Despite what you read in the newspapers, don’t expect Venezuela’s Sept. 26 legislative assembly elections to provide a check on President Hugo Chávez’s growing dictatorial powers. Although opposition candidates have decided to participate this time (in contrast to their 2005 boycott), the deck is stacked against them. Media control, gerrymandering, and monopoly of resources could help the governing party maintain or actually increase its legislative majority, despite polls that show widespread dissatisfaction.
Absent a fair contest, the election will be another step toward a one-party state in which more levers of control are in the hands of a capricious dictator accountable to no one. And despite a recent calm in the ugly rhetoric that Chávez has been hurling toward Colombia, the fiery leader could once again aim his sights against democratic neighbors to shift attention from growing problems at home. Leaders of nearby countries should not be complacent, but rather prepare for post-election troublemaking.
Since coming to power, Chávez has limited space for opponents to communicate their views to mass audiences. In 2004, the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television permitted the state to close private media for vaguely defined offenses. Since then, the government has shuttered the country’s most popular television network and cable system, closed dozens of commercial radio stations, and threatened cable providers who refused to halt programming to broadcast his frequent, lengthy speeches on all channels. Meanwhile, the state has built up its own network of television and radio stations to disseminate official propaganda.
As in the United States, redistricting is a political tool for determining the distribution of legislative representatives. But in Venezuela, it has also become a means of restricting competition. Last January, the Chávez-dominated National Electoral Council announced it would expand districts where support for the president is strongest and merge precincts favoring opponents into pro-Chávez zones. If that doesn’t assure a victory for pro-Chávez candidates, then fraud conceivably could be an option through software manipulation in the regime’s voting machines.
Chávez also enjoys broad influence over the electoral process. He controls billions of dollars in social welfare programs, reminders of which are in abundance on election days. Chávez supporters reportedly have used military vehicles to cruise neighborhoods in campaigns to register voters. In prior elections, workers in state industries have been led to believe they would be fired if they voted in favor of the opposition. Candidates he may dislike have been disqualified through administrative procedures without due process of law. Even if strong sentiment against Chávez emerges, it would have to be overwhelming to make a difference.
Regardless of whether Venezuela’s leader reaffirms or loses his hold on the National Assembly, dissatisfaction could continue to build. According recent statistics, Venezuela has become one of the most violent countries in the hemisphere, with a murder rate comparable to Colombia’s at the height of its internal conflict. To make up for Chávez’s land and business expropriations, about 70 percent of Venezuela’s goods are now imported, contributing to shortages. Then there is government incompetence-last spring a state food distributor reportedly left 1,200 shipping containers to rot in warehouses. Despite petroleum riches, this Andean nation now has one of the lowest performing economies in Latin America with inflation soaring at 25-30 percent and a gross domestic product shrinking at about 5 percent.
How long this man can dominate the national narrative in such a way that a majority will think they are better off than before he took power is debatable. Likely not long, unless he invents an external crisis as a distraction. Without picking a fight, the region’s democratic leaders need to signal that they will be keeping an eye on his new stockpile of Russian weapons and alleged support for Colombian guerrillas. So far, few outside of Colombia and Peru have made concerted efforts to do so.
Since Chávez came to power in Venezuela, elections have been used to cover up a rotting social contract. They disguise manipulations that have been used to gradually dismantle a peaceful democracy. And if they don’t serve that purpose this time, history tells us that this resourceful despot will find a way to neutralize the result and shift attention elsewhere.