Does Henrique Capriles actually have a case to cry fraud?

When the losing candidates in a presidential election cry foul, it is usually an uphill battle to reverse the results. Equally challenging is the task of changing international perceptions about what really happened during the voting or counting processes.

Venezuela plunged into a political crisis triggered by a razor-thin -- and vigorously disputed -- victory at the polls for incumbent President Nicolás Maduro over opposition challenger Henrique Capriles. As the opposition continues demanding that justice be served, it is worth asking: Does Capriles have a case? What is the basis for his claims that the election was a sham and needs to be redone?

After the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced the results on April 14th, giving Maduro a victory by roughly 1 percent, Capriles went on air and refused to concede. He claimed there were numerous "irregularities" at the polls that required a full audit.

Initially, many observers thought that Capriles was claiming there was some sort of numeric fraud, that results from the machines in the voting centers did not match what the CNE was tallying in Caracas (in theory, the two numbers should match, since the results from each center are reported electronically to CNE headquarters). This initial impression is mistaken, Capriles clarified: The CNE's numbers match the votes as registered by the machines. But the way those votes got there in the first place is the crux of the problem.

In order to assess Capriles' claim, one has to understand the voting day procedure in Venezuela. Voters identify themselves at polling centers by showing their government-issued ID card and scanning their fingerprints. The scanner then (supposedly) verifies the identity of the voter, and if it passes, unlocks a machine the voter uses to cast her vote.

Once the vote is cast, the machine produces a paper ballot which the voter inserts into a brown box. The voter finally signs a notebook certifying she has voted.

After the voting center closes, half of the machines are supposed to be randomly audited in the presence of the voting public as well as observers from all campaign camps. The audit consists of counting the paper ballots from the brown boxes and verifying they match with the automatic totals printed by the corresponding machine. In other words, the machine's total votes are compared to the paper "receipts" placed in the brown boxes. Total results for each machine are then transmitted to Caracas.

Capriles conceded that the tallies from the voting machines coincided with the numbers being published by the CNE. In other words, there was no "numeric" fraud, or at least no fraud from the moment the machine sent its results to the moment they were announced to the public. The irregularities, he says, happened before: During the vote itself, and in the days and weeks prior to voting day.

Capriles claims that in hundreds of polling places, the number of votes recorded in the notebooks does not match the number of votes in the machines -- there are more machine tallies than voter signatures. He claims that many observers reporting for the opposition were threatened or simply expelled from the polling sites, and this invalidates both the voting process and the audits done in those centers. He also claims that voting centers remained opened after the legally designated closing time, waiting for government activists to bring in busloads of chavista voters. More seriously, he claims that voter intimidation was rampant. Alarmingly, there are thousands of alleged cases of voters being accompanied to the voting booth by clearly identified government activists, who proceeded to "explain" to voters how to vote for Maduro. Several videos of these practices have gone viral.


The end result, according to Capriles, is good, old-fashioned ballot-stuffing only with a modern facade, since it was done with a highly automated system.

One has to wonder: How could chavistas get away with this? The explanation, according to Capriles, lies in the fingerprint scanning machines. According to him, these machines allow anyone to vote, regardless of whether the fingerprint matches the records. He notes that the software governing the machines was not audited prior to the election -- because the CNE refused to allow such an audit.

When you combine questionable high-tech voting machinery with a government that loosely hands out ID cards, buses people to voting centers using government vehicles, intimidates public workers into supporting the government, and uses an electoral registry that includes tens of thousands of dead voters, it's not too difficult to see how the vote could easily be inflated in favor of the ruling incumbent.

All Capriles wants is a full audit: of machines, ballot boxes, voting notebooks, fingerprint machines, and that the underlying codes for all the procedures be studied and tallied against one another. In centers where there is a serious mismatch, the votes should be voided and, perhaps, repeated.

Initially, the CNE balked at the idea of an audit (there are no automatic recounts in Venezuelan elections), but relented under international pressure. After the initial shock of the election results passed, the CNE has virtually shut down. The only time it discussed the requested audit in public was to say that whatever comes from the audit won't change the results. At this point, it seems as if no audit will take place. Capriles has said that he will boycott any partial audit that does not address the issues he raised. His next step is to go to the courts to demand the elections be partially voided.

The situation in Venezuela remains highly combustible. With an opposition that has a history of alleging fraud against the government, doubts within the movement itself about the strength of the evidence of fraud and its corrosive effect on voter turnout have prevented the claims from going too far. This time, the opposition is solidly behind Capriles and his team.

