PRAGUE – Venezuela’s presidential election campaign is in full swing, with voters expected to go to the polls on October 7 to elect their head of state. The campaign pits Henrique Capriles Radonski, the governor of the state of Miranda, against the incumbent president, Hugo Chávez, who has been in power since 1999.
What makes this election unique, in our view, is that for the first time, Chávez, who is seeking an unprecedented fourth consecutive term in office, faces a credible challenger in Capriles, who has managed to unite disparate opposition political parties under his banner. In fact, some recent polls have put Chávez only slightly more than three percentage points ahead of Capriles. That is certainly good news for Venezuela’s fledgling democracy, and raises hopes for a genuine democratic contest.
Nevertheless, we believe that it is necessary to express our concern about the precarious state of affairs in Venezuela on the eve of the vote. If anything, the situation in the country is marked by a high degree of uncertainty, because no one knows to what lengths Chávez might go to retain his grip on power.
What is clear is that the regime appears increasingly determined to ensure its survival by any means necessary. Chávez has all the normal advantages of incumbency, but can also be expected to use every available administrative resource at his disposal to ensure re-election.
Moreover, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the period following the October election; regardless of who wins, the president will face a daunting challenge in trying to restore normalcy to ordinary Venezuelans’ lives.
But that is for later. Today, it is of paramount importance that the election be conducted in the most fair and transparent manner possible. In the meantime, both the government and the opposition should be mindful of the many challenges in the run-up to the vote. Unless these challenges are addressed in a responsible manner, there could be serious consequences for the country’s future.
Chávez’s health remains perhaps the biggest enigma of the upcoming election. There are conflicting reports regarding his physical condition, with some presenting a grim prognosis. His sudden departure due to illness might cause a political vacuum, which could become conducive to a power grab of one form or another, such as a military coup. Strict adherence to constitutional provisions in any such eventuality is imperative.
Here, the lack of free media is especially alarming and does not bode well for a free and fair election. It is essential that the opposition can freely air its message and target prospective voters – a point not lost on the Chávez regime as it seeks to curtail further the opposition’s ability to reach out to the electorate. The recent attack on Globovision, Venezuela’s only surviving independent station, stands out in this regard. The Supreme Court levied a prohibitive fine on Globovision for its coverage of the government’s handling of a recent prison mutiny. As a result, the station’s future looks bleak.
To make matters worse, recent reports have emerged that regime loyalists have been meddling directly in opposition affairs in an effort to sow discord. As recently as June 11, the Supreme Court ruled that Chávez’s allies could be installed at the helm of two political parties that previously opposed him. Such blatantly underhanded tactics should be impermissible in a functioning democracy, and cast serious doubt on the regime’s claim to be upholding democratic standards.
We are strongly convinced that no matter who wins on October 7, the president-elect will need a free and fair vote to provide him with the credibility necessary to rally the public. It is vital, therefore, that the government does not renege in any way on its promise in this regard.
The increasingly murky situation in Venezuela calls for unbiased and accurate reporting of campaign developments. To that end, domestic and international media watchdogs must step up their efforts to expose attempts by the government to restrict the media’s ability to operate freely. The authorities should permit media organizations to play their crucial role in informing Venezuelans and the outside world in an unbiased and accurate fashion.
In order to ensure a level playing field, the Venezuelan opposition should have equal access to media, and official attacks on media outlets must stop. On Election Day itself, the opposition should be permitted to place observers at any and all polling stations without fear for their safety. In addition, we appeal to the Venezuelan government to act in accordance with established practices and accept the presence of international election observers.
Finally, we encourage the international community to remain firm and persistent in demanding a free and fair election in October.
Frederik Willem de Klerk was President of South Africa and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. André Glucksmann is a philosopher and essayist. Vartan Gregorian is President of Carnegie Corporation. Michael Novak is a Roman Catholic theologian. Yohei Sasakawa is President of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. Desmond Tutu is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Richard von Weizsäcker was President of Germany. Grigory Yavlinsky is Chairman of the Russian United Democratic Party Yabloko. All signatories are members of the Shared Concern Initiative.