Venezuela’s political institutions are “ill-equipped to manage a transition,” a new report suggests, raising the prospect of violence and uncertainty during the presidential election campaign.
After almost 14 years in office, Hugo Chávez “faces his most serious test” at the forthcoming October 7 poll, writes Francisco Toro.
“Going up against Henrique Capriles (right) — an energetic, young governor who’s worked hard to establish himself as a post-ideological solutions guy — Venezuela’s ailing, aging autocrat sure seems jittery,” notes Toro, editor of CaracasChronicles.com:
Last week, faced with a pro-Capriles march through La Vega, an iconic slum in Caracas’s gritty West Side, a Chavista heartland, the government sent riot police out to stop what it called an “invasion.” Never mind that the march’s organizers had notified the police over a month earlier…. This was a desperate attempt, really, to counter Capriles’s entire campaign strategy, which has hinged on convincing disaffected former Chavistas that they will be in safe hands with him. Never before has Chávez faced a rival who reaches out so boldly to his own supporters, asking them forthrightly for their support and showing them that all the government’s fear-mongering about the return of the big, bad capitalist opposition is overblown.
Election officials are “drafting an agreement to be signed by presidential candidates that aims to maintain peace and fairness” during the election campaign, the WSJ’s Ezequiel Minaya reports:
On Thursday, the head of the National Electoral Council, Tibisay Lucena, invited candidates to a gathering to sign the agreement. The three-point pact calls on them to respect the vote results, comply with election rules and discourage violence. …..
“Once again, unanimously, the National Electoral Council…categorically rejects the acts of violence that would disrupt the events of the electoral campaign,” Ms. Lucena said.
Vicente Diaz, viewed as the sole opposition voice on the five-member election board, followed Ms. Lucena’s comments with a dissenting opinion on the proposed agreement. “It’s an incomplete accord, I do not accompany my colleagues,” he said. Mr. Diaz said that government authorities should also be called on to uphold electoral norms.
Chávez is ahead in most opinion surveys, but two recent polls show the candidates running level.
The La Vega incident highlights concerns, raised in a new report from the International Crisis Group that “upheaval, even a violent political crisis, remain dangerous possibilities.” In the event of electoral defeat, the ruling Chávista elite may refuse to cede power, the ICG suggests, for fear of losing lucrative financial assets, or being prosecuted for drug trafficking.
Chávez recently insisted that “a thousand buffaloes will pass through the eye of a needle” before he would leave office.
The Crisis Group highlights two of the main factors behind the high murder rate, notes Hannah Stone, a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas – the widespread availability of weapons, and existence of pro-government armed militias – as aggravating the risk of instability:
These armed groups take two forms, according to the report; organizations known as “colectivos,” mostly based in Caracas, and the militias, set up by Chávez in 2005, and consisting of tens of thousands of citizens who are supposed to be the fifth component of the armed forces. The colectivos were highlighted as a main driver of violence by the Metropolitan Observatory on Citizen Security (OMSC) earlier this year, which said that these groups control some areas of the capital as “micro-states,” refusing to let police enter. Crisis Group warns that, should the election go against them, these colectivos could foment violence either independently or on behalf of the government.
The record levels of violence where highlighted by Venezuelan activist Thor Halvorssen, who recently told the UN Human Rights Council that his own mother was shot by Chavista security forces. He founded and heads the Human Rights Foundation, which monitors political trends and human rights.
“In Venezuela, exercising free speech is fraught with risks. Political dissent is criminalized. Property is capriciously and unlawfully seized,” he told the council. “Opposition politicians are disqualified from elections due to false accusations. Journalists are harassed and media critical of the government is simply shut down. Judges are fired and even sent to prison when the President dislikes their rulings.”
His speech was delivered as part of UN Watch’s international campaign against Chavez’s bid for an HRC seat.
Prospects for a peaceful transition are also jeopardized by Chávez‘s highly personalized rule, which has seen “power concentrated in his office and checks and balances steadily eroded,” the ICG report suggests.
“Institutions are ill-equipped to manage a transition or contain conflict. Politics are polarized, society divided.”
Furthermore, Toro observes, ‘Venezuela’s military “has been politicized to the point that it now chants openly political slogans during the Independence Day parade,” and two Supreme Court judges appointed by Chávez recently defected, telling lurid tales of political interference in the judiciary.”
While senior military figures are openly committed to loyal to Chávez, including the defense minister linked to drug-trafficking cartels, the ICG suggests that the “middle and lower ranks would not necessarily follow them into blatant violations of the constitution.”
Capriles yesterday urged the armed forces to remain politically neutral, a few days after Chavez appeared at a military graduation ceremony to accuse the opposition candidate of provoking violence by organizing in poor neighborhoods.
“The current government wants to confuse political rights with party activities, showing disrespect for soldiers and their families,” Capriles said. “The cult of personality they try to establish in our armed forces makes it lose its bearing, that’s not the mission of a commander in chief.”
“We cannot permit drug-trafficking, guerrillas and paramilitary groups to infiltrate and use our institutions,” he said – an oblique reference to defense minister Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, a veteran military figure who features on a U.S. government blacklist for alleged collusion in narco-trafficking.
But Chavez’s battle with cancer “takes Venezuela onto unknown – and unpredictable – terrain,” says the ICG:
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 opposition protests and escalating confrontation with government loyalists.
“All this uncertainty and tension is bringing out the contradictions of Chavez’s politics,” writes Toro:
Like his mentors in Havana, Chávez wants to hold up his government as a model for others in the region. Yet he has never tried to hide that he considers the electoral route as second best — as what he has had to settle for when he failed to take control of the state by force of arms……Perhaps this mix of disdain for democracy and opportunism explains why Chávez has invested much of the political capital he derived from the label “democratically elected” into systematically assaulting Venezuela’s democratic institutions.
“In the event of an electoral upset or further deterioration of his health, it is not easy to picture the president or his allies handing over power to a man they consistently call a majunche (low life),” the ICG report concludes:
Many around Chávez are accustomed to the benefits of office; some may fear legal consequences without him in power; millions of citizens benefit from the social programs; poor neighborhoods look back to repression in the pre-Chávez era with trepidation.
Much is at stake for all of them. Few entirely trust the promises of the Capriles team, let alone of less compromising opposition elements, to avoid purges or retribution and leave social programs intact. Nor is it clear at what point Chavista bending of rules would pose an immediate threat to stability or become a step too far for parts of the military, Latin American leaders or the Venezuelan population. The ruling party could find itself playing a game of chicken with Venezuela’s stability, potentially pushing boundaries too far, provoking unrest, and then struggling to draw back.