Venezuela's Upcoming Election Won't Be Any Fairer Than the Last One

Chavez established a frightening, repressive form of fake democracy. All signs indicate that his successors will pick up where he left off.

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Venezuela's opposition leader and presidential candidate Henrique Capriles during a campaign rally in Caracas on April 7, 2013. (Reuters)

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.

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.

The Democracy Report

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."

The Venezuelan electorate (or at least a significant portion of it) has suffered patiently for 14 years in seeking a genuine voice, and ultimately an alternative leader, to manage their own affairs. But Chavez repeatedly announced that he planned to rule until 2040, and he used every lever to try to ensure that his power would be institutionalized. This made Capriles's presidential election effort Herculean. He crisscrossed the country door-to-door in a manner reminiscent of the country's 1970s politicians. Chavez, meanwhile, barely traveled, preferring to send others in his stead.

The electoral campaign process, meanwhile, was patently unfair. Chavez had unlimited use of state funds and state infrastructure to carry out his campaign. The campaign was overwhelmed by a cult of personality that rivals Middle Eastern tyrants. Chavez billboards across the country touted the promises of the revolution and the supremacy of the lider unico. The ruling party campaign was lavishly and freely financed with state funds, while the opposition was denied any public financing whatsoever (and Venezuelan businessmen knew they faced expropriation, or worse, if they openly supported the opposition campaign).

Then there was perhaps the most critical element of a modern election campaign: access to the mass media. Via the arbitrary issuance and withdrawal of licenses, Chavez enjoyed the support of all but one TV channel in the country. On top of all this, during the campaign Chavez regularly commandeered all of the airwaves, citing presidential privilege. The process is aptly named cadenas (chains) and compels all TV and radio stations, no matter the ownership or their politics, to broadcast the president's speeches in full--no matter how long the tirade. Chavez's "chains" had the effect of crowding out any significant news regarding the opposition. For instance, on September 17, 2012, during one of the largest rallies in the Capriles campaign, hundreds of thousands turned out to hear him speak in a Caracas park. The event was broadcast live all around the country on radio and TV. However, shortly after Capriles began to speak, Chavez abruptly cut him off by declaring another cadena, in which he extolled the virtues of the current Venezuelan state and the benefits of socialism. The opposition network Globovisión (which had limited national coverage) was alone in resuming broadcast of the Capriles rally after Chavez finally finished speaking.

The gross unfairness of the 2012 presidential campaign is now seeing a rebirth in the post-Chavez campaign. In the current campaign between Maduro and Capriles, the abuse of cadenas is already in full effect. Since the campaign began, Maduro has taken of all broadcast media for 8 hours and 43 minutes of illegal campaigning. Meanwhile, the state television channel has broadcast 1 minute and 18 seconds of Capriles speaking. The only mentions of Capriles are to ridicule or to attack him. This extraordinary evidence of unfairness is utterly ignored by those observing the election process. The Venezuelan government has not authorized observers from the OAS for the upcoming contest.

The 2012 debacle coalesced into a well-founded fear of lack of ballot secrecy and that a vote against Chavez might well lead to retaliation by the government.

The country's electronic voting machines have been the subject of suspicion since 2004, when the government contracted with a Miami-based company, Smartmatic, to procure them, abandoning the previous system of paper ballots. Smartmatic was secretly financed and controlled by the government, giving it access to the software and hardware used in the contest. The Smartmatic machines were Venezuela's first experience with electronic voting, and the skepticism was recently compounded by the introduction of an additional machine: the capta huellas, which literally means "fingerprint catcher."

In theory, these machines are meant to combat voter fraud by confirming the identity of the voter. In order to cast a ballot, the voter must input his or her identification number and then place a thumb on the pad for verification. In practice, the machines are meant to buttress the (inaccurate) perception that the government not only knows you, but also who you vote for. This is why the electronic verification system takes place inside the polling booth, adjoined to the voting machine, and not outside when the voter checks in. The device preys on well-founded fears of retaliation against opposition voters -- a second practice that gave Chavez a nearly insurmountable advantage. A pre-election poll in Venezuela indicated that 40 percent of those questioned did not believe their ballots would be secret and 30 percent stated that this intimidated them.

Secondly, Venezuela has a sordid precedent of violating the democratic principle of ballot secrecy from the 2004 referendum petition, which sought to remove Chavez from office in a recall election. Chavez famously warned: "Whoever signs [the petition] against Chavez... their name will be there, registered for history, because they'll have to put down their first name, their last name, their signature, their identity card number, and their fingerprint."

This registry of names was later published by a chavista congressman, Luis Tascón, on his personal website. The "Lista Tascón" was used to create an apartheid-like system, dividing Venezuelans into those who "had signed against the president" and those who were loyal to Chavez. Public employees lost their jobs, those seeking employment were instantly disqualified, and identification papers became hard to get for those who had dared sign the recall petition. Citizens seeking loans from state banks were told they had opted out of any assistance due to their disloyalty to Chavez. Although no law was passed making discrimination statutory, every government official knew they had no incentive to treat declared opponents of the regime in a favorable manner. To the contrary, many ministries circulated instructions to bureaucrats as to the wisdom of engaging in discrimination. It is worth underlining that the social programs instituted by Chavez in the poorest neighborhoods of Venezuela use the capta huellas machine to register the beneficiaries of the programs, thus creating an even stronger psychological link between fingerprinting readers and benefits from the state.

