Venezuela’s Elections: An Update

During the last 50 years, Venezuelan politicians have turned John F. Kennedy’s signature theme on its head, to wit: “Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what your country can do for you.” The most successful at this has been President Hugo Chávez, who has stayed in office for 13 years by seizing most levers of power and appealing to populist sentiments. Voters had high hopes when they elected him in 1998, on pledges to clean up corruption and to spread some of Venezuela’s oil wealth.

Now, with endemic corruption, food shortages, power blackouts, and one of the highest homicide rates in the world, they are beginning to question whether he should continue to lead. Surging in the polls for this year’s election on October 7 is challenger Henrique Capriles, who promises to arrest Venezuela’s decline. He has made hardly any mistakes during the campaign, but whether he can win is another question. The answer is probably not—unless there is a massive turnout. Here is why.

While opinion polls suggest a close election, several factors favor the president’s reelection. Calling the rich “squalids,” Chávez’s larger-than-life persona identifies with the poor like no Venezuelan politician ever has, inspiring fierce loyalty. This segment still makes up around 27 percent of the population, according to official figures, and still more depend on social programs that the president manages through private accounts that he can draw on during political campaigns.

Capriles, the 40-year-old former governor of Miranda department, has no such resources. And despite advantages such as youth, energy, similar measures of charisma, and promises to leave social programs intact, while turning around the country’s shrunken private sector, surveys say that those dependent on social programs fear he will withdraw their benefits if elected.

The ballot that will appear on voting machines is confusing—multiple pictures of candidates attached to logos of parties that support them. A flawed electoral law allows parties to switch support up to 10 days before the election, after it is too late to change the electronic ballot. Four dissident parties pulled their backing from Capriles at the last minute, meaning that whoever touches their spots hoping to vote for him will have entered a null ballot. Touching the first Capriles photo on the ballot will actually result in selecting one of the splinter candidates. Capriles’s Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) is organizing a voter education campaign, but to what avail? Few, including many in the Capriles camp, think there will be outright fraud. The MUD coalition claims to have mobilized enough poll watchers to cover 99 percent of the voting stations. However, ballot confusion could shave Capriles’s margin.

Then there is an intimidation factor. This year, the electoral council has attached fingerprint identification devices to all electronic voting machines to activate them. Unlike the United States, where voters in most jurisdictions need no identification, Venezuela requires a national ID card and a thumbprint. Whether or not it is true, the fingerprint-machine linkage may cause some voters to think that government officials will be able to monitor their selection.

Many remember when the names and addresses of people who signed a petition for a recall referendum were gathered by a national assemblyman into a database that was made public and reportedly used to deny employment and social benefits. Other complications could be corrupted or altered fingerprint files that could disenfranchise some voters, as well as a voter registry that seems to be growing much faster than the population.

Not only has Chávez been able to register his partisans using state resources while opponents cannot, his campaign typically benefits from a near monopoly on communications. Private media that have challenged him have been shut down or forced to remove critical content. The president can require all radio and TV outlets to suspend regular programming to carry his frequent, lengthy speeches that insult opponents, while challengers have no such vehicle. Nor may challengers insult the president, by law.

On the flip side, the official media do not have to cover opposition campaign events or accept their advertisements, which is why Capriles has done so much door-to-door campaigning. On the trail, Chávez’s militant groups, which depend on state resources, show up at rallies to intimidate the opposition in confrontations that sometimes turn violent. Last weekend, gunmen killed three Capriles supporters.

Finally there is the threat of widespread violence. Chávez has said that his followers would not accept an opposition victory and might take up arms if his socialist revolution were threatened. In 2010, he began funding the training of reserve forces that are, in fact, partisan militias. Last year, officials told reporters that these forces numbered more than 125,000, with an eventual goal of expanding them to 2 million.

More troubling, the defense minister, General Henry Rangel Silva, has interjected himself into politics. He once said that the armed forces would not recognize a Chávez defeat, but would remain loyal to Chávez—suggesting a mutiny against constitutional order. Rangel Silva has since backed down, but he now grumbles publicly that Capriles will dismantle the armed forces.

To overcome all this, Capriles would have to inspire a massive turnout of voters who will not be intimidated. Furthermore, some Chávez loyalists would have to decide that they also have had enough. A recent refinery fire at PDVSA, the state oil company, is emblematic of the decline of the country’s main economic engine. The rise of a new Bolivarian “boligarquia” of Chávez cronies who have enriched themselves with government contracts supplies further evidence.

Venezuela’s ambassador to Havana recently said that voting for Chávez is “voting Fidel”—an unsavory reference to Cuba’s influence as well as dependence on Venezuelan oil. In the background, food and housing shortages continue in Venezuela, with surges in violent crime and drug trafficking involving the armed forces. Those might be reasons for some to switch support.

Even so, Capriles will be up against a core voting bloc consisting of those who worry more about surviving than getting ahead, a suspect voter registry and technical issues that could help ensure an opposition defeat if balloting is close, an incumbent who dominates the communication environment and has state resources to get loyalists to the polls, and threats of violence that could persuade supporters to stay away from voting centers. Still, it is worth remembering that voter frustration opened the door to political outsider Hugo Chávez in 1998. Now, if the desire for change is strong enough to overcome fear, it could also turn him out.

Stephen Johnson is a senior fellow and director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Stephen Johnson