Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Upcoming Elections in Venezuela.

The Upcoming Elections in Venezuela.
By Nicole M. Ferrand.*

On November 23, 2008 regional elections will be held in Venezuela. Citizens will head to the polls to elect 22 governors, 328 mayors as well as 233 legislators to the state legislative councils and 13 councilors to district committees — including indigenous representation — totaling 603 positions. These will be the first elections to be held since President Hugo Chavez founded the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV in Spanish).

For a majority of Venezuelans these elections are an opportunity to put a stop to Chavez’s plans to stay in power and impose a socialist model in the country and they are encouraged by the polls which give the opposition the upper hand in many localities.

Although Chávez is not running, he is vociferously campaigning for the PSUV’s candidates. His public appearances have been marked by a violent and threatening rhetoric which has convinced voters that he is afraid of losing important positions to the opposition.
“Mobsters, mafia, thugs, shameless, crooks, traitors, imperial pawns, bandits, thugs, cowards, drug dealers or terrorists" are some of the epithets that Chávez has used to label opposition candidates throughout the electoral campaign. He has gone as far as publicly saying that if the opposition wins the upcoming elections, he will launch a “military plan” or “Plan Chávez” to be deployed in the states and municipalities in which his party has been defeated. “No one should forget that this is a peaceful revolution, yet it is one that bears arms.” “I beg you not to betray our people” and warned that only two options exist: “A socialist nation or death.”[1] For Chávez, the upcoming election is pivotal to secure his hold on power.

Why the Violent Speeches?
Many believe that the increasingly negative polls that give independents favorable results are troubling Hugo Chavez and are convinced that he is using the same strategy that has worked for him in the past: in order to win he needs to polarize voters. All along his ultimate goal has been to change the Constitution so that he can stay in power for life and to achieve this, the PSUV needs to score enough votes in November.

He has directly attacked candidates such as Pablo Pérez: “Now they want to put an imbecile in the governor’s office to do whatever he (current Zulia state Governor Manuel Rosales) says,” and “I am speaking nothing but the truth; now he (Rosales) wants to have an imbecile as governor, an imbecile who cannot even speak properly.” In reference to the opposition candidate to the Mayor’s Office of the Sucre Municipality Carlos Ocariz, Chávez said: “Someone named Ocariz, who wants to be mayor of Petare, a rich boy. We are going to swat away those rich kids, born with a silver spoon in their mouths.”

The states at stake are Zulia, Miranda, Carabobo, Lara, Táchira, Anzoátegui, Bolivar and Aragua. Of these, all but Zulia are today in the hands of Chavismo and according to the polls, it is likely that more than half will fall into the oppositions’ hands. Of the 24 regional districts at stake, the Chavismo holds 22 and the opposition holds only Margarita and the wealthy state of Zulia.

According to the Electoral Commission which Chavez controls, he was reelected as President of Venezuela in 2006 with 63% of the vote. He has appealed to the poor through his populist measures funded by constantly increasing oil prices. At the time, he was on top of the world but since then he has lost many battles. In December, 2007, his wish to change the constitution and to stay in power was defeated in the referendum and according to the results, he will have to leave the Presidency in 2013. In addition the special powers he pursued to secure a socialist model were rejected by the voters.

He knows his popularity has suffered major setbacks in recent months and that this will be seen in the results of November 23rd. Among his least popular moves was the closing down of the RCTV television station, whose soap operas were a favorite among many nationals including Chavista voters. In addition, public services and utilities are collapsing and in recent months Venezuela has had three national blackouts which lasted several hours each. The health system has been increasingly criticized and major cities are literally under garbage. The fall in the price of oil and inflation reaching 40% as well as high crime rates are only making matters worse.

Internationally, he also suffered a loss of support. When the laptops of FARC leader, Raul Reyes, were seized in Ecuador, evidence surfaced that Chavez was a long time FARC supporter and had even financed their internal war, giving them sanctuary inside Venezuela, supplying them with weapons and actively working with them to undermine the government of Colombia. This information didn’t sit well with Venezuelans or with many in the international community.

All of the above plus his enormous expenditures on advanced weaponry have made people uneasy about having him as President and fear his totalitarian style and increased radicalization to the left. They know Venezuela and Chavez are considered pariahs by many democracies in the world and emphatically disagree with their president’s choice of new allies such as Iran and Russia since they have nothing in common. They want to follow a new path towards progress and Chavez is clearly taking them in the opposite direction.

