Venezuelan Elections: Why the Efforts of the Opposition are Unlikely to Pay Off

Ana Alves

September 5, 2012

Predicting the outcome of Venezuelan elections has not been a notoriously fruitful endeavor in the country’s recent history. This sentiment has not noticeably changed as Venezuela prepares for its upcoming presidential election next month, where polling results have been contradictory and mixed. Most pollsters report an advantage of up to 15 percentage points for President Hugo Chávez and predict an easy electoral victory for the incumbent.[1] However, reports from the Venezuelan opposition claim that their candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, is polling similarly with Chávez.[2] As the October 7 elections quickly approach, one wonders about the irregularities between the Capriles’s and the media’s polling.

 

The fact that the opposition even touts itself as a contender for victory in October is a surprise, given the expected formality of Chávez’s reelection to a third term. After all, it has been documented that Chávez usurped prior Venezuelan electoral law to overhaul the country’s political system.[3] Upon taking office in 1999, Chávez quickly moved to consolidate his power by amending the constitution to redirect political power into the office of the president.[4]

 

What’s more, Congress was all but eliminated and replaced by a transition council, the new National Legislative Commission – known as Congresillo. The members of the body were appointed by the Constituent Assembly, an organization dominated by Chávez and his supporters. Massive nationalization of industries throughout the country allowed Chávez to dominate the economy. Moreover, the autonomy and integrity of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) –– created to ensure fair and free elections –– was severely compromised since the institution that appointed the members of the CNE—the Electoral Nominating Committee—was also packed with chavistas, as Chávez’s supporters are known.[5]

 

These actions helped Chávez cruise to reelection in 2006 with 63% of the vote. As the opposition pointed out, the CNE lacked autonomy from the government, and critics raised questions over the manipulation of the electronic voting system, including the claim that voter rolls had been inflated. In addition, access to the media was uneven and overwhelmingly favored the incumbent, whose campaign expenditures consistently superceded the legal limit.[6] Furthermore, Chávez continued his manipulation of the political process for the 2010 elections by amending the electoral laws, making them even more in his favor, such as changing the rule for seat allocation and allowing the gerrymandering of districts that had voted for the opposition in 2008 and 2009.[7]

 

Despite these disadvantages, Venezuelan opposition parties united under a broad-based alliance known as the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD) during the 2010 parliamentary elections. While Chávez’s party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), retained control of the National Assembly, the MUD managed to capture the same amount of the popular vote as the PSUV.[8]

 

The MUD’s success in 2010 has propelled its candidate, Capriles: a young, moderate candidate who could attract much of Venezuela’s important swing vote. This, in turn, has increased speculation that Chávez’s rule could be nearing an end, a sentiment pounced upon by opponents along with recent reports regarding the president’s poor health.

 

Yet, the opposition should temper its optimism. There is little chance that Capriles will actually take power, primarily for two reasons. First, a healthy, charismatic Chávez has access to state financial resources to spread throughout a well-developed patronage system. Combined with his impressive popularity amongst the poor, these factors still make him the most formidable political figure in the country. With all of Chávez’s built-in advantages, the opposition is stacked unfavorably to triumph in October.

 

These factors lead to the second reason for pessimism regarding Capriles’ chances at presidential victory. Over the last decade, Chávez has placed numerous individuals into high-level positions within the government that have a vested interest in the president staying in power, such as the appointment of General Henry Rangel Silva as minister of defense and Diosdado Cabello as vice president of the PSUV. Cabello, a former army officer and current president of the National Assembly, is said to be the most influential man in the Armed Forces––even more than Chávez himself.[9] In a Capriles administration, it is unlikely that these individuals would be retained. This raises questions over whether the military and security services of Venezuela would actually allow Capriles to take power, even if he won. General Rangel provided a glimpse into the military’s intimidation practices when he recently cautioned, “A hypothetical opposition government would sell the country and the Armed Forces would not accept it.”[10]

 

Simply put, Chávez and his cronies remain formidable opponents and that is why the efforts of the opposition could be unlikely to pay off.

 

 


[1] The pollsters consulted are Datanalisis, Consultores21, Hinterlaces, IVAD, and Gis XXI. Brunnstrom, David. (2012, July 18). TABLE-“Chavez leads polls ahead of Venezuela election.” Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 4, 2012 from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-07-18/news/sns-rt-venezuela-electionpolls-tablevepolls-20120401_1_venezuela-election-main-pollsters-henrique-capriles.

[2] According to Consultores 21, which surveyed 1,000 people taken between June 15 and June 26, Chávez had 45.9 percent support against 45.8 percent for Capriles, with a 3.2 percentage margin of error. Crooks, Nathan. (2012, August 3). “Venezuela’s Opposition Says Capriles Leading Chavez In Polls.” Bloomberg. Retrieved August 4, 2012 from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-08-04/venezuela-s-opposition-says-capriles-leading-chavez-in-polls.html.

[3] A legal constitutional reform within a Constituent Assembly would have required a two-thirds vote in Congress. Chávez’s political party (the Fifth Republic Movement) had obtained only little more than 20 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 22 percent in the Senate. Lacking enough support within the Congress, Chávez side-stepped that institutions and called a popular referendum, without constitutional authorization but with the connivance of the Supreme Court, which he later dissolved (Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold. Dragon in the Tropics: Hugo Chávez and the Political Economy of Revolution in Venezuela. Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution Press, 2011, p. 17-18).

[4] Among the most significant changes in the constitution were: the expansion of the presidential term from five to six years and the ability for immediate reelection to a second term; complete discretion for the president over promotions within the armed forces without legislative approval; the elimination of the Senate, eroding the checks and balances within Congress and between the legislative and the executive branches (later the whole Congress would be altogether eliminated); presidential power to activate any kind of referendum without action from the legislature; and the ban on public financing for political parties. (Corrales and Penfold, Dragon in the Tropics, p. 19; and Brewer-Carías, Dismantling Democracy in Venezuela, p. 64).

[5] Brewer-Carías, Dismantling Democracy in Venezuela, p. 108.

[6] Corrales and Penfold, Dragon in the Tropics, p. 29-30.

[7] Corrales and Penfold, Dragon in the Tropics, p. 159.

[8]  Latin America Report N°42. (2012, June 26). “Dangerous Uncertainty ahead of Venezuela’s Elections.” International Crisis Group. Retrieved August 11, 2012 from http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/latin-america-caribbean/andes/venezuela/042-dangerous-uncertainty-ahead-of-venezuelas-elections.aspx.

[9] Strong, Simon. (2012, February 2). “Venezuela’s Military: A Factor in the Upcoming Election?” Americas Quarterly. Retrieved August 9, 2012 from http://americasquarterly.org/venezuelas-military-a-factor-in-the-upcoming-election.

[10] Idem.

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