Venezuela is holding on 7 October a closely contested presidential election that president Hugo Chávez hopes will extend his almost 14-year leadership until 2019, but which could also see opposition candidate Henrique Capriles win by a small margin.
IHS Global Insight perspective
Venezuela is holding presidential elections on 7 October in which incumbent president Hugo Chávez is seeking to extend his almost 14 years in power for a further six years, and is being challenged by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, who is representing a single united opposition bloc.
The pivotal presidential election is the most contested in Venezuela's recent history – Chávez and Capriles are running neck-and-neck in two horse race that will be defined by the 'undecided vote'.
The risk of unrest and violence remains should one of the two candidates refuse to recognise in a timely manner the victory of the other. Direct or indirect military intervention cannot be ruled out should Capriles win by a small margin or if reports of electoral fraud are credible.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles closed their electoral campaigns ahead of the pivotal 7 October presidential election yesterday (4 October), with big rallies in which thousands of their supporters attended. Chávez closed his campaign in Caracas, Venezuela's capital, with thousands of his supporters filling the downtown Bolivar Avenue. The same location had been witness on 30 September to a rally held by the opposition following the killing of three opposition activists by pro-government supporters in the western state of Barinas. Capriles in turn decided to close his campaign in the city of Barquisimeto, the capital of the western Lara state. Chávez is looking to extend his leadership until 2019, taking his stay in power to almost two decades. Capriles, a 40-year-old lawyer and former governor of Miranda, Venezuela's second most populous state, represents a united opposition platform coalition organised under the umbrella of the Table of Democratic Unity (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática: MUD). Capriles represents the biggest challenge Chávez has had during his almost 14 years in power in an alternative, fresh and renewed opposition that does not identify with the traditional opposition parties. Capriles is proposing a model of development for economic growth with social inclusion in the vein of the one implemented by former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to replace Chávez Socialism of the 21st Century, also known as the Bolivarian Revolution.
President Hugo Chávez in Caracas on 4 October 2012.
The political campaign
An ill but apparently recovering Chávez has struggled to campaign amid a deterioration in Venezuela's economic and social problems – such as double-digit inflation; corruption; rampant crime; food, water and energy shortages; fires at refineries; and other operational constraints – allowing the opposition to capitalise on growing discontent. Also, Venezuela's battered oil industry, which has faced increasing operational constraints, saw several accidents in the last two months that underlined the country's crumbling infrastructure as a result of lack of maintenance during Chávez's tenure.
Late August saw an explosion and subsequent fires at a 640,000-barrel per day (bpd) refinery in Falcon state, northern Venezuela, in which more than 40 people were killed – including 20 members of the National Guard – and dozens more injured. In September, another accident was reported at the 146,000-bpd El Palito refinery, located in the northern city of Puerto Cabello, in the industrial Carabobo state, when the seals of two naphtha storage tanks were set on fire.
The political campaign has been much polarised and not necessarily transparent. The violent events to boycott opposition campaign events, including one in March, which saw pro-government groups in Cotiza, Caracas, shoot at Capriles and his supporters. Another clash on 2 September between pro-government and opposition groups near the airport of Puerto Cabello left an undetermined number of people injured when almost 400 pro-government supporters staged a road block where Capriles was due to lead a march. This came just days after the cancellation of an opposition electoral campaign in La Pastora, in the Libertador municipality of Caracas, due to the presence of pro-government armed groups threatening to attack Capriles and his supporters, and amid calls by the Chávez's opposition for him to publicly distance himself from pro-government violent groups.
Conatel, the telecoms regulator, took off air live broadcast speeches of Capriles presenting his programme of government at least twice, to replace them with a mandatory broadcasting of Chávez's messages. All these events had been underlying the growing anxieties on the government's side over the increased perception on the ground that Capriles continued to gain a political following. Indeed, the effects of Chávez's weakened political campaign, along with Capriles' door-to-door political campaigning, have also been reflected in the polls.
