"The atmosphere in the early evening has been a big celebration already, with fireworks and loud music in the city streets, and a large crowd already gathering near Miraflores Palace", according to Jim McIlroy and Coral Wynter, correspondents for Green Left Weekly's Venezuela bureau who were in Caracas on the day of the December 3 presidential election.
In a resounding rejection of the US-backed opposition to Hugo Chavez, Venezuelans turned out in huge numbers to re-elect the socialist president. Chavez's main opponent was the governor of Zulia, Manuel Rosales, who represented the right-wing forces that oppose the Bolivarian revolutionary process that Chavez is leading.
Rosales supported a US-backed military coup that briefly overthrew Chavez in 2002 before an uprising of the poor restored him to power. Venezuela's poor majority back Chavez because of the changes in the country that are helping it overcome underdevelopment and poverty
Solidarity activist Shane Jones described polling day on the blog of the Hands Off Venezuela (HOV) delegation in the country for the election: "Our wake up time of 5am was cut short by the horns and music, which started around 3am, we could here shouts from the streets in this early hour of 'Viva Chavez!' these were then followed by another 'Viva Chavez!' Some polling places had lines as early as 2.30am ... the people who had already voted were celebrating, cheering and singing."
Wynter and McIlroy told GLW that the highlight of the day "was when we saw Chavez arrive to vote at a Barrio 23 de Enero polling booth, in a bright red Volkswagen Beetle! He received a huge cheer and chants, and was surrounded by supporters. He gave a brief media conference to the press, and assured people that the election process in Venezuela was completely open, transparent and democratic."
Washington and the Venezuelan opposition have accused Chavez, who has used the nation's oil wealth to fund programs that have resulted in a sizeable drop in the number of households in poverty (by around 10% according to the World Bank), of violating democracy. However, the election was Venezuela's 11th national election since Chavez came to power in 1998, all of which have been won by pro-Chavez forces. The elections were monitored by more than 1100 international observers, including delegations from the European Union, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the US-based Carter Center.
In the lead-up to the ballot, most opinion polls showed Chavez well in front of Rosales, however polls from firms associated with the opposition showed Rosales coming close to, or even beating Chavez. The government accused the opposition of deliberately manufacturing fake polls in order to run a campaign claiming that the vote was rigged. This would provide the excuse for calls to take to the streets in order to overthrow the government.
Chavez has accused the opposition of being the puppet of Washington — which opposes Chavez's policies that favour the poor over multinational corporations.
The US government called for "free, fair and transparent" elections. While refraining from openly criticising the Chavez government or accusing it of attempting to perpetrate electoral fraud, in the context of repeated attacks on Chavez for violating democracy by US government spokespeople, the comments amount to a "pre-emptive strike" to throw doubt on the elections and justify opposition violence.
Washington fuelled speculation it was backing plans to destabilise the country by posting a warning on the website of the US embassy in the country in the days before the election that recommended US citizens in Venezuela stay at home and stock up on food in the days following the vote.
Despite the campaign by the opposition to suggest that there could be fraud, El Universal.com reported on December 3 that the OAS released a report describing the vote as "massive and peaceful", and that 98% of the voting places they had visited were operating without problems. Spanish parliamentarian Willy Meyer, one of the seven members of the European Parliament who observed the elections, pointed to "massive, well-arranged and happy turnout". Venezuelanalysis.com reported that independent non-government organisation Electoral Eye issued a statement the afternoon of the elections stating that 99% of the voting centres were operating "completely normally".
Wynter and McIlroy told GLW: "We were also able to enter a number of the polling booths and observe and film the process, which is the most advanced and transparent computerised electoral process in the world (it compares very favourably with the shonky systems operating in the US, for example)."
However, El Universal.com reported that, while casting his vote, Rosales made allegations that there were voting irregularities, saying they occurred in areas where "historically the outcome has not been very favourable for the other candidate". He repeated claims made by the opposition that finger-printing machines were holding the process up, calling on the CNE (the national electoral council) to take action to speed up the process. He also alleged that in some cases, blank ballots were issued.
According to Wynter and McIlroy: "Queues for voting started very early in many areas, from 3am, and long queues gathered by early morning. Some delays were experienced in opening the booths, and the queues continued throughout the day in some places. However, the actual voting process was quite quick, and all the queues had disappeared by late afternoon and most polling booths in Caracas closed by 6pm."
El Universal.com also reported that Rosales's campaign team accused the military of violating the electoral law by allowing voting centres to remain open after being officially closed. The military has been mobilised as part of "Plan Republic" to ensure security for the elections. The opposition claim they are attempting to sabotage the process of auditing the votes.
While casting his vote in the impoverished Barrio 23 de Enero, one of the strongest bases of the support for the revolution, Chavez hailed the elections as a "good day for democracy", and criticised Rosales for spreading rumours. Responding to Rosales's allegations, foreign minister Nicolas Maduro called the comments "irresponsible and desperate". "Purely and simply, the message of peace given by million Venezuelans in the streets should be observed", he said. One national director of the CNE, Janet Hernandez, rejected allegations that some blank ballots had been issued, insisting there is no technological possibility of this occurring.
Despite this, the allegations were repeated by private TV stations. The corporate media in Venezuela is strongly anti-Chavez and infamous for spreading slander and disinformation to discredit the government, including playing a key role in organising and supporting the failed military coup against Chavez in 2002.
Despite Ombudsman German Mundarain praising voters for "exemplary" behaviour, and claiming that the day had been overwhelmingly peaceful, it appears the opposition is attempting to implement its plan to call the legitimacy of the elections into question.
The wealthy elite, which back the opposition and own the media, are terrified of the growing radicalisation of Venezuela's working people. Chavez explicitly made the elections a referendum on his stated goal of constructing a "socialism of the 21st century", and dramatically deepening the revolutionary transformation of the country. Yet again, the working people sent a powerful message: there should be no return to the past — the revolution must continue.
The elite are running out of options. However, funded and directed by the US government, they will continue to struggle to stop the process of change in order to defend their interests. During the election campaign, the opposition succeeded in remobilising their base in the middle class. Rosales's final election rally, held on November 25, involved hundreds of thousands of people and was possibly the largest demonstration held yet by the opposition, easily the largest since their defeat in the 2004 recall referendum (an opposition initiative to prematurely end Chavez's term).
The problem for them is it was answered the following day by a demonstration of more than 2.5 million Chavez supporters. Encouraged by the growing changes improving their lives, the poor supporters of the revolution are better organised now than at the time of the coup or the recall referendum, and they are prepared to defend a president they see as their own.
The days following the elections will determine whether the opposition is in a position to cause serious destabilisation or not. All supporters of the Venezuelan revolution should be prepared to act quickly if necessary to act in solidarity against any attacks on Venezuela's democracy.
According to the HOV blog, a pro-Chavez Venezuelan website reported on December 1 that "big reserves of T-shirts with the word 'Fraud' were found together with leaflets denouncing electoral fraud and calling for a demonstration against the fraud for December the 5th".