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Professor returns from monitoring elections in Venezuela

ATHENS, Ohio (Aug. 26, 2004) -- Election monitoring became a family affair for Tom Walker when he recently joined his son Carlos Walker Uribe as an observer for the recent presidential recall election in Venezuela. Both Walker, the former director of Latin American Studies and professor of political science at Ohio University, and his son have previously served as election observers elsewhere in Latin America. This time were among 40 people observing the Aug. 15 presidential recall referendum in Venezuela as part of Jimmy Carter's Carter Center electoral observation team. The Carter Center collaborated with the Organization of American States (OAS) for this election's observing project.

Although Walker and the other elections observers were well received he said there was an atmosphere of tremendous tension in the country surrounding the recall referendum of President Hugo Chavez. "The Carter/OAS group was seen as very useful in calming things down," Walker said. The populist Chavez won the election with over 57 percent of the vote in an exceptionally high electoral turnout that had Venezuelans standing in long lines at polling places.

According to Walker, losing the referendum actually benefits the opposition in Venezuela because it means Chavez will serve out the rest of his term before the next elections are held. This gives the opposition time to identify and organize around a candidate to replace Chavez. If the recall had gone against Chavez, new presidential elections would have been held within 30 days, and he would have won that election, Walker said, because the opposition now has no unified candidate.

Walker, who researches, writes and teaches about Latin America, and particularly Brazil and Central America, believes Chavez is too harsh and divisive, but said he does like much of what Chavez has done.

"The old system was a superficially nicely functioning democracy dominated by the haves and the have-mores," Walker explained. "Meanwhile Venezuela's poor majority was ignored until 1999 when they voted the leftist populist Chavez into office."

An official observer at three other elections (Nicaragua 1984, 1990 and 1996), Walker had not previously been involved with a Carter Center project, but was impressed. "They do a wonderful job and the Carter/OAS quick counts are extremely accurate," he said. "The counts that the Carter/OAS teams provide within an hour or two after the closing of polling places are never more than one percent off the final election results."

According to Walker, the work of the Carter Center is greatly respected and valued as was evident by the response of voters to the observation teams on election day. Walker and his partner visited polling places in the rural state of Cojedes where he said people waiting in lines to vote greeted them with applause and cheers. "They were really glad we were there," he said.

The Carter Center/OAS observers spent two days in Venezuela's capital city Caracas for orientation and instruction. They then were deployed in two-person teams to sites around Venezuela for two days, during which time they visited institutions and people and conducted interviews before observing the election. The Carter Center teams visited polling places when they opened at 5:30 a.m. and dropped in at polling places throughout the day to check for any anomalies. After the election they returned to Caracas for debriefing and press conferences. Despite the endorsement of the OAS, the Carter Center and independent election observers for the results of the recall referendum the opposition leaders have not accepted the results.

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Media Contacts: Professor of Political Science Thomas Walker, (740) 593-1339 or walker@ohio.edu

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