The most recent polls give a confused picture, but suggest the race is wide open. According to a poll by Consultores 21 polling firm, released on 27 September, Capriles is leading in voters' preferences with 46.5% compared to Chávez's 45.7%. Another poll, which was released on the same day by Hinterlaces intelligence agency, gave Chávez 50% and Capriles 34%, with 14% deciding not to answer. A poll by Datanalisis polling organisation, released on 25 September, suggested that Chávez had 49.9% of the voters' preferences against Capriles' 39%, while the undecided vote was estimated at 11.6%.
The difference in results between the polls reflects the difficulties of accurately forecasting the 7 October election. The wide variation between the two poll results could reflect methodological flaws derived from the sectors of the population surveyed, or the locations in which the surveys were conducted. The high number of people who refused to answer in the Hinterlaces poll (14%) and the number of still-undecided voters in the Datanalisis poll (11.6%), could also reflect interviewees' fear of retaliation from the authorities. This is often found among civil servants, those who have government contracts, or have, in some way, benefited from cash transfer programmes provided by the Chávez administration. Interestingly, if the number of those who refused to answer in the Hinterlaces poll and those undecided in the Datanalisis poll are added to the vote preferences for Capriles, the results are quite similar to those shown by Consultores 21. If that is the case, both candidates are running neck-and-neck.
This is key, as the opposition won more than 51% of the votes in the September 2010 parliamentary election, although the constituency boundaries meant that this translated to only 40% of the seats in the current National Assembly, with the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela: PSUV) securing 60% of the votes. As such, if the election is free and fair, the opposition could potentially win.
Brothers in arms
After 13 years of Chávez's rule, the armed forces are the only institution with the capacity to force through desired political outcomes. This means that the military has the capacity to put pressure on the different political actors to obtain certain outcomes. As such, the armed forces will be the key arbiter of the election process, especially if the opposition manages to win by a small margin or if there are events of violence and unrest that compromise political instability. A refusal by Chávez to accept an eventual victory from the opposition could lead to crisis of unprecedented consequences, especially within the armed forces, where some institutional factions could make clear to the High Command that that the will of Venezuelan voters must be respected. Such direct or indirect military intervention would force Chávez to recognise the results.
Factions led by Minister of Defence General Rangel Silva and other top civil servants who have been included in designations by the United States Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) would certainly pose a threat to Capriles taking over, but ultimately IHS Global Insight assesses that the military would abide by the constitution and enforce an eventual victory of the opposition.
A military-backed interim government to rule between the announcement of the election results and the inauguration of an eventual new administration on 10 January 2013 should the opposition win is certainly a possibility.
Outlook and implications
Both Chávez and Capriles are now running neck-and-neck and the election will be defined by the 'undecided vote'. The election results are almost impossible to predict. The risk of unrest and violence remains should one of the two candidates refuse to recognise in a timely manner the victory of the other. For that reason, the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral: CNE) has a key role in making sure that the results are provided with no unnecessary delays. If elections are fair, something that is still not clear, Capriles could win by a small margin. However, the most likely outcome is that Chávez wins the election, as despite his poor health, he is still running the show. Chávez does still retain broad electoral appeal, not to mention a strong advantage thanks to his domination of political institutions, including the CNE. The country's weak political institutions will be gravely tested and may prove unable to cope either with an opposition victory. If the election is fair, it is clear that Capriles would recognise an eventual defeat. However, if there is evidence of a manipulation of the electoral process, including the possibility of an energy shortage taking place in rural areas (affecting the electronic vote), his stance could change. Likewise, it is not yet clear what stance will be adopted by Chávez and some members of the military high command should Capriles win the election. Direct or indirect military intervention cannot be ruled out should Capriles win by a small margin or if reports of electoral fraud are credible. By all means the armed forces will prevent clashes between pro-government supporters, including Chávista non-state armed groups or 'colectivos' and opposition supporters.