Venezuela’s Presidential Elections: Will the Opposition Accept the Results?

While the possibility of a military coup seems unlikely in Venezuela at the moment, the scenario that aims to conjure up the impression of a close electoral contest in order to then cry fraud is in full effect.

Chavistas, as supporters of President Hugo Chavez are commonly called, turned the country’s capital, Caracas, into a sea of red last Sunday in a final mass rally in advance of Sunday’s presidential elections. According to the rally’s organisers over 2 million people responded to their call to bring la marea roja (the red tide) to Caracas. I asked one Chavista at the march, 25 year old university student Germania Fernandez, what she felt was at stake in Sunday’s election, “Well, we, and millions of people around the world, including, I’m sure, many people in England believe that another world is possible, a world free from war, poverty and hunger. Here in Venezuela the Chavez government along with the majority of the people in our country are fighting hard to build this new world, despite the attempts of the old elite and the US government to prevent us from succeeding….On Sunday we’ll be voting for the chance to carry on building this new world and I’m certain that we’ll win. Just look at how many people are here!”

Germania’s optimism seems to be well-placed. Most independent polls are pointing to a big win for Chavez: an Associated Press (AP) commissioned poll released last week showed 59 percent support for Chavez, with his nearest challenger, the governor of the oil-rich western state of Zulia, Manuel Rosales, trailing with 27 percent. However, there is a wide-spread feeling among Chavistas that the opposition will try everything in their arsenal of dirty tricks to sabotage the election result.   

The margin of Chavez’s victory will be important for many reasons. Crucially, a victory of less than 10 percent difference will open up the possibility that the opposition will manipulate the election results by alleging government fraud and then refuse to recognise the results. A likely scenario would then be that some sectors of the opposition declare themselves in “revolt” against the government and pursue a campaign of civil disobedience centered in the affluent eastern sector of Caracas and the state of Zulia – Rosales’ stronghold.

However, whatever Chavez’s margin of victory, past experience tells us that the more radical elements of the opposition will refuse to accept any sort of Chavez victory. Up to now these radical sectors have mostly advocated abstention, but this has increasingly morphed into what has been described as a “have their cake and eat it” strategy of simultaneously participating in the elections and discreditingthe electoral process, thereby allowing themselves the possibility of crying fraud when results don’t go their way.

In a remarkable interview aired on the private anti-government news channel, Globovision, earlier this month, prominent opposition journalist and businessman, Rafael Poleo, outlined a “plan” for the days surrounding the elections. In chilling terms Poleo, who was involved in the 2002’s short-lived coup against Chavez, described how Venezuelans should go and vote for the opposition on Sunday, while saying that on the following day, it would be “up to Manuel Rosales to lead the protests against the fraud that has been set up.” Finally, on the 5th of December a call would be made to the military high command to “decide if it is going to continue forcing the Venezuelan opposition to put up with an embarrassing regime.”

While the possibility of a military coup seems unlikely in Venezuela at the moment, the scenario that aims to conjure up the impression of a close electoral contest in order to then cry fraud is in full effect. At the helm of the campaign is Washington-based polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland, whose “exit polls” during the 2004 recall referendum where used by US financed anti-government organisations such as ‘Súmate’ to claim the referendum results were fraudulent – a claim they maintain to this day despite the fact that the results were certified by countless international election observers.  As Chris Carlson points out in a recent article published on the Venezuelanalysis website, “in the lead up to the December 2006 elections, Penn, Schoen & Berland has been instrumental in shaping public perception. In a series of election polls widely covered in the private media, the polling firm has consistently shown that Chavez’s lead is shrinking, and the opposition is gaining momentum, while all of the other surveys done over the last few months show that Chavez maintains a wide lead of between 20 and 30 percent. Last week, Mr. Schoen, of Penn, Schoen & Berland, released the findings of his latest survey on the Venezuelan evening news. As expected, Penn’s survey showed that Chavez’s opposition, Manuel Rosales, was nearly tied in the polls with Chavez. Chavez, it showed, had only 48% support, and his opponent Manuel Rosales had gained significantly up to 42%. This poll is now being reported across all the major Venezuelan media, to a huge audience, showing that Rosales was gaining more and more everyday, and could possibly win.” The ultimate aim of this campaign is to create the impression in the public opinion that Rosales has a real chance of winning the election, and once this perception is created, all that really matters is what the population believes. If this strategy works, it might be possible to engineer large protests and even riots to challenge the electoral results.

Manuel Rosales has been vague about whether he will accept the electoral results or not, qualifying his acceptance of the final results on whether he believes fraud was committed on the day. It is worth remembering that while Rosales is widely considered by conservative circles as the candidate of Venezuela’s “democratic opposition”, calling Venezuela’s opposition democratic is slightly ironic given that Rosales himself was involved in a short lived 2002 coup in which dozens of people were killed. In fact Rosales was filmed embracing the coup president, Pedro Carmona, shortly before Carmona issued decrees that dissolved the Supreme Court and the National Assembly, When asked why he backed Carmona, Rosales responded, “One makes mistakes in life, but what is definitely important is when one makes a decision like that, in the midst of confusion, that it be made in good faith.”

Chavistas on the other hand appear to have good reason to support their candidate on Sunday. According to Venezuela’s most recent census, the number of households living in poverty has dropped from 49 percent in 1998, the year before Chavez took office, to 33.9 percent in early 2006. Households living in extreme poverty dropped from 17.1 percent to 10.6 percent during the same period. And during Chavez’s presidency the poorest quintile of the population has seen its consumption power more than double. Even the World Bank announced in June this year that Venezuela had achieved “substantial imporvements in the fight against against poverty.” If you contrast this with the fact that between 1970 and 1998, the year before Chavez came to power, per capita income in Venezuela fell by a staggering 35 percent, the worst decline in the region and one of the worst in the world, it becomes quite easy to understand why Chavez has won 10 electoral contests during his nearly eight years in power.

It is real gains such as the results of the government’s poverty alleviation efforts that make people like Germania Fernandez and millions of other government supporters vote for Hugo Chavez in electoral process after electoral process. On Sunday, all independent polls forecast that Germania and her friends will be celebrating Hugo Chavez’s 11th electoral victory. The fear is that the opposition won’t accept the results graciously.