The third systemic advantage of the Chavez campaigns that has made elections in Venezuela unfree is the blatant use of the National Guard and the Milicia in a nationwide effort to mobilize and oversee voting in favor of the government party by every state employee and every beneficiary of the government's handout schemes. Brigades are assembled not only to ensure that voters turn out, but also to remind them that voting against the regime would have consequences. In a horrific betrayal of the concept of a free election, last October many state employees were accompanied to polling stations and monitored. And while not a secret to anybody, few people have dared to risk all by formally denouncing the ways and means by which their will was twisted.

Every one of these electoral maneuvers are again in play in the run-up to the April balloting.

We believe the fingerprint-reading hardware, compounded by "vote for Chavez or else" initiatives, could have cost Capriles hundreds of thousands -- if not more than a million -- votes in the October elections, while giving Chavez votes from many people originally intending to vote for Capriles. And all of these violations of electoral freedom plagued the recent regional elections as well, likely costing the opposition control of many states and municipalities. These undemocratic tricks are likely to cost Capriles the presidency once again, giving the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela power for another six years.

So why does Capriles campaign at all, given that the electoral deck is stacked so high against him?

Venezuelans previously learned the consequences of aimlessly abandoning the electoral arena. In 2005, all opposition parties boycotted the legislative elections to protest the lack of democracy, the manipulation of the electoral system, the systematic violations of human rights, and the use of the state treasury by Chavez for his own party's benefit--abuses that are all still present today.

Voters boycotted the 2005 elections en masse, with only 17 percent of eligible voters turning out. The OAS and the EU released scathing reports on the entire process -- yet failed to call for a rerun. The bleak turnout denied the assembly legitimacy, but not legality. That the opposition was not able to compel a new election is still baffling to many. That they did not even try is inexplicable. In spite of the efforts of the opposition to turn the electoral boycott into a moral and political victory, the Chavez spin machine obscured the facts and led the world to believe that he had such overwhelming public support that he ended up with the entire legislature. Suddenly, Chavez had a National Assembly that would rubber-stamp his every whim without a single dissenting voice. That hard lesson allowed Chavez to obliterate the institutions and practices of democracy and steamroll his policies into place.

Since then, the opposition has achieved significant victories using the electoral path, despite its pro-regime tilt. They won the 2007 constitutional referendum, a significant portion of the regional elections in 2008, and the popular vote in the 2010 legislative elections (however, through widespread "gerrymandering," the Chavez electoral council was able to ensure that the government retained its majority in the Assembly with a minority of the popular vote).

Most recently, on February 12, 2012 Venezuela's disparate opposition forces joined together in a primary election -- a first in Venezuelan history -- to nominate a unity candidate. A triumphant Capriles, as candidate, did not want a repeat of the 2005 abstention debacle and wanted to reinforce and build upon the successes obtained in the 2007, 2008 and 2010 elections. Not wanting to suppress his own vote, he hardly addressed any issues of electoral fraud, intimidation, and the massive inequality of conditions and resources between him and Chavez. Capriles saw little incentive in drawing attention to the problems with the voting machines, fearing it would discourage his own supporters. His objective was to turn out as many voters as possible, to organize, inspire, and give hope that political participation is the solution to Venezuela's quagmire. His admirable efforts generated the most exciting political campaign in Venezuela since the 1970s, yet they were doomed to failure given the unfairness and mistrust surrounding the process. Now, one again, Capriles finds himself in tough circumstances.

The outcome of the coming election seems a foregone conclusion to many who recognize Venezuela as a competitive authoritarian regime. Capriles is a serious and authentic challenger, but some in the opposition think he is about to repeat the same mistakes he made in 2012.

Should Capriles have contested -- and be contesting again -- for the presidency? Absolutely. 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 . If democratic forces contest, there is the possibility of keeping the ruling autocrats on the defensive, of establishing a message of unity, and of providing organizing skills to democratic forces. Abandoning the electoral arena leaves little room for assembly or to coordinate the disparate remnants of civil society--as Capriles and his allies well understood. Moreover, as the experiences of Serbia, Ukraine (and quite possibly Malaysia this year) show, accidents can happen on the autocrats' road to reelection, enabling a transition to democracy through the ballot box, against the odds.

Capriles's biggest mistake was in failing to wage two types of campaigns simultaneously -- one challenging the government and the other challenging the system as a pseudo-democracy. Admittedly, this is not an easy rhetorical tightrope to walk, but an explicit attack on the system itself might have better rallied Venezuelans in 2012 to overcome their fear and vote their conscience. A democratic transition in Venezuela requires a frontal attack on the multiple sources of electoral unfairness.

Capriles lost an important opportunity on the night of the 2012 presidential election. After barely addressing the systemic unfairness during the campaign--simply assuring voters he would "defend" their votes -- on election night he meekly accepted the announcement of a Chavez victory. His 15-minute speech included phrases such as, "For me, what the people say is sacred ... this is the way democracy works ... I am a democrat ... In order to know how to win, you have to know how to lose," as if the electoral contest had just occurred in England. Chavez's reaction was chilling: "Today, my fellow Venezuelans, we have demonstrated that our democracy is one of the best democracies in the world. And we will continue to demonstrate that."

Capriles's first major complaints about the electoral process only began days after the presidential election and were restrained. His reason for not doing so sooner and more forcefully was to avoid prompting voters to sit out the regional elections. But this calculation failed, as voter turnout in December was a fraction of that during the October presidential election. Capriles himself was one of only three opposition candidates to stay in office.

The passing of Chavez offers a singular opportunity to Venezuela's democratic forces. While campaigning with hope and energy, Capriles's campaign would be wise to frontally address every flawed aspect of the electoral process. Such a posture would give democratic governments and movements outside Venezuela clearer cause to reject the outcome as illegitimate and keep Maduro's hardliner tendencies in check. The alternative is that this historic opportunity will be squandered in another rigged contest that needlessly prolongs Venezuela's tragedy.