 63%+ prefer to watch private commercial television. The main private television network Televenm who have a 53% share of the Venezuelan TV audience, reported favourably and at length on the opposition candidate throughout. Venevisión is the second largest television provider in Venezuela and it is openly critical of Chavez. So there was real choice exists in the Venezuelan media, and if anything, the balance among private providers was much more favourable towards the opposition candidate.
The conclusions are clear. The leader of Venezuela's opposition Henrique Capriles has accepted the result. His supporters have accepted the result. The United Nations, Germany, France, Sweden and most other European Countries have recognised Chavez's mandate and the outcome. Hugo Chavez now enters a fourth term of government and in doing so he achieves a feat matched by few others. Anyone who protests to the contrary does so, not because they are a democrat, but because they simply do not like the result. But then, we knew that even before the polls opened in Venezuela's landmark presidential elections.
Grahame Morris is Labour MP for Easington. He was in Venezuela as an independent election observer.
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