Chávez declares referendum victory, but is battle over?

At 4 a.m. Monday, 12 hours after polls were originally supposed to close and as questions swirled about the voting process, President Hugo Chávez declared victory in a saga that was more than two years in the making.

"The Venezuelan people have spoken, and the people's voice is the voice of God," Mr. Chávez told supporters outside the presidential palace. Venezuelans turned out in record numbers Sunday to vote to recall Chávez or confirm his mandate, which extends until the end of 2006.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who helped monitor the referendum, endorsed returns showing that Chávez won the vote. "Our findings coincided with the partial returns announced today by the National Elections Council," Carter told a news conference.

The announcement appeared to deflate opposition claims of widespread fraud in the voting.

On Sunday, beginning as early as 3 a.m., some voters stood in line up to 12 hours, enduring sun and rain. The National Electoral Council extended the polls closing time twice, and in some areas people cast their votes after midnight.

Early Monday, with 94 percent of the ballots counted, Venezuela's electoral council announced that Chávez's mandate had been confirmed with some 5 million "no" votes rejecting the recall against 3.57 million "yes" votes in favor of the recall. But the two electoral council members aligned with the opposition said they had been excluded from the process of totaling the results.

Chávez's critics immediately pointed out that the number of reported "yes" votes was nearly the same as the approximately 3.5 million signatures the opposition had collected last year to trigger the referendum. During that petition drive there were numerous charges that voters were intimidated into not signing by threats of loss of government jobs or benefits. Opponents claim that many people who were intimidated into not signing did indeed vote and therefore the "yes" vote should have far exceeded the number of signatures.

Before the referendum, many observers had also questioned the electoral council's decision to use an electronic voting system which had not been used in any previous election, and which they said was vulnerable to manipulation. As well, they decried the revelation that a government agency owned an interest in the company which developed the machines' software and had an employee on the company's board of directors. The government later promised to sell its interest and remove its employee from the board, though it is unclear if they actually did.

Additionally, just before the voting, electoral council officials decided that people who had signed the referendum petitions should not work in the polling stations because they were biased. But government critics pointed out that many of the people who didn't sign the petition were de facto supporters of the government and yet they were allowed to supervise at the polls.

Many also criticized the use of a fingerprint-reading system supposed to ensure that nobody voted twice. During the voting, that system contributed to blocks-long lines outside many polling centers. Some voters in neighborhoods dominated by the opposition charged that the government was sabotaging the voting process.

"I arrived at 5 a.m. and we've advanced [in line] 200 meters," said Evelyn Moro, a civil engineer who was still waiting in line after noon.

The electronic voting machines also emitted paper receipts with the voter's choice, which were deposited in boxes at polling stations. However, a number of voters said they have voted 'Yes' for the recall only to discover that the paper ballot was printed with "no."

"I told the [poll workers] that I wanted to vote again, and they told me 'no,' that I'd already chosen," and dropped the ballot into the box, says Deisy Castro de Diaz, a nurse.

A few miles away in the heavily progovernment neighborhood called January 23, lines appeared substantially shorter.

A spokesman for Sumate, the group which organized the petition drive for the referendum, said the official results differed substantially from their exit polling, but gave no more details. Henry Ramos Allup, a spokesman for the Democratic Coordinator, a coalition of opposition groups, called the official results a "gigantic fraud" and said the opposition would appeal to Venezuelan and international organizations. The opposition is calling for a manual recount.

Meanwhile oil markets responded positively to the news that the vote in the world's fifth-largest oil supplier went off without incident. September oil futures dropped 45 cents to $46.90 a barrel. Though a critic of the Bush administration, Chávez has made clear that he will not interrupt the 1.5 million barrels of crude that he sends to the US each day. Chávez also said that he will continue with his so-called "Bolivarian Revolution for the poor," in which he uses oil revenue on literacy programs, scholarships, and free medical care for the impoverished. He also reached out to the opposition with a message of reconciliation.

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