Banning Candidates
On August 5, 2008, in an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court ruled that the 270 candidates that had been banned from running in November’s state and municipal elections were constitutional. The list of barred candidates was issued by Venezuela’s anti-corruption chief and Chavez’s ally, Clodosbaldo Russian. He said the law gave him the right to impose restrictions on potential candidates “suspected of corruption.” The opposition was and is still adamantly saying that the ban was unconstitutional because none of the potential candidates have been convicted of a crime, stating that the disqualification was politically motivated since it affected key opponents of the PSUV. Even the European Parliament condemned the government’s move as a violation of human rights.

In spite of this, the opposition has managed to unite and run single candidates in most districts and is likely to win in Zulia, Carabobo, and Miranda. If we add the Caracas metropolitan district, the opposition could obtain almost 40% of the vote.

Manuel Rosales
The focus of Chavez’s rage is the former presidential challenger, current Zulia State governor and now an opposition candidate for Mayor of Venezuela’s western city of Maracaibo, Manuel Rosales. Rosales has accused the regional police of engaging in a politically-motivated campaign of intimidation “because the central government in Caracas knows that it is about to lose on November 23.[2] The Chavez administration has threatened to either disqualify or jail him which would remove Mr. Rosales from the political scene. This would make it very difficult for the opposition to have a unified leader to fight the President’s intentions to change the Constitution. In addition when the Comptroller says that the governor of Zulia could be banned for fifteen years from running for office, it means that even if the “corruption” accusations have not been proven, authorities already have formed an opinion as to what the penalty will be.[3] Chavez knows that if Rosales does a good job as he did as governor, he may well challenge him in the next presidential elections.

[1] Chávez's War. November 7, 2008. El Universal, Venezuela.
[2] Chavez government campaign of intimidation seeks to link Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales with State Lottery fraud. October 22, 2008. P-R Inside.

[3] Chavez government campaign of intimidation seeks to link Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales with State Lottery fraud. October 22, 2008. P-R Inside.
“There is a campaign of intimidation, a putrefaction, a dirty war against us in Zulia.” Rosales has said. The authorities are trying to claim that in Zulia a fraud has been committed, but they are grasping allegations out of thin air by linking Manuel Rosales with the bandits and thieves they are, without shame, themselves,” declared Rosales who is being accused of allowing the permanent presence of paramilitaries and arms-traffickers in the State.[1]

When asked about the reasons Chavez feels threatened by him, Rosales responded: “Zulia, both strategically and politically, is the most important state in Venezuela ... it has the largest electoral base ... and they (Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela-PSUV) want to win there taking advantage of the fact that I am stepping down from the governorship. They have lately discovered that Pablo Perez (the opposition candidate to replace Rosales) has a 16 to 20 point advantage in all the surveys. The other thing is that I also remain a candidate for Mayor of Maracaibo, which is, in electoral terms, extremely important, and we have a 42 to 45 point advantage there, too. He (Chavez) sure got angry when we denounced their eagerness to put the Sierra del Perija (the northernmost branch of the Andes, marking the Venezuelan border with Colombia) at the service of the Colombian FARC and, of course, we’ve been unwavering in our criticism of his personal militaristic projects taking place behind a facade of democracy.”[2]

It is clear that the Chavista camp is now worried. Although intimidation and consolidation of his authority has brought him results in the past, at this stage to show this nervousness just days before the elections, seems not to be a strategy but the result of desperation as polls show that the PSUV will lose ground and that Chavez will emerge weaker after November 23. He has even gone so far as to declare that he might send tanks onto the streets in the state of Carabobo if the opposition wins.

Chavez’s tactics are anything but democratic and no international agency, not even the Carter Center, should validate this election as free and fair because it clearly has not been and will not be. This is especially true if the results drastically differ from what the polls show which currently give the opposition a clear lead over the PSUV. It should surprise no one if Rosales is jailed or detained before the elections. November 23rd is an opportunity for Venezuelans to express their disapproval of Chavez and his ever more dictatorial actions. If he is not stopped now, it will become increasingly more difficult to stop him in the future.

*Nicole M. Ferrand is a research analyst and editor of “The Americas Report” of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC. (www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org). She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University.

[1] Ibid.
[2] Ibid.

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