Venezuela's election authorities struggled to retain control of the country's controversial recall poll yesterday in the face of a massive turnout and delays caused by new technology and absent polling staff.
Around 80 percent of the country's 14 million registered voters took part in the referendum to decide whether to recall President Hugo Chávez. By midday both sides were privately claiming victory, but a decision to keep polling stations open for an extra four hours meant an official announcement was not expected until the morning.
Chávez will step down immediately and new elections will be held within 30 days if those who answer yes in the referendum gain more votes than he won when he was elected in 1998, and also win a majority on the day. If the no votes gain the majority, Chávez has promised he will invite his opponents to lunch at the presidential palace.
Shortly before 3 p.m. the president of the national election council, Francisco Carrasquero, appeared on television to play a faked recording of his own voice announcing that Chávez had been defeated and was stepping down with immediate effect. Calling the recording a "flagrant crime" that "pretends to make fun of the will of the people," he announced the launch of an investigation.
The investigation did not take long: It emerged that the recording is a popular spoof sold at street markets. The discovery did little for the credibility of the electoral council.
Earlier, as it became clear that the average voter had to stand in line for seven hours to vote, Carrasquero absolved his organization of the blame for the delays. "Those who are responsible are the [polling station machine] operators who did not turn up. It seems that some of them were paid not to go," he said.
Opposition groups pointed to the high-tech machinery -- including electronic voting machines and a more advanced version of the fingerprint recognition system used by U.S. immigration authorities -- as being responsible for the delay.
The massive turnout was spurred by campaigners on both sides waking their supporters at 3 a.m. yesterday with electric horns, bugles and firecrackers.
At noon Chávez voted in a working-class Caracas neighborhood. "We are very happy," he said. "Today is a very happy day. This is a people in peace giving an example to the rest of the world. The rumors of violence and fraud have been carried away by the winds of reality."
He dismissed fears that a victory for him might provoke a coup. "That is now impossible in Venezuela," he said. "The people are too awake. We now have a democracy that is reactivated and full of life."
By 5 a.m. many polling stations in the capital had queues of several hundred people waiting patiently outside. Inside the Colegio Las Acacias, one of 26 polling stations serving the 54,000 residents of the middle-class neighborhood of San Pedro, observers from the two sides struggled with a roll of sticky tape as they attempted to assemble flat-pack ballot boxes to hold the paper votes.
Olivia Gúzman, standing outside in the line reserved for pensioners, said: "You have to be patient. We can do this little by little. I'm not really political but this government has forced me to take more interest. We're in a pit. I've never seen this country in such a bad state. The politicians know that this is a time for reflection and a time for change, for them as much as for anyone."
In one of the city's commercial areas, La Candelaria, hundreds waited to vote at the Colegio Andrés Bello. Raúl Urquia, bearing a purple stain from having his fingerprint taken, was impressed with the system. "This is much better than anything we've seen before," he said. "This referendum marks a defeat for the coup plotters and for those who think that oil is more important than people."
Unlike the rest of the tense and acrimonious campaign, the early stages of Election Day in Caracas were marked by good humor and tolerance. There was a sense among voters that the referendum was an opportunity to give expression to the belief that, far from being a focus for civil unrest and intolerance, the country could reassert itself as a modern, mature democracy.
"All we want is for today to pass peacefully, in complete calm," said Carmen Hernandez, queuing outside the polling station at the Asociación de Mujeres in San Pedro as dawn broke. "We're not political fanatics; we're responsible citizens. This is a time for change, but within a spirit of reconciliation, a time for Venezuelans to win democracy."
When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former Colombian President César Gaviria visited La Candelaria in their capacities as heads of the Carter Center and the Organization of American States, respectively, voters burst out in applause.
Speaking above the din, Gaviria said: "We've been across the country and we have not come across any incidents that cause us concern. People are coming in massive numbers to vote, many more than we expected. Finally, this country is going to find what it has been looking for -- the political conflicts can be solved through electoral means."