When Venezuela’s opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski says the April 14 presidential election will be a “David versus Goliath” fight, in which the government’s candidate will have a formidable advantage, he’s not kidding.
In fact, the election to pick the successor of late President Hugo Chávez will be one of the most uneven electoral contests we have seen anywhere in recent times.
First, acting President Nicolás Maduro, the government’s candidate, has manipulated the electoral agenda by extending Chávez’s mourning for several weeks. This gives a huge propaganda advantage to Maduro. He will not only benefit from the near deification of the late president in state-controlled media, but will also be able to use the daily government-organized ceremonies in Chávez’s memory to make nationally televised campaign speeches.
Second, Maduro has enjoyed much more time than Capriles to organize his electoral machine because he misled Venezuelans into believing that Chávez’s health was improving, and that there would be no need for an election.
Until shortly before announcing Chávez’s death, Maduro claimed for months that Chávez was recovering, even personally holding cabinet sessions from his Cuban hospital bed. Whenever press reports raised doubts about Chávez’s real condition, Maduro angrily denounced such stories as “CIA-spread lies.”
Third, Maduro will have a more than 10-1 advantage in television propaganda time. The opposition candidate’s campaign will have the right to use only four minutes of paid advertising time per day, per television channel.
Maduro, on the other hand, will be able to use those same four minutes, plus another 10 minutes allotted for government public service ads, plus an unlimited time of obligatory nationally broadcast speeches that Maduro can make in his capacity as acting president to address any issue he chooses, or his speeches at ceremonies in Chávez’s memory. Counting the latter, Maduro’s TV time advantage may be closer to 100-1.
Fourth, the government has so far not accepted Capriles’ request for a nationally televised debate.
Fifth, the government has not allowed time for a thorough review of voter registration lists.
Venezuela has an unusually high number of registered voters — nearly 19 million in a country of 29 million — which has led opposition leaders to suspect that Cuban officials, who are officially in charge of Venezuela’s national identification system, are giving out more than one voter registration card to pro-government public employees.
Sixth, government intimidation of anti-Chávez voters is rampant. Defense Minister Diego Molero, whose armed forces will be in charge of protecting voting places on Election Day, said in a public ceremony on March 7 that Venezuela’s National Bolivarian Armed Forces are “anti-imperialist, socialist and Chavistas.”
Just as importantly, many Venezuelans believe that the government’s biometric identity screeners at the polls can identify opposition voters. The government is believed to encourage these rumors because they scare away many anti-Chavistas from voting, opposition leaders say.
Seventh, Maduro’s government will not allow neutral international election observers, such as electoral missions from the European Union or the Organization of American States. Instead, it will only allow an “election accompaniment mission,” of UNASUR, a South American regional group that Chávez helped create, and that has often served as a regional stamp of approval for his policies.
While electoral observer missions are systematic efforts to evaluate an entire election process, including fair access to the media by all sides, that begin months in advance, “accompaniment missions” only arrive in the country close to Election Day to witness the voting.
Eighth, Venezuela’s election oversight authorities are a joke, as is its entire justice system.
The National Electoral Council and the Supreme Court are run by pro-government officials. And Venezuela’s attorney general is not only a government supporter — she’s Maduro’s wife.
My opinion: More than a David versus Goliath fight, as Capriles described it, the April 14 election will be a match in which one fighter — the opposition candidate — will enter the ring with both hands tied behind his back.
Granted, Capriles must run. He has little option. It would be a disaster for the opposition to throw in the towel, dismantle its electoral apparatus, and not even try to beat Maduro. But if Maduro wins, as seems likely, it will be absurd for the world to judge the election outcome as proof that Chavismo is immensely popular in Venezuela.