Voting drill in Venezuela

Voters test electronic system ahead of October presidential poll while the opposition complains of unfair campaign.

Sunday’s unusual “mock”elections are meant to test Venezuela’s newest innovation to its electronic voting system.

Coming from a country where we still have to mark ballots by hand, fold them and then stuff then into cardboard boxes, this system is really quite state of the art. A machine now verifies a voter’s identification with his or her thumb print. It must be the same thumb print that appears on a person’s national identification card.

After about 15 seconds, the machine gives the green light to go to the actual voting booth. There, you find a touch screen system to select the candidate of choice: President Hugo Chavez of the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela, or his rival Enrique Capriles of the opposition United Coalition. Just touch your candidate’s photo and another screen asks you to select YES or NO. It is very fast, easy and designed to make multiple voting impossible.

As we all know, in some countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, even the dead vote thanks to out-of-date voter lists and blatant corruption. Vote-buying was blatant in Mexico’s recent presidential elections. Stolen ballot boxes, burnt or missing ballots are also part of the electoral folklore in too many places.

So, in a country as politically polarised as Venezuela, it is important for the government to make sure everyone believes that the results are genuine, especially since the Electoral Council is stacked with government loyalists. The opposition is also keen to dispel voters’ fears that the leftist government will know which way a person voted and take reprisals, in order to guarantee a big turnout.

But the problem in this election is not whether the machines work as they should or whether the voting process will be transparent. What is being seriously disputed by the opposition is the election campaign itself. Capriles argues he is competing on a totally uneven playing field.

“I am in many ways David and Chavez is Goliath. He has the giant resources of the state, including the national oil company PDVSA at his disposal and he uses them as though they were his personal property to finance and run his re-election aspirations,” says Capriles.

I spoke to Capriles as we followed him on a day of campaigning in the state of Aragua. He is surprisingly intense and energetic, and believes he can win even though he is still at least 10 percentage points behind Chavez, according to the most optimistic polls.

This weekend Capriles will have toured 200 towns and knocked on thousands of doors as part a whirlwind campaign to win votes in every part of Venezuela. He emphasises his youth (40), and his athletic stamina.

Chavez, on the other hand still exudes his famous charisma but after waging the battle of his life this year against cancer, he cannot campaign as hard as he once did. He has the advantage of course, that everyone knows him.

As for the mock election, it may indicate potential quirks in the system, but not what the electorate will really do when the election is for real on October 7.

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