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Dangerous Uncertainty Ahead of Venezuela Elections

Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels  |   26 Jun 2012

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Uncertainty over President Hugo Chávez’s health deepens Venezuela’s fragility ahead of presidential elections in October and sparks fears of instability.

Dangerous Uncertainty Ahead of Venezuela Elections, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the build-up to the polls and the risks surrounding them. The contest pits Chávez against Henrique Capriles, the candidate for a united opposition. Despite Capriles’s youth and his energetic campaigning, Chávez is the favourite. After well over a decade in office, he still enjoys strong emotional ties to many Venezuelans and also has the advantages of incumbency, particularly loyal state institutions and the public purse, which he openly uses for his re-election campaign, notably through massive welfare spending.

The president’s cancer overshadows electoral preparations, however. Diagnosed more than a year ago and thus far keeping him away from the campaign trail, it could be a graver threat to his rule than Capriles. The illness has unsettled his ruling party: with no succession mechanism or obvious heir, Chavismo could be in trouble without Chávez, and many around him would have much to lose. His cancer puts the country on edge too. Under President Chávez’s watch, power has been concentrated in the executive and checks and balances steadily eroded. Politics are polarised, society divided and levels of criminal violence high, while the proliferation of weapons and of pro-government armed groups offer easy opportunities for stoking violence.

 “President Chávez’s illness exposes the country’s fragility and its ill-preparedness for a potential transition”, says Silke Pfeiffer, Crisis Group’s Colombia/Andes Project Director. “While a major breakdown is unlikely, Venezuela faces rocky months ahead, and upheaval, or even a violent political crisis, remain dangerous possibilities”.

Brazen violations of the constitution would not be easy – probably requiring army support, which not even the president could bank on. Regional powers would also eye such action warily. In any case, Chávez has always rooted his legitimacy in the ballot box and promises to accept the result in October. Venezuelan elections are not usually easy to rig, and the electoral authorities are, perhaps, less vulnerable to pressure than some other institutions.

But Chávez’s illness takes Venezuela onto unknown – and unpredictable – terrain. One scenario, were the president or a late stand-in defeated in an upset, would see the ruling party seek to force the electoral authorities to suppress results. A second, especially if the president’s health should decline rapidly, would have it delay the vote in order to buy time to select and mobilise support for a replacement. Either scenario could spark opposition protests and escalating confrontation with government loyalists.

“Venezuela’s constitution provides for all contingencies, and political and military leaders must pledge publicly to respect it – whatever lies ahead”, says Javier Ciurlizza, Crisis Group’s Latin America and Caribbean Program Director. “Venezuela’s partners in the region, meanwhile, should press for international observation and signal clearly they would condemn any violations of the constitutional order”.

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