CARACAS, Venezuela — Despite its high crime rate, Venezuela has historically managed to largely avoid the political bloodshed that plagued so many of its neighbors during the twentieth century. But is that about to change? Last Sunday, supporters of President Hugo Chávez confronted a crowd of activists who had gathered in the state of Barinas to celebrate the campaign of Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate in this Sunday’s presidential election. By day’s end two Capriles organizers lay dead, gunned down in broad daylight by angry chavistas. The government says it is investigating, and so far three suspects have been detained.
The killings make for an ominous portent. The Venezuelan opposition, long crippled by internal divisions, has combined forces to mount the first serious challenge to Chávez in recent memory. Capriles has managed to revitalize previously disenchanted supporters while making inroads into the poor and rural populations that have traditionally served as the president’s base. The ailing president, meanwhile, has been drawing comparatively smaller crowds, in fewer places, and has seen his once insurmountable margins steadily slip away over the past two months. While the polling data remains contradictory, the fact that one of the country’s most respected pollsters is giving Capriles a four-point lead suggests that the opposition finally has at least a chance to unseat the once unassailable president.
All this begs the question: How far might Hugo Chávez be willing to go to defend his revolution?
If Venezuelans can agree on anything, it is that they find it hard to imagine a scenario in which a defeated President Chávez peacefully hands over power. To many, this stems from a sincere belief that the charismatic populist leader, armed with the full resources of the state and still beloved by much of the country, would never actually lose a popular election. Others find it hard to imagine that Chávez, who once famously vowed to defend his revolution with his life, would ever willingly step aside.
He would certainly face little pressure to do so from within his own administration. After so many years in power, the president dominates every branch of government. Even Luisa Estela Morales, the presiding magistrate of the Supreme Court, has publicly proclaimed her belief that the constitutional separation of powers “unacceptably weakens the state.”
Venezuelan elections themselves are quite free — the problem is that they’re far from fair. Four of the five magistrates of the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE), the electoral authority, are avowed and loyal supporters of the president. Under their watch the institution has habitually turned a blind eye to countless illegalities and abuses on the part of the government: the decorating of state buildings with campaign material, the misappropriation of state funds for campaign use, rampant gerrymandering, misuse of emergency powers to commandeer radio and television signals for campaign messaging, and the de facto disenfranchisement of Venezuelan migrs (most of them opponents of the regime) through the closing of the Miami Consulate. By contrast, the CNE recently censured Capriles for wearing a hat based on the official flag of the republic.
Thanks to this high degree of institutional control, government electoral shenanigans have typically taken place prior to the vote itself, while the actual voting and tabulation processes have been allowed to proceed largely free of government intervention. By keeping elections comparatively free Chávez has been able to maintain a democratic veneer without much risk to his own power. Still, the combination of his own poor health, the dire state of the national economy, rampant crime, and a tough challenger could well complicate the outcome for the president this time around.