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Venezuela: The Coming Elections

26 June 2012: Silke Pfeiffer, Crisis Group's Colombia/Andes Project Director, discusses the upcoming presidential election in Venezuela, where current President Hugo Chavez faces both a united opposition and cancer. 3:50

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Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I’m Ben Dalton, Communications & IT Officer here in Washington, D.C.

The official campaign for Venezuela’s presidency will start in several days. Elections on October 7th will pit President Hugo Chavez against Henrique Capriles a candidate of the united opposition. Both candidates started campaigning several months ago; however, President Chavez not only faces Capriles, but also cancer. While the severity of his illness remains a secret, it has already required extended absences for treatments in Cuba. I spoke earlier with Silke Pfeiffer, Crisis Group’s Colombia/Andes Project Director, about what impact Chavez’s illness might have on the elections.

So Silke, what does President Chavez’s illness mean for the election?

In the first place, his sickness really overshadows the campaign, as nobody really knows how serious it is and what its implications might be for his candidacy or a possible third term of his. It has reportedly generated a lot of nervousness in his ruling party. Many around him have much to lose, and there is a lot of speculation about infightings and succession struggles.

But it does not only overshadow the campaign. It also exposes the country’s fragility and its lack of preparedness for any kind of potential transition. President Chavez has, under his rule, concentrated a lot of power in the presidency. He has eroded checks and balances, and the institutions in the country are ill-equipped to contain any possible conflict, which could break out over the elections, given how much is at stake. If we look at the way society and politics are polarized, and if we look at the high level of criminal violence in the country, we cannot entirely discount violence around the elections.

Do you think that the elections will be clean?

Venezuela’s elections are far from being fair, given all the advantages of incumbency that President Chavez fully exploits. But they are reasonably competitive, and they are difficult to rig. Venezuela has one of the world’s most technologically advanced voting systems. And compared to other institutions, the electoral authority, the Consejo Nacional Electoral, is perhaps the institution which is less vulnerable to government interference. Concerns persist, but a massive fraud can probably be discarded.

That does not mean that the electoral authority will be immune to any kind of government pressure. In fact, a lot will depend on whether the Consejo will stick, first, to the electoral calendar and, second, to the results in October. Of course, in this context, international observation would be crucial.

How likely is it that Venezuela will face trouble in October, when the elections occur?

It depends on a lot of factors, starting with the evolution of Chavez’s health in the next months. We have to remember that at stake is not only his rule. At stake is a model of governance that many Venezuelans perceive to have served their interests. On the one hand, we cannot discard sparks of violence and upheaval. Now, on the other hand, we think a major breakdown of order, for instance, as a result of a blatant violation of the constitution by a defeated president or a late stand-in is unlikely as well. Firstly, important players in the region, allies of Venezuela starting with Brazil, but also Colombia or UNASUR, would hardly condone any power grab. And secondly, very importantly, any massive violation of the constitution would have to be supported by the military, a support which is far from being secured.

Edited for print.

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