Opponents of President Chavez uneasy with voting system

National Electoral Council says procedures are OK as 500 international observers are being deployed across the South American country.

Over 500 international observers and more than 1,500 local specialists will be deployed to ease doubts among opponents of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez about an eventual rig of Sunday presidential vote. The European Union, the Organization of American States, the US Carter Center and the Mercosur bloc have sent delegations to Caracas to check the new electronic voting system, which has raised concerns among Chavez foes.

“We have one of the most reliable voting systems of the world”, told Pravda.Ru, Maria Pimentel, an official at the Venezuelan National Electoral Council (or CNE) by its initials in Spanish. “About 99% of our ballot boxes are digital”, she adds, as remarks a recent examination that was “100% successful”.

However, under pressure from opponents of Chavez, the CNE has adopted safeguards for the country’s electronic voting machines to prevent tampering in Sunday’s election - conditions so strict that experts say they surpass some standards in the United States . The opposition boycotted Venezuela ’s legislative elections a year ago, saying it couldn’t trust that the electronic machines would be used fairly. But after thorough checks of hardware and software and some key concessions by electoral officials, presidential challenger Manuel Rosales says he’s satisfied - as long as the agreed-upon rules are respected.

“The Venezuelan people and I hope that the electoral council doesn’t step outside the rules, that it maintains impartiality," Rosales said Monday. "I’m going to defend the transparency and the results of this process, even if it’s with my last breath."

“I don’t trust the voting system. We know they can rig the election as they control the Council and have the skills to do it”, says Olga Valenzuela, a Venezuelan citizen who is going to vote for Rosales.

Other opponents believe the system violates the secret stated in the country’s Constitution. Venezuelans will get paper receipts that verify their choices were properly recorded, and must deposit them into boxes before leaving the polls. After Sunday’s vote, election officials monitored by representatives of each candidate will count millions of the paper receipts for comparison to the electronic totals. Some Rosales’ militants told Pravda.Ru that they cannot assure that those papers could be used against them after the vote.

Chavez’s opponents have been suspicious of the machines made by Boca Raton, Florida-based Smartmatic Inc., which is primarily owned by three Venezuelans. Smartmatic bought one of the largest U.S. voting equipment companies, Oakland, Calif.-based Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., which is now undergoing a Treasury Department review over what Sequoia calls baseless allegations of potential influence by Chavez over U.S. elections. But even prominent electronic voting critics say Venezuela appears be doing the right things.

Another hot spot denounced by the opposition is the overwhelming presence of President Chavez at the National TV. According to the CNE, President Chavez appeared at the public TV channel, Venezolana de Television, 87 hours during November, while his rival, only two. On the contrary, private TV networks give Rosales more minutes than the one conceded to Chavez.

As the capital Caracas has been flooded with rumors about violence erupting after the vote, the CNE wants to prevent any incident during the voting day. About 120,000 military troopers will be deployed throughout the country to guard the election.

In the meantime, life in Caracas follows its usual chaos. Traffic jams, usual in this extraordinarily petrol-cheap country – Venezuelans pay less than three US dollars for 50 liters of gas- can be spotted everywhere, as street vendors voice to sell their products no matter pedestrians are eager to buy or not.

On Sunday 16 million of them will line at ballot boxes to cast their votes which will go for conservative Manuel Rosales, or his powerful leftist foe, President Hugo Chavez.

Hernan Etchaleco
Caracas . Venezuela

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Author`s name Alex Naumov