December 12, 2005

Chilean elections, or a contrast in style

(My apologies to Quico for this CNE-related guest post...)

Chile held Presidential and Parliamentary elections this Sunday, and I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight differences with our current Venezuelan system which, quite frankly, leaves the chavista-led CNE without many arguments.

I don't want to dwell on the results (check Chilean newspapers like El Mercurio or La Tercera), but I can't continue without saying that, while the Parliamentary elections gave a big win to outgoing (and very popular) Pres. Ricardo Lagos' ruling coalition in both chambers, there will be a Presidential runoff in January. This election will be quite an anomaly for Latin-American politics, pitting the front-runner, Michelle Bachelet, a member of the not-so-Socialist Party, an agnostic, single mother and former victim of human rights abuses (and a woman, in case you're wondering), against center-right businessman and former Senator Sebastián Piñera, owner of a big chunk of LAN Airlines and TV station Chilevisión. What makes this election curious is that it pits two types of politicians that have made inroads the world over but had yet to make an appearance in LatAm politics in quite this way: a woman and a self-made billionaire.

But I digress. What is interesting about these elections for Venezuela is the process itself.

1. In Chile, everyone voted with a pen and a piece of paper, deposited their ballots in glass urns, and in the end, all votes were counted. If you believe Chávez and the CNE, you would think that this means that elections in Chile are rigged, that ballot-stuffing is common and that the system has all the problems the old system in Venezuela allegedy had. Think again. So far, there is not a single credible claim of fraud presented. The vote count was done in public, in front of numerous witnesses from all sides, with minimal interference from the Armed Forces and it was even televised nationally before the government announced any results. In other words, Chilean media was not submitted to any gag rule and the actual vote counting was broadcast to the entire country. (Granted, it made for boring TV since they could only transmit one voting table at a time, with zero representativeness).

The ballots themselves were quite simple and austere. It listed the names of all the candidates in an order that was previously determined by a public random draw. All the voter had to do was scratch a vertical line next to their candidate's horizontal line. Ballots themselves were small and understandable.

2. Final results were given by 11:30 PM. Given the complexity of this election, in which 120 deputies, 20 Senators and a President were selected, you would think the results would have taken days to come in. I mean, if the CNE, with the super-high-tech Jorge Rodríguez and the Tramparent Francisco Carrasquero could not give partial results until 5 am for a simple referendum in which the only options were "yes" and "no", surely Chileans would be counting votes until March. Not the case. As soon as tables were done with their tallying, which by the way began at 5 pm (no suspicious extension of the voting schedule to benefit government candidates like in Venezuela), they transmitted their results to the central government who then performed a simple duty: counting the results and announcing them to the country promptly.

Compare that to Venezuela, where in spite of having spent tens of millions of dollars on machines that few people believe in and even fewer know how to operate, the official tally of "results" takes several days to come in and the audit of 129 boxes takes up to a week to do.

This is important because one of the reasons the CNE argues that machines cannot be done away with is that this is the only way results can be given in time. Yet the Chilean experience proves this is not the case. But, it your intent is to cheat and/or you're incompetent, both qualities in abundance with our current CNE board, then you probably need some sort of gadget to fall back on.

3. All voters used their identity cards, which were created using a high-technology system that everyone trusts. Contrary to the quasi-rudimentary voting process, ID cards in Chile incorporate the latest technology to ensure nobody has duplicate ID cards and that voter rolls are not misteriously altered or sold on the streets. Aside from that, it takes three weeks to get your ID card and you can obtain one (providied you meet all requisites) in more than 300 offices nation-wide. Although there were problems with voters not appearing in actual rolls, none of them were significant enough to merit cries of fraud from anyone participating.

Contrast that with Venezuela, where ID cards are handed out without a proper backup of documentation, mysterious voter registration is commonplace and clandestine Colombian irregulars are free to vote at will. Every year, government after government promises to fix the Identification procedure to make it transparent, safe and quick, and every year we continue to have the worst ID system in the continent. The Chávez administration, for example, has created something called "Misión Identidad" which literally means issuing ID cards, Venezuelan nationalities and voter registration from the back of a pickup truck in selected spots that shift around from day to day (provided, of course, that you did not sign for recalling Chávez, in which case you get nothing).

4. The participation of the government, as well as candidate's advertisements, are strictly monitored. When Pres. Ricardo Lagos went to vote yesterday, he did not say who he wanted people to vote for. He basically said this was a great democratic feast in which everyone was free to express their opinion. In fact, the only times the President ventured into the electoral debate, he was sharply criticized. Basically, he took an institutional pose, not a blatantly propagandistic one like Mr. Chávez.

Advertisement only began in earnest a couple of months ago, but it had practically disappeared last Friday, in accordance with the law. Political parties were alloted free air time on TV every day to transmit their messages, but aside from that most publicity was in the form of signs out in the streets and paid advertisement in newspapers. In fact, even Chilevisión, Piñera´s TV station, was remarkably impartial during the campaign. (Note: Piñera has vowed to sell all of his holding, including LAN and Chilevisión, if he is elected. Take that, Berlusconi).

Contrast that with Venezuela, where... well, this is so obvious, I will not even expand on it.

What the Chilean process proves is that a Latin American democracy can thrive without needing to resort to highly-questionable high-tech voting gadgets, shabby ID systems, delayed announcements of results that create unnecessary tension or blatant use of government funds for the promotion of a single option. The current system espoused by the CNE is not credible for a large chunk of the population and does not even protect the secrecy of the vote, as has been correctly pointed out by international observers, and yet none of the excuses provided by the CNE to maintain its existence are necessary. The system is broken, and it has to go if we are ever to have fair elections again.