Jul 20th 2006
The difficulty of standing up to Hugo Chávez in an election that may well not be free or fair
EVER since he won a recall referendum in August 2004 and thus escaped being yanked out of the presidency, Hugo Chávez has exercised untrammelled power in Venezuela. The divided and leaderless opposition, by contrast, has toiled in the political wilderness. So Mr Chávez, who was first elected in 1998 and is flush with oil money, ought to have no difficulty securing another six years in office in the presidential election in December. But will the election be either free or fair? The opposition's doubts about that put it in an awkward dilemma.
Mr Chávez, a former army officer, claims to be leading both a leftist-nationalist revolution and a "participatory democracy". In practice his rule is authoritarian in many ways, so it is particularly important for him to show that he commands popular support. In January he kicked off the election year by calling for 10m votes-4m more than he received in the referendum
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That looks a tall order. But on the other hand no one seriously expects Mr Chávez to lose. The opinion polls say he has the backing of about 55% of respondents. That popularity is partly the result of Venezuela's huge windfall from high oil prices, some of which is paying for social programmes and make-work schemes aimed at the poor. But he also benefits from his skill at communicating with voters, and from the low opinion they hold of many opposition leaders, whom they identify with discredited parties of the past.
The opposition claimed, without proof, that Mr Chávez's victory in the recall referendum was fraudulent. Last December many opposition parties pulled out of a legislative election at the last minute, claiming that the National Electoral Council was biased against them. The result was that the National Assembly now lacks even a single opposition representative. It recently chose a new five-member board for the electoral council. The board has a chavista majority of four to one. In acting thus, the assembly ignored demands by, among others, a European Union observer mission which called for the council to be clearly independent.
The new council has refused to abandon the use of fingerprinting machines to check voters' identities, which the opposition claims violates the secrecy of the vote. It refuses, too, to count paper ballots as a check on controversial voting machines. It has rejected a plan by a group of independent universities to audit the electoral register. This has expanded by 2m names in the past two years. The opposition suspects it is padded with phoney voters.
So the first decision the opposition faces is whether to take part at all. A vocal minority argues for a boycott-partly because of worries that many opposition voters will anyway shun what they see as a farce. Even opposition politicians who want to take part have warned the electoral council that, if it does not heed their demands for fair play, the president could be left to compete against himself. In response, Mr Chávez has threatened to hold a simultaneous referendum to remove the constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms.
Henry Ramos, the leader of Democratic Action, a once-dominant party, who is a leading abstentionist, compares the dozen or so would-be opposition candidates to "drunks fighting over an empty bottle". Most are political lightweights, but three have some substance: Manuel Rosales, the governor of the populous western state of Zulia; Julio Borges, leader of Justice First, a newish, centre-right party; and Teodoro Petkoff, a guerrilla leader in the 1960s, then a social-democratic planning minister and now a newspaper editor.
All three agree that the opposition's only hope is to unite behind a single candidate. But they disagree about how that person should be chosen. On August 13th most of the hopefuls will take part in a primary organised by Súmate, the opposition's main electoral pressure group.
Mr Petkoff, however, is not taking part. He objects to Súmate's rigid conditions, which included a commitment to pull out of the election in certain circumstances. Súmate's leaders are already being prosecuted by the government for receiving money from the United States Congress. Chavista legislators are calling for their arrest, saying they were usurping the electoral council's role by organising the primary. Now Súmate is under fire from some in the opposition too, for taking on a role that ought to be the political parties'-if only they were stronger.
While the opposition continues to squabble, the opinion polls suggest that Venezuelans are hungry for change. Despite Mr Chávez's personal popularity, his government is seen by almost three-quarters of respondents as incompetent and corrupt. A recent poll by one firm, Hinterlaces, found that "someone new" (17%) and "none of the above" (10%) came second and third in the list of voter preferences, well ahead of Mr Rosales (7%), Mr Borges (5%) and Mr Petkoff (4%).
If Mr Chávez is sure to win, why is he not prepared to ensure a free and fair election? Because such a vote might be quite close if turnout is low, says Alfredo Keller, another pollster. He detects mounting apathy among chavistas. That is why Mr Chávez might be quite happy with a contest boycotted by most of the opposition. In any event, he claims his real opponent is George Bush. As if to prove the point he set off this week on a world tour to promote Venezuela's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, taking in Russia and Iran. Perhaps he sees them as model democracies-or perhaps he merely wants to provoke Mr Bush.