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Venezuela Election Outlook

By Seth Antiles

06.09.06 | While there are no recent, in depth polls available yet, focus group work indicates that Rosales’s popularity has spiked since he was chosen as unity candidate 3 weeks ago. Meanwhile, the numbers of those who would vote for Chavez are declining. There is a good chance that by the December 3 election, Rosales may be significantly more popular than Chavez.

Chavez probably already perceives that Rosales is a serious threat, which explains the government's trial balloon/proposed take-over of two well known golf courses. When Chavez feels threatened, he typically takes aggressive actions in order to excite the most radical among his support base while attempting to confuse, frighten, or provoke certain elements of the opposition, hoping they will make mistakes, which turn-off undecided voters. As December 3 approaches, we will see much more aggressive and confrontational actions from the Chavez government.

The main issues which are hurting Chavez's popularity are the dramatic escalation in violent crime and the lack of personal security people feel, Chavez’s decision to sell oil to several countries at highly subsidized prices while the majority of Venezuelans live in or near poverty, the perception of heightened corruption and government incompetence. Chavez strong points are that a large percentage of Venezuelans believe that Chavez cares about the poor and that he means well. His failures are often attributed to those who surround him—“he receives bad advice”.

Rosales’s candidacy represents a major improvement from past opposition movements, for four reasons. First, there is one leader who is capable of delivering a clear message, as opposed to the amorphous multi-faced leadership of the past which often contradicted itself. Second, in the past, the great diversity of leadership meant that the decision making process was sluggish, and decisions tended to lack punch because they were the result of long negotiation. With a single leader, there is one decision-maker, making decision making efficient and potentially more potent. Third, in the past while the opposition had vast resources in terms of talent and ideas, because the opposition was so splintered, good ideas were often lost. In contrast, the resources are now more likely to be channeled more efficiently to Rosales by his campaign team. Fourth, Rosales has a proven track record as a successful governor of the state of Zulia and he is a good campaigner. Early in his campaign, his ability to criticize Chavez while delivering an upbeat, positive vision for the future seems to be taking hold.

While Rosales may be the more popular man on election-day, there is virtually no chance he will be permitted to win the election. In the event that Rosales is the more popular man on election-day, he must plan for one of two scenarios.

Rosales wins but loses: Rosales is the true winner but the CNE (the electoral body) rigs the result and Chavez is declared the winner. In past elections, the opposition has attempted to work within the institutional framework, attempting to negotiate with the government in order to make the CNE more transparent to create the environment for a fair election. This time around, there might be a recognition among the Rosales camp that it is a waste of time and probably a dangerous trap to start intense negotiations with the CNE for fair rules of the game. The CNE will give in little, and then Rosales will be forced to either accept fraud or call for a boycott. This would allow Chavez to dictate the game. The international community has shown in the past that it will not help push for transparency. Instead, Rosales may chose to be clear in his campaign that the CNE will rig the election in Chavez's favor. However, he could say the CNE will not be the one to determine whether he succeeds or fails. He could indicate that a parallel electoral agency, made up of neutral (possibly foreign) participants, to perform a parallel vote count. A parallel vote count might be done by using in depth exit polls, or something similar. As part of the campaign, Rosales and his team must explain in clear terms to the electorate the ways in which the CNE is an arm of the Chavez government and why therefore a parallel vote count is necessary. If Rosales wins the parallel count, he should then use this as evidence of fraud, and call his supporters into the streets to bring about political change. If the majority of the electorate really voted for Rosales, there is a decent chance they will believe the parallel count. The idea would be to win the hearts and minds of the military, by applying massive and sustained social pressure.

Canceled Elections: There is a possibility that if Chavez knows that he is significantly behind in the polls, he would invent an excuse to postpone or cancel the election. One possibility is that he might claim that the integrity of the Venezuelan election is being subverted by the United States, forcing him to declare a state of emergency and the cancellation of elections. To plan for such a scenario, the opposition might seek to ensure that the results of credible polls are widely published prior to election-day, and alert the public to the threat that Chavez might cancel elections if he is behind. A social mobilization could follow the cancellation of elections, with the goal of bringing about political change.

Conclusion: In either case, the main goal of Rosales should be to inspire a majority of the population to such an extent that they are willing not only to vote but also to take the only step that has a chance of bringing about a change of leadership—massive and sustained street mobilizations. There is virtually no chance that Chavez would consider relinquishing power voluntarily as a result of an election defeat. There are two ways that social mobiliztion would be avoided. First, if Chavez were to win the election legitimately. Second, if Rosales wins the popularity contest but fails to inspire those who support him to take to the streets.

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