Who Will Decide Venezuela’s Election?

September 2012

Prague – Venezuela’s presidential election campaign is in full swing, with voters expected to go to the polls on October 7 to elect their head of state. The campaign pits Henrique Capriles, the governor of the state of Miranda, against the incumbent president, Hugo Chávez, who has been in power since 1999. 
What makes this election unique, in our view, is that for the first time, President Chávez, who is seeking an unprecedented fourth consecutive term in office, faces a credible challenger in Capriles, who has managed to unite disparate opposition political parties under his banner. In fact, some recent polls have put Chávez only slightly more than three percentage points ahead of Capriles. That is certainly good news for Venezuela’s fledgling democracy and raises hopes for a genuine democratic contest.
Nevertheless, we believe that it is necessary to express our concern about the precarious state of affairs in Venezuela on the eve of the vote. If anything, the situation in the country is marked by a high degree of uncertainty.
Indeed, one can only guess to what lengths the regime might go to retain its grip on power. The regime appears increasingly determined to ensure its survival by any means necessary. Chávez has all the normal advantages of incumbency, but can also be expected to use every available administrative resource at his disposal to ensure re-election.
Moreover, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the period following the October election; regardless of who wins, the president will face a daunting challenge in trying to restore normalcy to life for ordinary Venezuelans.
But that is for later. Today, it is of paramount importance that the election is conducted in the most transparent and fair manner possible. In the meantime, both the government and the opposition should be mindful of the many challenges ahead in the run-up to the vote. Unless these challenges are addressed in a serious and responsible manner, there could be serious consequences for the country’s future.
Chávez’s health remains perhaps the biggest enigma of the upcoming election. There are conflicting reports regarding his state of health, with some presenting a grim prognosis. His sudden departure due to illness might cause a political vacuum, which could become conducive to a power grab of one form or another, such as a military coup. Strict adherence to constitutional provisions in any such eventuality is imperative.
Here, the lack of free media is especially alarming and does not bode well for the free and fair election.
It is essential that the opposition can freely air its message and target prospective voters. The lesson has not been lost on the Chávez regime as it seeks to curtail further the opposition’s ability to reach out to voters. The recent attack on Globovision, the only surviving independent station, stands out in this regard. The Supreme Court levied a prohibitive fine on Globovision for its coverage of the government’s handling of a recent prison mutiny. As a result, the station’s future looks bleak.
To make matters worse, recent reports have emerged that regime loyalists have meddled direct in opposition affairs in an effort to sow discord. As recently as June 11, the Supreme Court ruled that Chávez’s allies could be installed at the helm of two political parties that previously opposed him. Such blatantly underhanded tactics should be impermissible in a functioning democracy, and cast serious doubts on the regime’s claim to be holding a democratic election.
We are strongly convinced that no matter who wins the October election, the president-elect will need a free and fair election to provide him with the credibility necessary to rally the public. It is vital, therefore, that the government does not renege in any way on its promise to hold a free and fair vote.
The increasingly murky situation in Venezuela calls for unbiased and accurate reporting of campaign developments. To that end, domestic and international media watchdogs must step up their effort to expose attempts by the government to restrict the media’s ability to operate freely. The authorities should permit the media organizations to play their crucial role in informing Venezuelans and the outside world in an unbiased and accurate fashion.
In order to ensure a level playing field, the Venezuelan opposition should have equal access to media, and official attacks on media outlets must stop. On Election Day itself, the opposition should be able to place observers at any and all polling stations without fear for their safety. In addition, we appeal to the Venezuelan government to act in accordance with established practices and accept the presence of international election observers.
Finally, we encourage the international community to remain firm and persistent in demanding a free and fair election in October.
Frederik Willem de Klerk
André Glucksmann
Vartan Gregorian
Michael Novak
Yohei Sasakawa
Desmond Tutu
Richard von Weizsäcker
Grigory Yavlinsky

Shared Concern Initiative's Report

For a more detailed picture of contemporary Venezuelan politics, we encourage you to read our report “Venezuela on the Eve of Presidential Elections” which is available in the "Other documents" section. The report provides a well-informed analysis of the current political situation in Venezuela in the run-up to the October presidential election and its potential implications for the country and the international community. The report is based on a rich collection of information gathered during the fact-finding mission to Venezuela, as well as from a wide range of open sources available both in Spanish and English.

Roundtable on “Venezuela after the Presidential Election”
Last but not least, the 16th annual Forum 2000 Conference in Prague will host a special roundtable discussion on the outcome of the presidential election in Venezuela. The session will offer an insight into both the imminent political fallout as well as more long-term ramifications for Venezuela's future. The conference takes place in Prague from October 21–23, 2012. More information about its program can be found here.