Venezuela opposition parties pull out of congressional elections, saying conditions unfair
CARACAS, Venezuela – Three Venezuelan opposition parties pulled out of congressional elections Tuesday, five days before the vote, saying the conditions are tilted toward President Hugo Chavez’s allies.The government insisted Sunday’s elections will be clean, but the parties’ defections appear to set up a major political confrontation before a vote long predicted to be a resounding victory for pro-Chavez candidates.Henry Ramos of the largest opposition party, Democratic Action, said the National Elections Council favored pro-Chavez candidates and has failed to correct errors in the voter registry.”Imagine what it means to us for a party like Democratic Action to say today that under these conditions, we cannot participate in the electoral process,” Ramos said.Two other parties, Project Venezuela and the Social Christian Party, or Copei, followed suit and announced their withdrawal. Copei and Democratic Action demanded the vote be delayed until they are satisfied it will be fair.But Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said the elections would go on as planned.”The opposition says this election isn’t clean. It’s the cleanest in Venezuela’s history, but they have interests opposed to the National Elections Council,” Rangel said. “The Democratic Action party has withdrawn from the elections. Very good! They can go to hell!”Democratic Action and Copei long dominated Venezuelan politics before Chavez’s rise to power in 1998 elections. The centrist parties differ little in ideology and are united in their fierce opposition to Chavez, who says he is leading a socialist “revolution” to help the poor.But those parties’ influence has been flagging, and recent polls say Chavez has nearly 70 percent public approval ratings. Luis Vicente Leon of the Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis has said that points to a sweeping victory for pro-Chavez candidates.Sunday’s election is expected to mark the first time that Democratic Action and Copei both field no candidates since Venezuela’s last dictatorship fell in 1958.Cesar Perez, Copei’s secretary general, cited complaints about bias in the elections council and the alleged use of public funds for campaigning.Pro-Chavez candidates are “using public funds as part of grotesque and open electoral opportunism, making it impossible to continue in the election,” Perez said.The announcements came a day after the elections council decided high-tech thumbprint identification devices would not be used. Critics had argued they endangered voter confidentiality.Ramos said the council still had not convinced the opposition the software would work.”The secrecy of the vote is not guaranteed,” he said.Henrique Salas, of the smaller party Project Venezuela, alleged the council had shown bias in past elections.Members of the elections council have repeatedly denied accusations of a pro-government bias.Pro-Chavez lawmakers now hold 86 of the 165 seats in the National Assembly. Democratic Action has 23 of the 79 opposition-held seats – more than any other opposition party; Project Venezuela holds seven; and Copei has six.Leaders of Chavez’s Fifth Republic Movement party have vowed to expand their congressional majority to two-thirds, which would allow them to push through constitutional reforms.They have said one planned amendment would strike down term limits. Currently, presidents are limited to two six-year terms, a period that would expire for Chavez in 2012 if he is re-elected next year.Ramos denied government accusations the opposition has been acting in the interests of the U.S. government, which is critical of Chavez. He also took a dig at Chavez for forging close ties with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.”We don’t sit on the U.S. ambassador’s lap, nor do we sit on the Cuban ambassador’s lap,” Ramos said.Observers from the Organization of American States and the European Union are on hand for Sunday’s vote, in which the National Assembly is being expanded by two seats to 167 members.