The Upcoming Venezuelan Elections Need not Be a Coronation for Chávez

With a political climate still marred by the recollections of bitter past confrontations, such as the failed opposition-led coup in April 2002, the ensuing general strike, and bitter, partisan divisions between the ruling party and the opposition, all may not be lost at next Sunday’s presidential contest. While President Chávez, perhaps prophetically, acts as if a coronation awaits him, the modus operandi of the opposition, led by Manuel Rosales, viciously discredits Chávez by using a mélange of invented tales, gross distortions, painful exaggerations, and outright lies, rather than try to deal with Venezuela’s complex realities. Furthermore Chávez’s presidential opponent Rosales, routinely accuses the country’s strongman of seeking to erect a dictatorship. Meanwhile, the government alleges coup plots and near-traitorous behavior by the opposition.

Notwithstanding such a hostile atmosphere, the procedural technicalities involved in preparing for the December ballot, although caviled over, seem to be facilitating a free and fair election. Pedro Nikken, the director of Ojo Electoral – one of the most widely respected electoral monitoring bodies in Venezuela – recently told a Washington audience that up to this point, whatever imperfections had been observed were not significant enough to invalidate the December 3 contest. According to Nikken, the electoral registration list “is not great, but neither unacceptable to accommodate free and fair elections.”

In a climate of repeated allegations of wrongdoing and conspiracy, few opportunities to ululate have been passed up by either side. Venezuelan electoral legislation stipulates that voting is to be conducted electronically. This has caused considerable concern within the opposition’s marrow, although electronic voting machines have not proven to be a serious problem in previous ballots. As a safeguard, the National Electoral Council (CNE) recently authorized election officials to fingerprint voters. This was to be done even though this process would prompt apprehension over privacy issues. Intended to avert duplicate voting, fingerprint registration also raised questions over its reliability. This brought about an audit by Ojo Electoral, which reaffirmed the machines’ dependability, stressing that the process poses no major risk of a breach of confidentiality.

Even if the government’s intent would prove malignant, the presence of hundreds of foreign and domestic observers throughout the nation – at almost every polling station – should prevent any blatant irregularities. On November 15, the CNE approved observation teams from the EU, with delegations also coming from the OAS and the Carter Center.

While insuring that the basic conditions for a fair electoral outcome are in place, a number of potentially disruptive issues must be resolved in order to improve the country’s fundamental political tone. The infuriating reluctance of both sides to acknowledge the respective legitimacy of the other clearly impedes any meaningful debate and by default, creates an aura of fraud surrounding what should be the quintessential moment for a fully-fledged, functioning democracy. Nor do the anti-Chávez cheap-shots from a Bush administration, whose Latin American policy can only be compared to Iraq in its irrelevance and the absence of even a semblance of professionalism, help very much.
The deportment of the losing side in the wake of the election will prove crucial to the ongoing vitality of Venezuelan democracy. To advocate a durable democracy – not just one that glitters on Election Day – the defeated candidate, who in this case will almost certainly be Rosales, must continue to participate fully in the country’s political life. This would mean dismissing all thought of dropping out of the political process or sulking over some shortcoming, real or apparent, in protest against one government policy or another. Therefore, it is imperative that both Chávez and Rosales prepare for any outcome, and not cheat their fellow Venezuelans out of their citizenship rights.

Each side should be allowed to provide vocal, constitutionally-steeped challenges after the December ballot has been counted. This would be in contrast to the experiences endured in the days leading up to the 2005 National Assembly elections, when the four major opposition parties took the capricious action of bailing out from the elections altogether, citing the illegitimacy of the CNE or some other pretext, instead of engaging in constructive dialogue.

After the votes have been counted and the election certified by the monitors, the defeated candidate should be prepared to concede his loss and acknowledge the legitimacy of the result. This scenario would signal that a giant step toward a fully participatory society, resting soundly on a constitutional basis, has been taken. This will prove to be a rare virtue in an era of crude politics, but one projecting a hopeful sign for the country’s future.