Maduro may have all of the state's institutions in the palm of his hand, but he also has at least 49 percent of the country convinced that his win needs to be cleared up. As if he didn't have enough to worry about (the economic crisis is growing, and oil prices are falling), a questionable legitimacy can only further hurt his chances of running the country successfully. Only time will tell if things take a turn for the bad, or the worst.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his blog posts here.



MINURSO is making a mess in Morocco

I don't know much about the code of conduct of U.N. Peacekeepers, such as those deployed in the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). But I'm going to assume that it's probably OK for peacekeepers to post photos of people that they meet on their Facebook group even if they are politically sensitive.

But on the other hand, I presume that sitting in a tent with the young Sahrawis (whose conflict with Morocco MINURSO is supposed to be monitoring), across from a giant Sahrawi flag, and stating that "the land is your land and no one will take it away from you," while making references to the Egyptian revolution, and urging them to think of "the creation of MINURSO as being in your favor," is probably a no-no.

Unfortunately this is precisely what one officer did. On video.


The Moroccan public opinion has never looked favorably upon what they perceive as the secession of the Western Sahara; many view MINURSO as merely an accessory to such event.

The conflict long predates the mission though. Historically part of Morocco, the Western Sahara was a Spanish colony between 1884 until 1975, when Moroccan pressure led to the Madrid Accords, splitting the territory between Morocco and Mauritania. The Polisario front, a Sahrawi independence movement, was less than pleased with that arrangement and waged a guerilla war against both Mauritania and Morocco.  The U.N. settlement plan in 1991 led to an end of hostilities, and the establishment of the MINURSO, with the dual mandate of "verifying the ceasefire and cessation of hostilities" between Morocco and the POLISARIO movement, as well as overseeing the preparation of a popular independence referendum for the people of the Western Sahara. Conflicts over voter eligibility have prevented the referendum from taking place, with no plans to conduct it in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the Mission remains in place to monitor the violence.

Furthermore, over the past two weeks, suggestions within the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) to enlarge the mandate of MINURSO to include human rights monitoring in the Western Sahara, were naturally severely criticized by Moroccan political forces across the board.

It is in this context that this video scandal emerged. As you can probably imagine, the Moroccan blogosphere is not elated.

Apparently first published by Telexpresse (a relatively unimportant news website), the undated video was published under the headline [Ar.] "Danger: Video showing two members of MINURSO incite detainees in Tindouf to revolt." The article misreports the conversation between the officer and his audience, and ends with this:

"This is the surreptitious and dangerous face of the MINURSO forces in the Moroccan desert, and shows the covert role that its members continue to perform against international norms and convention, not to mention the sexual scandals and misconduct carried out by these elements within the country, infiltrating the Islamic rituals and modesty"

Granted, all online coverage wasn't that insane, but not much less so.

The officer in question is an Egyptian major identified by news websites as Hany Mustafa Hamad Ali. In the video he is shown flanked by a second soldier, an Argentine identified as Julio Estibar Eduardo. Ali is already the subject of a Facebook petition, created on Monday, demanding his expulsion.

Admittedly, most of the officer's "advice" in the video is pretty ridiculous -- the ramblings of man enjoying the uninterrupted attention his insignia confers him -- but that in no way excuses his behavior, particularly in a region that, more than a mere disputed territory, is a matter of national pride for every Moroccan. The video also felt like a betrayal: Like most Arab countries and the League of Arab States, Egypt recognizes the territorial integrity of Morocco and its sovereignty over the Sahara. But the Arab League's support on this question has since been modest, as the League prefers to defer the matter to the UNSC. The Western Sahara issue failed to make it to the Arab League's list of regional "Issues and Crises" [Ar.], and in 2012  the League's Secretary General Nabil El-Arabi was quoted [Ar.] in an Algerian newspaper as asserting the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination - the League was prompt to deny that such a statement was issued and that he had been misquoted. But that may not have fully succeeded in convincing Morocco of the Arab League's full support on this issue.

In the meantime, anti-Egyptian slurs are emerging on Moroccan social media, and anti-MINURSO sentiment is extremely high.

On Thursday, the UNSC renewed MINURSO's mandate, after the United States withdrew its proposal to enlarge it. It is doubtful that the video would have repercussions on the presence or mandate of the mission. It could however harm the fragile balance that exists between Morocco and MINURSO, especially if popular pressure intensifies.

As for Egypt and Morocco -- well, relationships between North African states have soured for much less. This could potentially go much further.

Neither MINURSO nor Egypt have, as of yet, issued any statement regarding the matter. They'd better do, and fast. Disciplinary measures, including the removal of said officer from the mission, would be a good beginning. 

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.  

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