Dangerous Uncertainty ahead of Venezuela’s Elections
Latin America Report N°42
26 Jun 2012
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Uncertainty over President Hugo Chávez’s health adds to Venezuela’s fragility in the run-up to October’s presidential election. Amid deep polarisation, his illness overshadows the campaign, while the personalised nature of his rule, weakened institutions, and high levels of criminal violence bode ill for stability even beyond the polls. Brazen violation of the constitution would probably require army support, which not even the president can bank on; regional powers, too, would eye such action warily. But with much at stake, upheaval, even a violent political crisis, remain dangerous possibilities. Political leaders should condemn violence and pledge publicly to respect the constitution – whatever lies ahead. Venezuela’s partners in the region should press for international observation and signal clearly they will not condone unconstitutional acts.
The coming months could prove to be Hugo Chávez’s toughest yet. The opposition is united behind a presidential candidate. Its youthful contender, Henrique Capriles – like Chávez – has never lost an election. His moderation, a far cry from opposition tactics of the past, should resonate with swing voters. Moreover, elections in Venezuela, despite Chávez’s narrowing of political space, are not easy to rig. The opposition has won before and in the most recent, the 2010 parliamentary elections, its share of the popular vote matched that of the ruling party.
But a presidential contest against Chávez is a different matter. Under normal conditions, he would likely win. He is a formidable campaigner and still enjoys strong emotional ties to many Venezuelans, especially his poor base. He also has loyal institutions and a powerful state media machine, and openly uses the public purse for campaign purposes, notably by dispensing largesse through social welfare programs. Even opposition loyalists admit a healthy Chávez in full campaign swing would be almost unbeatable.
However, the president faces not only Capriles, but also cancer, which could pose a graver threat to his reign. Only his doctors and close family know the prognosis, but the illness has already required extended absences for treatments in Cuba and has thus far kept him off the campaign trail. The ruling party, with no clear succession mechanism or obvious heir – certainly none that could easily defeat Capriles – is jittery: Chavismo would be in trouble without Chávez. Many around him have much to lose, and while the party maintains public unity, speculation about infighting and jostling for influence behind the scenes is rife. The recently-appointed Council of State, a body of top presidential advisers, could possibly become a mechanism through which to negotiate succession if Chávez’s health fails, but its creation does not appear to have calmed nerves.
The president’s sickness threatens not only his party but also October’s vote and even the country’s stability. His rule is highly personalised, with power concentrated in his office and checks and balances steadily eroded. Institutions are ill-equipped to manage a transition or contain conflict. Politics are polarised, society divided. The proliferation of weapons and of pro-government armed groups offers opportunities for stoking violence. Indeed, sparks have already hit the campaign; shots were fired at an opposition rally in Cotiza, a Caracas suburb in early March. The president’s fiery rhetoric does little to discourage such incidents.
Many in Venezuela, including in the Capriles camp, stress a major breakdown of order is unlikely. Chávez has always rooted his legitimacy in the ballot box and promises to accept the result in October. The electoral authorities are, perhaps, more resistant to his meddling than other institutions. The opposition swears there will be no witch hunts if it wins; if it loses, it appears to have little stomach for a fight, particularly if the vote is clean. Many citizens are tired of confrontation. While senior generals are loyal to the president, with the defence minister suspected of ties to drug-trafficking, the armed forces’ middle and lower ranks would not necessarily follow them into blatant violations of the constitution. Nor would regional powers condone a power grab or welcome Venezuela’s slide from flawed democracy into turmoil or dictatorship.
But Chávez’s illness takes Venezuela onto unknown – and unpredictable – terrain. At stake is not only his rule but also a model of governance that many Venezuelans perceive to serve their interests. One scenario, were the president or a late stand-in defeated, would see the ruling party seek to force the electoral authorities to suppress results or itself stir up violence as a pretext to retain power by extraordinary means. A second, especially if the president’s health should decline rapidly, would have it delay the vote – perhaps through a decision by the partisan judiciary – in order to buy time to select and drum up support for a replacement. Either scenario could stimulate opposi-tion protests and escalating confrontation with government loyalists.
The prospect of upheaval thus cannot be discounted. Political leaders, especially the president, should tone down their rhetoric and condemn any violence. Venezuela’s constitution, passed by Chávez himself, provides for all contingencies, and all political leaders, authorities and the armed forces should pledge publicly to adhere to it.
To reduce the dangerous levels of uncertainty in advance of the presidential election
To the Government of President Chávez, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela and the Armed Forces:
1. Pledge publicly to respect the constitution, including its provisions governing how Venezuela would be ruled were the president’s illness to force him to stand down, the electoral calendar and the electoral results.
2. Provide details on the president’s health and prognosis.
3. Clarify internal procedures for determining a new party leader and presidential candidate should the president’s health so require.
4. Maintain affiliation to the Inter-American Human Rights system, including recognition of the competence of the Inter-American Commission and Court on Human Rights, and publicly commit to the standards of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
To the Electoral Authorities (the Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE):
5. Disseminate widely the provisions in the electoral law that govern how political parties substitute candidates (notably Articles 62-64) and commit to holding elections on 7 October 2012.
To Venezuela’s Regional Partners, in particular the Governments of Brazil and Colombia and of the Bolivarian Alliance for Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and Regional Bodies, notably the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR):
6. Commit, publicly and privately, to constitutional order in Venezuela and press President Chávez and Henrique Capriles to respect the constitution and electoral results.
To diminish polarisation and the risk of violence
To Venezuelan Political Leaders including President Chávez and Henrique Capriles:
7. Avoid divisive and inflammatory language, in particular degrading portrayals of political opponents; pledge publicly, forcefully and frequently to renounce electoral violence around elections; call upon supporters to abstain from violence; and insist that candidates be permitted to campaign throughout the country without personal risk.
To the Electoral Authorities:
8. Enforce the electoral law and their own regulations that prohibit divisive and inflammatory language by politicians, including by fining violators.
To the Venezuelan Government and Law Enforcement Institutions:
9. Hold perpetrators accountable for any violent acts they commit.
To level the playing field and increase the likelihood of free and fair elections in October
To President Chávez, the Venezuelan Government and State Governors:
10. De-link current social welfare programs from the campaign, including by avoiding any inauguration of them by candidates or senior government officials; cease mandatory broadcasts and refrain from inaugurating public works during the campaign.
To the Electoral Authorities:
11. Comply with the requirements in the electoral law to check the use of state resources for campaigning, including sanctioning those violating the law.
12. Invite quickly international observers, ideally from organisations like the European Union, the Carter Center and, the Organisation of American States, to observe all aspects of the October election, including the campaign and dispute resolution. An invitation should be also extended to the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organisms (UNIORE) through its technical support unit, the Centre for Electoral Assistance and Promotion (CAPEL).
13. Accredit opposition agents promptly; facilitate their access to all parts of the electoral process; and remove restrictions on the number of civil society observers from any single organisation.
14. Disseminate rules regulating the electoral security plan (Plan República) and develop, together with the armed forces, a code of conduct for signature by those involved in it.
To the Armed Forces:
15. Ensure all responsible for securing polling stations are properly trained and understand the code of conduct and their mandate; and protect all voters equally during the election.
Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels, 26 June 2012