On October 7 Venezuelans will go to vote in the 12th national-level election in as many years. This time they will be choosing whether or not to extend President Hugo Chavez's time in office to 19 years (assuming he makes it that far and does not die of cancer, which is another topic altogether).
For this reason, and considering the seriousness of the choice confronting the Venezuelan people, a quick analysis of the ongoing campaign is important.
Electoral experts often talk about "free and fair" elections as if they were one and the same. In point of fact, these are two different components that together make up a legitimate election. Free elections usually refer to Election Day. Are the people able to vote for the candidate of their choosing, and have their voted counted and respected? It covers issues such as ballot stuffing, poll violence and the like. Fair elections are far more complicated. They involve the playing field set in place by the government. It seeks to answer the question; "is the government picking a side?"
This is an important point that is often missed. People in the United States on both sides of the aisle complain about unfair elections. On the one side they may point out that President Obama has a majority of coverage from the private mainstream media. However, on the other side it looks like Governor Romney will outraise the president and is set to have a better ground game. These are all fine because they represent the free expressions of private Americans. Elections, just like everything else in society, must be unregulated for true competition to occur.
In Venezuela, however, the government itself chooses a side. While the elections may be free, they are far from fair.
Venezuela's Democratic Unity Roundable itself, on a recent trip to the United States, pointed out five ways in which the Venezuelan government stacks the deck in favor of President Chavez. The first is a lack of transparency, represented through the refusal of an audit to the electoral registry (complaints about ghost voters are legion), lack of independent electoral observers to verify the process (even the Carter Center has said it will not accept Venezuela's dumbed-down "accompanying" process), and the closure of the consulate in Miami to disenfranchise Miami's large opposition voting bloc.
The second is media regulation; the National Electoral Council regulates the candidates to three minutes of ads on TV and radio, but allows President Chavez to continue to take over the airwaves to make "public interest announcements," which are almost all used for partisan campaigning. This has accounted for more than 50 minutes a day since the start of the campaign. The third is the use of public funds. By eliminating the important, legal line between party and state, Chavez has access to virtually unlimited oil revenues with which to campaign and give the handouts for which he has become famous; meanwhile the de-capitalized opposition must fund yet another nationwide campaign out of their ever-shallower pockets. The fourth and fifth ways of making the vote unfair are voter intimidation. This involves threatening public employees that their votes are not secret and, should they vote against Chavez, they will be fired. And it involves the appeal to fear, with President Chavez stating he is the only one who stands between Venezuela and anarchy; and with the military putting in doubt their willingness to accept an opposition win.
Due to these sophisticated mechanisms of electioneering, the upcoming election is already unfair. Despite this fact, it is free and the opposition can win. However, in order to do so, they must beat President Chavez by multiple percentages. To do this, they must have voter turnout of above 60 percent (and the higher the better) and opposition candidate Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski must motivate his base while winning over the all-important independents. Current polls show Chavez and Capriles in a dead heat; making this the most significant campaign since the '90s.
To be sure, it remains unclear if President Chavez would accept a defeat. However, the first step for the opposition is to actually beat him in an election. This would radically change the game for the Venezuelan strongman and would dent the one thing he is most careful to protect, his perceived legitimacy.