Learning democracy in Caracas

Ahead of Sunday's elections, a local 'poll patrol' is rallying todefend a fair vote.

In an elementary school room in a comfortable residential neighbor-hood of this South American capital, 50 Venezuelans spent their Saturday morning learning how to become poll watchers for next Sunday's national elections.

With criticism widespread that a new and complex election system won't be ready for the vote - and that the way will be open for electoral authorities favoring President Hugo Chvez's regime to commit massive fraud - the trainees are taking their new vocation seriously.

"We're all part of a network of citizens very concerned about the direction democracy is taking in the country," says Ruth Capriles, a Venezuelan historian and director of the Watchdog Network that organized the training session. "Historically we've had a swinging of the pendulum between democracy and authoritarianism in Latin America. And we're unsettled by the turn the pendulum seems to be taking."

Actually, there is also some cause to cheer over the state of democracy's march in Latin America. Last week in the Dominican Republic, the opposition won a tight presidential election by just a hair's breadth under 50 percent. Election law there calls for a second round if the first-round winner does not achieve a majority. But the defeated ruling party said the challenger was so close and the election was so transparent that a runoff wasn't necessary. And Mexico is gearing up for July elections that are expected to be the most competitive in modern Mexican history.

But the Dominican Republic's encouraging show was overshadowed by worries gathering like dark clouds over Venezuela and Peru - not to mention perennially unsettled Paraguay, where on Friday officers supporting a fugitive general made a brief, but ultimately thwarted, coup attempt.

In Peru, Alejandro Toledo, the opposition candidate to President Alberto Fujimoro in Sunday's vote, shocked the country last Thursday by announcing he would boycott the race in protest over what he called an unfair and unclear election system. Mr. Toledo demanded the election be put off for three weeks to allow electoral officials time to rectify a trouble-plagued election computer system and offer guarantees that the kind of fraudulent activities detected in the April 9 first round vote would be addressed.

Hoping for poor voter turnout

In Venezuela, opposition leaders said they smelled fraud in the making after initial testing of new ballot-tabulating software failed and further testing was put off to this week. Critics also say Sunday's "mega elections" as called for by a new Constitution - with some 34,000 candidates for more than 6,000 posts nationwide, from president to local council member - are taking place with so little information about just how to vote in a new system, that abstention will likely skyrocket. Many suspect that is what the Chvez government is looking for.

The tumult surrounding Peru and Venezuela's electoral processes has some analysts suggesting that a new form of "authoritarian democracy" is taking shape in Latin America, where the past decade's promise of better living standards through democracy's practice has not been fulfilled.

"These two countries are leading the way to hybrid regimes that are formally democratic but where wide powers are progressively concentrated in one authoritarian and neopopulist leader," says Wilma Petrash, a Latin America expert at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. She calls these "electoral democracies" because elections are offered as the "window dressing."

"People consider they have a democracy because there are elections and they see freedom of the press and expression," says Caracas public-opinion analyst Alfredo Keller. "In fact Venezuelans will tell you we've had six elections in less than two years, what could be more democratic! ... But the system of checks and balances that really make for a democracy doesn't figure on most people's radar screen."

A frustrated sense of having nowhere to turn is growing among a minority that sees a concentration of power in one leader's hands, Keller says. In Venezuela and Peru, "people may think the election process is unfair but they can't go to the national officials whose job it is to guarantee fair elections because they were all either appointed by or clearly favor the president," he says. "And they can't go to the courts because they too have been filled by the president."

In Peru, electoral officials rejected a petition from Toledo's party to postpone the May 28 election. But last weekend, doubts were raised when at least one member of the National Elections Board said "nothing is definitive" on the polling date and suggested that two more scheduled trial runs of the computer system would reveal "if the conditions are there or not" for a reliable vote.

A rocky road ahead for Peru?

At the same time, Toledo continued to campaign, sounding very much like a candidate. The Organization of American States (OAS), whose critical stance towards Peru's election organization largely served as the impetus to Toledo's decision, was expected to announce Monday an evaluation of the system's technical progress.

And on Friday, rallies in Lima and other cities drew thousands of Toledo supporters, suggesting Peru could be in for a rocky period if the government fails to address election concerns and Fujimori wins without opposition.

"We're here to show we don't want fraudulent elections and because we're tired of this dictatorial government," said Norma Montes, who travelled 12 hours by bus in the traditional dress of her impoverished Huancarelica region. "We Peruvians don't have electoral guarantees."

Fujimori says his rival's withdrawal simply proves Toledo decided he was going to lose, and publicly has not demonstrated any concern about the effects of a one-man race. But the respected Lima daily El Comercio editorialized Sunday that the presidential elections are unlikely to be recognized by the OAS and that would result in a "delegitimized" president, with "terrible" consequences for the country.

"Adios to military and antinarcotics assistance" from the US, if the election is condemned internationally, the newspaper said. Instead of cooperation would come "more expensive credits and less investment," with a result being fewer new jobs created.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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