Carter Sends 'Limited Mission' to Observe Venezuela Elections

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - Six years after declaring the Venezuelan election process "flawed," former President Jimmy Carter's Carter Center will monitor only one aspect of the country's Dec. 3 elections, despite claims of abuses during the campaign designed to favor the incumbent, left-wing populist President Hugo Chavez.

The center announced Nov. 20 that it would organize a "specialized, limited technical mission" to "observe the use of the automated voting technology."

The effort is in collaboration with Carter's group and the Venezuelan National Electoral Council, a body which Chavez critics say is controlled by the president.

The group will also not monitor the election broadly for inconsistencies, disenfranchisement or fraud and will not produce a comprehensive report evaluating the election, according to the announcement.

The Carter Center and other organizations have previously expressed serious concerns about Venezuela's ability to meet basic standards of integrity in holding elections.

After the 2000 elections that saw Chavez reelected with 60 percent of the vote, the Carter Center declared the system "flawed." The National Democratic Institute has noted "dangerous trends" in the South American country and said its system is "deeply troubling."

In March 2005 testimony before Congress, NDI President Kenneth Wollack said that "fundamental rights and democratic institutions in Venezuela are being undermined. In this respect, efforts to exert governmental control over key institutions such as the media, military, judiciary, and electoral authorities is deeply troubling."

Wollack raised questions about the independence of election authorities in several countries, including Venezuela, and said the international community "must be engaged in these countries to help ensure that all aspects of the electoral process, including the election law, election authorities, voter registry, media access and campaign spending meet international standards."


This year, critics of Chavez say he has abused access to television - the president has a weekly, six-hour program - while election candidates' airtime is severely limited.

Opposition groups have also expressed fears that electronic voting systems will be manipulated to boost Chavez's support.

He also stands accused of violating media freedoms.

According to the State Department, although Venezuela's laws provide for freedom of the press, the "combination of new laws governing libel and broadcast media content, legal harassment, and physical intimidation resulted in limitations on these freedoms and a climate of self-censorship."

While there are still concerns about this year's elections, Jennifer McCoy, director of the Carter Center's Americas Program, said international observers are "supportive" of the progress made by Venezuelan officials in producing a fair election system.

"The international community is supportive of the election missions, and we'll be waiting to hear their evaluations," McCoy told Cybercast News Service. She added that confidence in the Venezuelan system has grown partly because of steps election officials have taken to confirm the results.

"There are some conditions that have been put in place that provide the means for the voters to verify their vote in a very significant way," McCoy said. "For example, counting and confirming the paper receipts in 54 percent of the voting places is a huge sample to confirm the vote, and I think that's giving confidence."

As for why the Carter Center is sending fewer than 10 observers this year after conducting what she called "comprehensive election missions" in 1998 and 2000, McCoy said the center "didn't believe it was necessary for us to do one," because the Organization of American States (OAS) and European Union (E.U.) are sending their own observers.

An estimated 200 foreign observers will monitor the election.

Nearly 6.3 million people voted in the 2000 presidential election, according to government data.

Chavez led challenger Manuel Rosales by six points in a poll taken last week by U.S.-based Penn, Schoen and Berland. Some pollsters have referred to a "fear factor" which may skew the results of opinion surveys in favor of Chavez.

Jim Swigert, Latin American regional director for NDI, told Cybercast News Service that NDI's confidence in three domestic observer groups that will monitor the elections had "grown somewhat" since Wollack's testimony.

However, there were "questions of limited capacity and experience," Swigert said.

E.U. and OAS observers "will make the judgments" about the election's fairness, Swigert said.

While NDI has worked with domestic observer groups in Venezuela to prepare them for the election, it will not itself send monitors.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which sent 94 election monitors to the United States during the 2004 presidential election, will not participate in Venezuela's election, because the South American country is not a member of OSCE.

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