Last week, Venezuelans elected a single opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, to run against Hugo Chávez in the upcoming presidential election on October 7th. Following Capriles’ victory, however, several incidents by the administration of Hugo Chávez have foreshadowed what may be a very nasty campaign between now and the election.
Immediately after results of the primary were announced, allies of Hugo Chávez started questioning the integrity of the primary process. Shortly after, the Supreme Court ordered the heads of the Mesa de Unidad (Unity Panel) or MUD - the organization formed by members of the opposition to field a single candidate - to turn over the voting records to the government.
The obvious speculation was that this was in order to form another “Tascon List,” as was done following an election in 2004. The Tascon List was a confidential record of those that had signed a petition for a recall referendum to remove Chávez from office. After the list was made public by Chávez officials, it caused many of those who signed to be fired from their government jobs, and many were discriminated against when trying to do normal governmental administrative procedures.
Fearing that the government would try to replicate the episode with the Tascon List, the MUD fulfilled its promise to protect the identity of the voters, and defiantly burned the electoral lists of those who voted in the primary. The effect of this action will be to generate more confidence for those that decided not to vote in the primaries for fear of reprisals from the Chávez regime, and may drive stronger turnout in the elections in October.
On the day after the election, the official government website of the Ministry of Communication and Information published an anti-Semitic screed in which Capriles was demeaned for his Jewish ancestry. Capriles, a practicing Catholic, had a grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor that fled Poland and settled in Venezuela.
For his part, Chávez promised to "pulverize" Capriles, and called him the candidate of the empire and the bourgeoisie, and topped it off by calling him a “low-life-pig.” Chávez then said that a victory of his opponents would put the country on a path to war and violence.
Despite these attacks, Capriles has maintained a tone of reconciliation, saying during his first press conference that if Chávez "wants to fight, he will fight alone," adding that his priority is to “achieve progress for all Venezuelans.” Chávez responded: "You will have to confront me, pig, or run away."
The vitriol from Chávez and his allies results from the fact that, for the first time in 13 years, the opposition has been able to unify, and is now shaping the electoral environment. Chávez, on the other hand, has shown himself to be increasingly aggressive and confrontational, apparently feeling electorally threatened for the first time in many years.
The contrast could not be more profound. Capriles is a young, articulate and conciliatory candidate backed by all of the opposition political parties, and whose tenure as Governor of Miranda was epitomized by photos of the governor chest deep in flood waters, personally helping disaster victims, while an incompetent Chávez bureaucracy struggled to get equipment out of the garages of Caracas.
And while Capriles models himself after the center-left government of Brazil, Chávez’s claims that he is a candidate of the empire have far less impact as the Venezuelan populace reads that Chávez has further alienated the country by selling fuel to a brutal dictatorship in Syria.
The nine months until the election are likely to be marked by both internal and external provocations by the Chávez administration. Domestically, the government will use the vast resources of the state oil company, as well as money recently borrowed from China in exchange for future subsidized oil, to influence enough votes to retain power. While externally, Chávez will seek to strengthen his “21st Century Socialism” project by challenging the United States rhetorically and using State media resources to try to tie Capriles to "Yankee imperialism”.
Chávez’s recent announcement that he will have to undergo another cancer surgery in the coming days could make the electoral process even more complicated. Should his health continue to deteriorate, an internal fight to succeed him could imply the involvement of political factions involving elements of the military as well as civilian militias that Chávez has set up and armed in recent years.
The challenge of the opposition will be to continue to maintain a conciliatory posture that is inclusive of all Venezuelans, in order to show a path out of the polarization of the Chávez era that doesn’t augur violence and chaos in any transition from the decade-long entrenchment of the regime.
Ezequiel Vázquez Ger is an associate at Otto Reich Associates LLC and collaborates with the non-profit organization The Americas Forum. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org / Twitter: @ezequielvazquez