English | Reports | 31 octubre 2012

Electoral Council is politicized; government abuses public media in campaign (Wilson Center)

The upcoming presidential election in Venezuela slated for October 7 will not be just another election. This election is of fundamental importance. President Chávez, after 14 years in government, is seeking to be re-elected yet again for a six-year term.

The Conditions of Competition

Government uses public media as part of campaign

Without a doubt the greatest weakness of the process lies in the inequitable conditions of competition. Media coverage is not even moderately balanced. With respect to the print media, a situation that in the past was very adverse for the government is more balanced today. In television, the government’s predominance is overwhelming; it was estimated that by 2007 it controlled seven national television channels and 35 open community channels.

The government’s indiscriminate and repeated use of the networks and the requirement that radio and television stations reproduce the president’s messages have reached unjustifiable extremes under the Chávez government: since 1999, the networks have carried more than 2,300 broadcasts by the president, each lasting an average of 45 minutes. By virtue of another law, the broadcast media are obliged to carry ten minutes of institutional public notices every day, something that the opposition alleges constitutes campaign ads for the government candidate.

Campaign financing is particularly opaque, although it is clear that the overwhelming majority of spending is by the government candidate. In addition, there is a consensus in Venezuela that the government’s social programs, the so-called missions, are a decisive element in President Chávez’s support among vast sectors of the population, especially the poor. The opposition charges that the delivery of such assistance on a massive scale—in the areas of health, education, food price subsidies, and housing—acts as forms of coercion of public officials and creates powerful clientelistic networks. Yet how can one separate in the public mind government programs and the guarantee of citizen rights, on the one hand, and on the other, the political use of these programs to construct clientelistic networks associated with the supposed generosity of a leader or a party?

Another fundamental feature of the campaign is the deep polarization in which it is unfolding. The existence of two major electoral blocs is one indication: the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), which brings together two dozen political groupings, and the constellation that revolves around the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). But the existence of two opposing electoral coalitions does not make for a polarized society; it could simply be a function of the reduction of options available to voters. Yet in the Venezuelan case, these two coalitions embody visions of politics and of the country that are not only distinct but in clear confrontation with one another.

On the government side, politics is experienced as a kind of “revolutionary gesture” in which adversaries appear as irreconcilable enemies, agents of foreign interests, or defenders of nmentionable minority interests. The discourse is polarized and polarizing and serves to foster cohesion among its followers.

For its part, the MUD has made efforts to temper polarization. It emphasizes the need for unity and repudiates the government policy of “dividing Venezuelans.” Its approach is aimed at strengthening a democratic regime understood in classic terms: the recognition of political pluralism, with institutional channels for coexistence and competition among the different political forces. It is striking to foreign eyes that it is the government that promotes polarization (normally, governments call for unity based on the idea that they are working for everyone), while the opposition is calling for moderation (oppositions routinely tend to polarize in the name of future change).

In the end, the government and opposition embody two different languages, two different conceptions, two opposing ideas unable to forge common ground. Nonetheless, the Constitution represents a form of common ground, along with the fact that all political forces recognize elections as the sole source of legitimacy for federal, state, and local governments as well as the for the legislative branch (the National Assembly).

This point of agreement keeps the dispute between the two forces on a single plane. The election itself is perhaps the most important source of cohesion amidst the polarization in Venezuela today. Violence is another factor in the electoral contest. Even though Venezuela has one of the highest crime rates in South America, violence thus far has not spilled over into the campaign and to the political life of the country, although that may not be the case forever.

[Another] essential flaw is the politicization of the National Electoral Council, which explains why it is so unenthusiastic about exercising some of its regulatory functions, especially with respect to the abuse of official publicity.

Complete Executive Summary in English at the Wilson Center
Complete report in Spanish at the Wilson Center

The Elections in Venezuela (October 7, 2012) by Genaro Arriagada and José Woldenberg

José Woldenberg is the former president of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and professor, Political Science Faculty, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM); Genaro Arriagada is the former minister of the presidency of Chile and former ambassador of Chile to the United States