The case of the missing vote (and voter)

Last year the Chilean polling firm Latinobarometro published results from 20,000 face-to-face interviews in 18 Latin American countries. Venezuelans, more than any other nationality polled, described their government as "totally democratic" and expressed an optimism in their country's future that outpaced any other. This response sits in stark contrast to what would have been found just a decade earlier if a similar poll had been conducted. To understand this phenomenon we must take a look at Venezuelan politics before President Hugo Chavez came on the scene.

Since the fall of the country's last dictator in 1958, Venezuelan leaders have favored political stability over actual democratic participation. So much so that the country's top centrist parties entered into a power-sharing agreement that effectively shut out voices considered extreme from participating in politics. While this arrangement helped prevent authoritarian right-wing governments from taking power, it also created an insurmountable barrier for political leaders who spoke on behalf of Venezuela's impoverished majority.

The results were profound. Elections were run by the two dominant political parties and even election results were tallied by party officers. The phrase "acta mata voto", which roughly translates to "the tally sheet trumps the vote", entered the popular lexicon as party leaders notoriously divided up votes for third parties between themselves. Audits of the elections and voter registry were never performed. To further complicate things the National Electoral Council (CNE), the body responsible for overseeing the elections, was part of the executive branch and viewed as a group of party "yes" men.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s oil prices plummeted and thousands of working-class Venezuelans fell into deep poverty. On the advice of the International Monetary Fund, much of the social safety net was stripped away and the country plunged into chaos.

Without access to political power, poor Venezuelans took to the streets. One massive riot in Caracas in 1989 was suppressed violently by the government. Although official body counts were never announced, human rights groups estimate that as many as 3000 Venezuelans were gunned down on the city streets in less than a week, their bodies dumped into mass graves.

Modest democratic reforms were implemented to appease the citizenry, yet by the elections of 1998 not even half of all eligible Venezuelans were registered to vote.

That year, Chavez swept into office on a rising tide of popular disaffection and ushered in massive electoral reform.

To begin with, the CNE became a separate branch of government and members of its decision-making board are now prohibited from membership in political parties. To ensure that the body was not politicised, universities and civil society organisations would now participate in the process of nominating directors.

Venezuela's 1998 Organic Law of Suffrage and Political Participation, passed before President Chavez took office, recognized that one of the nation's major problems was fraud and required that elections be conducted with electronic voting machines. In the last few years the machines, which record the votes in real-time, preventing the ballot box stuffing and vote trading of the old days, were instituted nationally.

A massive voter enfranchisement push known as Mission Identity was also implemented. This program is essentially a widespread citizenship and "get out the vote" campaign. Millions of poor Venezuelans previously lacked official identification in the form of a birth certificate or national ID card, which prevented them from registering to vote. In less than three years Mission Identity has provided and renewed ID cards for more than 18.5 million Venezuelans and more than 5.5 million are new voter registrants.

These far-reaching reforms have enabled Venezuelans to actively participate in the electoral and political life of their nation for the first time in history. Currently more than half of Venezuela's 26 million citizens are registered to vote and many more are officially recognised as citizens. It is easy to see why polls reflect Venezuelan enthusiasm in their democracy in such high numbers. After 40 years of corruption and poverty, the case of the missing vote (and voter) has finally been solved.

[Olivia Burlingame Goumbri is the editor of The Venezuela Reader: The Building of a People's Democracy (EPICA Books, 2005).]