reuters | 20.08.2004 23:36 | Venezuela
Chavez foes threaten Venezuela election boycott
Friday, August 20, 2004 Posted: 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) -- Venezuela's opposition threatened on Friday to boycott regional elections following President Hugo Chavez's referendum win, which they say was fraudulent but which international observers say appeared legitimate.
Opponents of the left-wing, populist leader said electoral authorities rigged Sunday's vote so Chavez would triumph, making it pointless for them to compete in a September 26 poll to elect state governors and local mayors.
"This National Electoral Council and voting system ... do not create the right context for participation in any electoral process, that's ruled out," Jesus Torrealba, spokesman for the opposition Democratic Coordinator coalition, told Reuters.
The opposition called for the electoral authority to be replaced and the automated voting system overhauled.
International observers have already endorsed Sunday's referendum, in which 59 percent of voters ratified Chavez in the presidency against 41 percent who sought his recall.
Former paratrooper Chavez, who was first elected in 1998 and will now serve out his term until 2006 elections, has accused his foes of being sore losers and warned them against stirring up unrest in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.
The fraud charges have inflamed political tensions in the wake of the poll that pitted a nationalist president viewed by supporters as a champion of the poor against opponents who consider him a bullying dictator.
The opposition controls the governorships of seven of Venezuela's 23 states and many of the 337 mayor's posts, including metropolitan Caracas. An opposition boycott of the regional elections could concede these posts to pro-Chavez candidates.
Torrealba said the opposition faced "committing suicide or being killed" in next month's polls.
Seeking to clear up the fraud charges, electoral authorities and observers from the Organization of American States and the U.S.-based Carter Center were reviewing a final sample audit of the vote.
The audit result, originally expected on Friday, would probably be announced over the weekend, officials said.
Identical tallies said suspicious
A top Carter Center envoy said on Thursday the check was expected to confirm that Chavez had won.
Opposition leaders who initially demanded the audit in the end refused to take part because they said it was not stringent enough.
OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria, who had monitored the referendum, flew back to Caracas on Friday to supervise the vote audit. A small group of opposition protesters greeted him at his Caracas hotel.
Opposition leaders say suspicious identical tallies of pro-recall "Yes" votes registered at some polling stations indicate the voting machines may have been rigged to limit the anti-Chavez vote. They also say some of the machines registered a "No" vote when the voter had pressed the "Yes" option.
But Carter Center experts said the vote "cap" theory was unfounded and that the identical vote clusters were simply a mathematical phenomenon affecting "Yes" and "No" votes.
Many analysts have criticized the opposition's refusal to accept the referendum defeat and warned it could damage their credibility at home and abroad.
The broad but divided Democratic Coordinator coalition groups disparate political parties, business and union leaders and dissident military officers.