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Venezuelan Officials Promise Free, Fair Presidential Vote

Days before Venezuelans cast ballots in Sunday's presidential election, officials are attempting to reassure the public that voting will be free and fair. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Caracas, many who oppose President Hugo Chavez' reelection bid profess bitter memories from previous democratic exercises, and say they have concerns about the current election, as well.

In his final campaign speech in Caracas, President Chavez went out of his way to welcome international observers that will be monitoring Sunday's balloting, and pledged to respect the final results when reported by Venezuela's National Electoral Council.

He said, "We will have complete respect for the independence and impartiality of our electoral arbiter. The arbiter will be recognized by the government and the people because we support the strengthening of our democratic institutions."

In a Caracas shopping mall, Chavez supporter Andrea Gomez says she has absolute faith in the integrity of the vote. "The vote will be clean, I am completely convinced of it. I have spoken with people who are involved [in the elections] and who are impartial, and they have told me that I can be rest assured. What is more, I am not afraid because I am completely sure of my vote. I will vote for the president," she said.

With most polls heavily favoring the self-proclaimed socialist president, Gomez' tranquility is, perhaps, not surprising. Yet speak to virtually any Chavez opponent, and you get a different response.

"Conducting elections with electronic balloting systems allows the person who controls the data to manipulate them. Can I trust the results 100 percent ? No, because I know they can be altered," said Andres Esquivel, a computer programmer and supporter of opposition candidate Manuel Rosales.

For years, Venezuela's opposition has cried foul about the way balloting is conducted. In 2004, the opposition alleged widespread fraud in a recall referendum aimed at ousting Mr. Chavez from office. Official results showed 58 percent of the electorate rejecting the measure.

The following year, the opposition boycotted legislative elections, saying the vote was a sham. As a result, Chavez allies now occupy all seats in Venezuela's National Assembly.

Just months ago, polls showed many Chavez opponents intended to boycott this year's presidential vote, as well. But the emergence of a strong presidential challenger, former state governor Rosales, has breathed new life into the opposition and prompted many to abandon thoughts of a boycott.

Yet voting concerns remain, a fact that forces the Rosales campaign to walk a fine line. On the one hand, staffers want all Rosales supporters to show up and cast ballots -- and therefore must appear optimistic that voting will be free and fair. On the other hand, they cannot ignore the skepticism that exists within their ranks.

"We have clearly stated that if conditions exist that allow us to certify every stage of the election and we lose by just one vote, we will recognize Chavez' victory. But if we cannot verify the results, then we cannot recognize them," said Gerardo Blyde, a Rosales campaign advisor.

Chavez opponents well-remember that, after the 2004 referendum, the names of many who voted to remove the president were publicly divulged. Some of those identified later claimed to have lost their jobs, been denied credit, or faced other forms of retribution.

Weeks ago, the head of Venezuela's state-owned oil monopoly, Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez, was secretly videotaped telling his workers that anyone who did not support President Chavez should resign.

What some see as intimidation tactics by the Chavez administration have become a campaign issue for Rosales. "When I was a mayor and then governor, nowhere was anyone asked their political affiliation or how they voted. There was respect for the vote, and that is how it will be in Venezuela with a new government," Rosales said at a recent campaign stop.

Venezuelan election officials insist any concerns about Sunday's presidential vote are unwarranted. German Yepes, a director of the National Electoral Council, says opposition representatives as well as international observers will have complete access to every phase of the balloting process. "There is no danger of the secrecy of the ballot box being violated. There is no way anyone can find out who voted for whom. There is no way that the results can be adulterated. There is no way to interfere with the transmission of election results," he said.

Yepes adds that the National Electoral Council is investigating Energy Minister Ramirez' directive that oil workers back the president. He says the probe will be completed next month -- after the election.

At a Caracas coffee shop, graphic designer Fernando Hernandez shrugs when asked about Sunday's vote. "One has to fulfill one's obligation to vote. But the reality is that guaranteeing there will be no fraud is very difficult. In this country, it is very difficult," he said.