Venezuela's first post-Chavez presidential election, taking place on April 14, has the unfortunate likelihood of suffering from the same shortcomings of the contest that occurred when Chavez was re-elected this past October: the vote was neither free nor fair but extraordinarily distorted by incumbent advantages and political intimidation.
On October 7, Hugo Chavez was re-elected to a fourth term by a decisive margin, with 55 percent of the vote. In power since 1999, and emboldened with six-year terms and the right to indefinite reelection as a result of constitutional changes they forced through, the chavistas, now represented by Chavez's anointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, appear as firmly entrenched as ever.
Last October, the opposition candidate in next month's contest, Henrique Capriles, mounted the most serious electoral challenge to Chavez since he assumed power, uniting disparate opposition forces, attracting many disillusioned former backers of Chavez, and giving hope to Venezuela's youth in particular. If there had been a reasonably level playing field or an electoral climate free of the pervasive fear that Chavez's forces provoked, Capriles might well have won the presidency. The April contest will be a rematch on the same unlevel playing field. Thus, it is unlikely that Capriles will secure the presidency.
Despite the likelihood of defeat, democratic forces must participate in competitive authoritarian contests and grab a piece, no matter how small, of the political space allowed.
Capriles -- a popular and energetic young governor of Miranda, Venezuela's second-most populous state and its most developed--is a presidential candidate better suited to an honest election than to the cynical charade that Chavez imposed on the country. In particular, Governor Capriles and his team made a grave strategic error, giving the Chavez government undeserved legitimacy with their swift acceptance of the October 2012 presidential election results and the implied notion that the electoral system as a whole had integrity. This error came back to haunt the opposition in December as they lost every state governorship but three.
For 14 years Chavez has embodied the "Bolivarian" revolution. If chavismo is to survive Chavez it will have to choose between three paths: radicalization of the current hardline competitive authoritarian model into a fully authoritarian regime (a dictatorship), mere continuation of competitive authoritarianism or, the most unlikely scenario, dismantling chavismo little by little to turn Venezuela into some semblance of a real democracy.
Maduro is a hardline chavista who has longed served as foreign minister and architect of many of the accords Venezuela has signed with Iran, Syria, Cuba, and others. Yet he is sometimes portrayed as a person that can bridge factions within chavismo and facilitate dialogue between government and the opposition--in other words, he's a pragmatist. His ultimate goal would be the same as his predecessor's: to hang on to power, thus avoiding the certain consequences of losing it.
Those consequences could be profound if the opposition became government. Corruption in Venezuela during the Chavez era has reached levels that would make many of the world's oil autocrats blush. So, first off, the heirs of Chavez must prevent the dozens or hundreds of investigations and prosecutions that would follow a democratic transition. It is believed that tens of billions of petro-dollars have been siphoned off by those in government. The new oligarchs know all too well that Chavez's abrupt exit threatens their ability to retain and enjoy their wealth.
Chavez's successors must also worry about accountability for the escalating scale of human rights violations -- none of which have been punished--over the course of his rule. These include such iconic events as the killing of nineteen protestors and the wounding of hundreds more on April 11, 2002. The heirs to Chavez know that at some point they will have to answer for their share of the bloodshed -- and for other serious crimes. Under Chavez, Venezuela became a veritable narco-state, affording military protection and safe passage to the Colombo-Venezuelan cartels and their protectors in the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a left-wing insurgency that has long been implicated in the drug trade). The U.S. has formally designated some of Venezuela's most senior politicians and military officials as "drug kingpins," including the current defense minister. The European Union is also clear that Venezuela is a narco-state. Lacking the protection of high office, the chavistas know they would be sitting ducks for international prosecution on drug charges.
For nearly 14 years, Hugo Chavez labored with tireless energy, undeniable charisma, and ruthless design to destroy the opposition, silence critics, and intimidate skeptics, all while leaving the Potemkin façade of a "democracy". These conditions have made Venezuelan elections under Chavez utterly unfair. Judges who ruled against Chavez were imprisoned. Those that remain openly declared their fealty to him. The previous opposition presidential candidate is in exile. Businessmen who supported opposition candidates were investigated and expropriated. Labor leaders who opposed the government were imprisoned. Opposition radio and TV stations were shut down, denied permits, and fined. Those that survived engaged in self-censorship. Since Chavez's death, the only remaining independent television channel was purchased by partisans of the Chavez party and is unlikely to maintain editorial independence beyond April. The electoral council is demonstrably biased in favor of the government. And every so often, elections have been held in which the opposition wins enough seats in parliament, governorships, mayor's offices, and a high enough percentage of the presidential vote for superficial observers to declare, "Well, we may not like it, but this is the people's will."