checking voters lists in El Valle neighbourhood, Caracas

Twenty million Venezuelan voters headed to more than 34,000 voting centres this morning. Canadians from trade unions, churches and solidarity groups were among 150 election observers from more than 40 countries.

“No one can question the Venezuelan elections,” said former Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa, who is among the observers. “In the world, there is no election as monitored as Venezuelan elections.”

Actually, some do question Venezuelan elections, and some opposition parties are boycotting this one. That is why the presence of observers is important.

Our Canadian labour delegation, organized through Common Frontiers, visited three voting centres located in schools in the populous neighbourhoods of 23 de Enero, El Valle and Santa Teresa. In the school in El Valle, 11 polling stations were set up to serve about 8,000 voters. In Santa Teresa, there were 10 stations to serve about 7,000 voters.

Voting was brisk, and people seemed to be in good humour about line-ups, security and the process itself. With at least 24 different national elections since 1998, Venezuelans have become quite efficient in managing the process.

Polls close at 6 pm, with results expected later in the evening.

President Nicolas Maduro is seeking a second term. His leading opponent is Henri Falcon, a former member of the movement created by Hugo Chavez and one-time governor of Lara state.

The elections followed months of internationally-sponsored negotiations between the government and opposition that, by February, seemed to have reached agreement. But at the last minute, the opposition movement said no.

Since the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez, finding a full national consensus has proven almost impossible. The government accuses the opposition of preferring anti-democratic means of regime change, through either a foreign military intervention or military coup.

Maduro says that if he wins, he will call for a new national dialogue. The country is feeling the effects of international economic sanctions that restrict Venezuela from making purchases abroad, provoking shortages at home.

Any new government of this oil-rich country will also have to wrestle with an extremely-high inflation rate. It may be helped by the rising international price of oil.

Government supporters want the problems of shortages and inflation resolved, but they also want the priority given to social goals — education, heath, housing — to continue. Larry Devoe, the head of the government’s National Human Rights Council, told the Canadian delegation Saturday that the present national budget directs 74 per cent of spending to social goals.

In a sense, this vote is a referendum on that orientation to social solidarity and to a new style of participatory democracy that involves communities in processes of consultation and decision-making.

Jim Hodgson is an election observer from the United Church of Canada.