Venezuela Votes Again

Free? Yes. Fair? Sort of. Reconciling? Unlikely.

Venezuelans are very accustomed to going to the polls. The country has seen forty years of competitive elections in a two-party democracy (1958-1998) and more than a dozen votes during Hugo Chávez’s fourteen-year tenure (1998-2013). After Uruguayans, it is Venezuelans who repeatedly express the highest support for democracy in regional public-opinion polling.

The persistent support among Venezuelans for democratic solutions to the country’s challenges is a bright spot worth underscoring given that voting still generates controversy in this highly polarized society. At root, national and international observer groups agree, the controversy over voting is a political matter, not a technical one.

The stakes of the vote will be high in this Sunday’s April 14 special elections. Nicolas Maduro, the interim president, and Henrique Capriles, a candidate to the presidency in October 2012 and an opposition governor, will face off in a single-ballot contest after an intense month-long campaign to fulfill Hugo Chávez’s six-year term.

Maduro is Chávez‘s handpicked successor and he jointly held the positions of foreign minister and vice-president in the last government. The vice-presidency, though, is an unelected position, and the Supreme Court’s controversial interpretation of the constitution awarding Maduro the interim presidency is one of the opposition’s arguments of unfair advantage in the current campaign.

Anointed by Chávez and now with an incumbent’s advantage, Maduro leads in the polls and is the odds-on favorite to win.

Venezuelans will vote on Sunday in one of the most automated voting systems in the world, which includes fingerprint identification machines, touchscreen voting machines and automatic transmission of the results. The many safeguards tested by international and political party experts in sixteen preelection audits have led opposition leaders and election authorities to declare the vote is secret and the count is honest, or if not, fraud will be detectable.

At the same time, fairness in the campaign has been highly questioned, with the opposition charging that the governing party misuses state resources and pressures government workers to help the campaign. The natural advantages of the incumbency, including the ability to publicize and spend on popular social programs, are compounded by rules giving the government the right to command television time for obligatory presidential broadcasts.

Venezuela is an outlier in the region in refusing to provide any direct or indirect public financing for campaigns, including free media access. Thus, while countries like Mexico, Colombia and Brazil have been focusing on regulations and mechanisms to ensure competitiveness in campaigns, Venezuela has focused on voting technology.

Finally, concerns exist as to whether these practices of what Venezuelans call ventajismo—abuse of state power for political gain—will also be visible in election-day mobilizations.

What is at Stake?

Chávez’s supporters view the April 14 ballot as the opportunity to ensure that the “revolution” continues even without Chávez. Opponents view it as a chance to make a desperately longed for change after fourteen years of the highly-personalized leadership of the revolution’s “comandante.”

Both sides perceive the elections as directly affecting their lifestyles, livelihoods and the fate of the country. Without Chávez on the ballot, though, expectations are for much lower levels of participation than last October’s 80 percent turnout. In fact, pollsters indicate that abstention will be the key to determining victory, and abstention is hard to predict in these unusual campaign circumstances, which are still emotionally charged with Chávez’s death.

The campaign has been filled with accusations, insults and references to the legacy of the “redeemer-liberator”—comparing the departed Chávez to both Jesus Christ and the 19th-century independence leader Simón Bolívar. Charges have also been made about the election process itself, with the government campaign accusing the opposition of orchestrating sabotage or planning to reject the election results; and the opposition campaign charging the government of the abuse of state resources for the campaign and the national election authorities of bias in favor of the government.

In other words, while elections in Venezuela demonstrate the country’s vibrant civic culture, they also demonstrate the country’s merciless political culture. The ramped up rhetoric gives the feel of an all-or-nothing contest, and the personalization of the negative campaign attacks makes postelection reconciliation seem even more elusive.

Elections in any democracy are inherently divisive, but democracy expects societies to come back together the day after to recognize the results and move forward with the task of governing. With the high levels of distrust and the tendency to disrespect opponents, this task will be even more challenging in Venezuela, and dangerous if it is not met.

The victor, whether it is Maduro or Capriles, will face serious governing challenges, both in satisfying competing demands from within their own camps and from the national realities of a sluggish economy, looming deficits and rampant public-security problems. These anxiety-producing uncertainties for citizens bombarded with recriminatory discourse run the risk of generating unpredictable behavior.

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