- By Juan Cristóbal NagelJuan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution.
Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate trying to replace the late Hugo Chávez in next week’s special election, made "a big announcement" last Tuesday. One of his main campaign spokesmen, Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, told the media that they had recently discovered the ruling party had the passwords to the voting machines used by Venezuela’s official electoral commission, the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE).
What followed … has not been easy to follow. The campaign emphasized that the security breach was serious, but did not compromise the secrecy of the vote. It has gone out of its way to say that it does not mean the vote tally was being tampered with: Other passwords would be needed to do that. According to Aveledo, however, knowledge of this particular password means that the machines can be "tampered with" (including sabotaging their workings by turning them on and off arbitrarily). This may have been one cause of massive delays in voting in opposition zones, a fact foreign observers frequently miss while fawning over the CNE.
Putting aside the technical aspects — which go beyond my scope of knowledge — the whole episode is indicative of a campaign struggling to find the right tone. Some analysts, along with many voters, are wondering if Capriles is in it to win it, or simply wants to make one — or several — points about the coming administration.
The Capriles campaign finds itself denouncing the obviously biased CNE, but at the same time it says that people "must fight the corruption within the CNE by voting massively for Capriles." The opposition oddly seems to think that throwing stones at the electoral body is a good way of getting out the vote.
When Capriles launched his campaign a few weeks ago, everybody knew it would be an uphill battle. The government is using the powers of the state in an unprecedented fashion. Just a few days ago, the opposition leaked a government plan to use armed soldiers for ferrying people to voting centers. Capriles, as he put it, thought the long-shot campaign would provide a platform to denounce the government’s abuses. So far, he has focused more on denouncing Maduro’s abuse of power than in telling Venezuelan voters what his plans are.
Capriles has tried to combine his attacks on the government with a raft of sometimes quixotric campaign promises. He said that no public employees would be fired — an absurd commitment, considering that the country has 2.5 million public servants and an asphyxiating deficit. Capriles has also declared that "uniting" the country is one of his main tasks.
The problem with this strategy is that one can be an attack dog and run a very negative campaign, or one can run as a uniter, but it’s very hard to run as both. Capriles may think that denouncing the government’s abuses helps him soften Maduro’s support, but in the end it will only soften his own. His insistence on planting doubts about the fairness of the vote is simply confusing to voters.
Part of the reason for Capriles’ seeming lack of discipline may come from the rushed nature of the election. While Capriles was clearly preparing for a campaign, the uncertainty surrounding the exact date of the election (Chávez died a month ago) meant crucial decisions about the campaign were postponed until a timetable was firm.
However, this may all matter little. Maduro is widely expected to cruise to victory, in part thanks to a massive war chest of petro-dollars, abuse of government media which forces all TV and radio stations to broadcast his messages, and the sentimental effect of Chávez’s death. All the while, Maduro has shown himself to be a terrible candidate — this week, he said that Chávez had appeared to him and blessed him in the form of a bird, suggesting his grip on reality has flown the coop.
Capriles has roughly one week before this campaign is over. He needs to make the case that Venezuelans are about to elect a hack as President, and that this will plunge their country into an unprecedented period of instability. All the other issues can wait.