Friday, September 3, 2010
If the polls are reliable, it seems that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez will be tested on September 26. For the defenders of Venezuelan democracy, the test will come the morning after.
Public opinion polls leading up to September 26 elections in Venezuela show that leftist President Hugo Chávez may have to resort to blatant fraud in order to deny the democratic opposition substantial gains in the national assembly. Presidential palace insiders are so panicked by recent polls that they have muzzled Chávez, lest his incendiary rhetoric energize the growing opposition vote. His closest advisors are scrambling to be able to blame their bombastic leader for bad news on election day. The very public death Tuesday of hunger striker Franklin Brito, a 49-year-old farmer protesting the regime's expropriation of his family's land, will do even more to rally the opposition and put Chávez on the defensive.
Chávez has stacked the deck against the opposition—denying them fair access to the media, using state resources to fund official candidates, and imposing a formula that gives disproportionate representation to states where he is strongest. Despite these unfair advantages, recent polls suggest that the regime will have to resort to brazen manipulation to undercount opposition votes and to steal assembly seats.
Although Chávez handily won election in 1998, a decade of mismanagement, notorious food shortages, spiraling crime rates, electricity blackouts, economic chaos, and human rights violations have taken a drastic toll on his approval ratings. Although most opposition leaders know that Chávez will stop at nothing to retain power, they are buoyed by public polls giving them a double-digit lead over Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
Despite unfair advantages, recent polls suggest that the Chávez regime will have to resort to brazen manipulation to undercount opposition votes and to steal assembly seats.
Chávez’s advisors must be pretending to believe a private poll conducted for the palace in late July that gives the government’s slate a 48–30 percent advantage. But even that friendly poll spells trouble for Chávez, because Venezuelans are clearly eager to make a change. The vast majority of Venezuelans questioned consider the assembly important, but about 70 percent say that the Chávista-dominated legislature has done little or nothing to resolve the country’s problems. Moreover, that official poll found that voter interest in the assembly election is increasing and that opposition voters are more energized than government supporters.
In private sessions with Chávez, his advisors have put him on notice that opposition enthusiasm could increase turnout, and those voters who say now that they are “undecided” could break against the regime. In short, Chávez’s advisors have told him not to believe his own polls and warned that any misstep by the regime’s campaign could have dire consequences.
A decade of mismanagement, notorious food shortages, spiraling crime rates, electricity blackouts, economic chaos, and human rights violations have taken a drastic toll on Chávez’s approval ratings.
Nervous palace pundits have lectured Chávez that his trademark incendiary rhetoric will whip up the opposition vote. So they have forced him to suspend his provocative “Alo Presidente” national broadcasts and urged him to stop taunting his political opponents. (The palace recently announced that Chávez would not speak this past weekend so that Venezuelans could enjoy the women’s world baseball championship; his weekly program is scheduled to return to the airwaves right after the elections.) In order to convince opposition voters that their vote is futile, Chávez will stress the inevitability of his Bolivarian revolution, and his candidates have been ordered to do more listening than talking in their campaigns.
The regime also is desperate for cash. In just the last year, Venezuela’s international reserves are down about 20 percent and the state-run oil company’s profits are down 52 percent due to falling oil prices and disastrous management. A $4 billion payment from the Chinese that Chávez was counting on weeks ago has been held up by Beijing, according to sources in the foreign ministry. Just as the regime was hoping to flood the streets with election-year spending, a cash-strapped government may leave its supporters disappointed.
Nervous palace pundits have lectured Chávez that his trademark incendiary rhetoric will whip up the opposition vote.
Years ago, Chávez could easily buy electoral victories, but in 2007 he failed to win voter approval of constitutional reforms, and in 2008 he lost key governorships and the mayor’s office in Caracas. In the case of the defeated reforms, army chiefs stepped in to insist that Chávez accept the defeat of measures that trampled on the independence of the military. In the case of local and state defeats, the margins were too wide for Chávez to cover up the loss; so he accepted the loss but immediately stripped the elected opposition officials of political power and revenue.
Today, Chávez is hoping that his decade-long purge of the military leadership has brought the security forces under his thumb. Moreover, he has left little to chance and has taken control of the electoral machinery. If he is forced to steal votes in a blatant way, the opposition and the military may have to step up to defend the popular will. And, if he is forced to cede assembly seats to his opponents, Chávez has made it clear that he will strip the rubber-stamp body of its remaining power.
If the polls are reliable, it seems that Chávez will be tested on September 26. For the defenders of Venezuelan democracy, the test will come the morning after.
Roger F. Noriega was Ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-2003 and Assistant Secretary of State from 2003-2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents U.S. and foreign clients.
FURTHER READING: Noriega earlier questioned “Will the U.S. Hand Chávez a License to Kill?” insisted on “Calling a State Sponsor a State Sponsor” of terrorism, explained how “Hondurans, Not Zelaya, Will Decide Their Future,” and reviewed the Obama administration’s policies in South America: “Cuba Si, Honduras No?” Elsewhere, he discussed “What Chávez Wants With Us” and “Chávez and China: Challenging U.S. Interests.”
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.