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Venezuelan election signals future change
Last Sunday night, Venezuela’s electoral council proclaimed Hugo Chávez of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela the winner of the 2012 presidential elections. Support for the incumbent Chávez, who will hold the presidency until 2019, surpassed that for the Table of Democratic Unity opposition coalition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski by a margin of almost 11 points. Despite the result, Capriles mounted the first legitimate challenge to Chávez’s long and dishearteningly authoritarian presidency, signalling a hope for change in Venezuela.
Portraying the face-off between the candidates as a battle between David and Goliath, as the Venezuelan opposition media did, is perhaps exaggerated, given Venezuela’s progress under Chávez. Most notably, the number of households living below poverty level fell from 54 percent to 26 percent from 2003 to 2008. Extreme poverty has fallen by 72 percent during his presidency.
However, socialism in Venezuela is inefficient and corrupt, and many of Chávez’s services are poorly executed. The medical missions, for instance, are often rejected in favor of more expensive but more trustworthy private clinics by the very citizens they are meant to help. Chavez’s successes are arguably overshadowed by his poor record on crucial issues such as security and corruption.
This was an incredibly smooth election that saw the largest voter turnout in Venezuelan history. Accusations of fraud, levied from within in Venezuela and abroad and spurred by what many see as an impossibly large margin, are likely baseless. Touted by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter as “the best in the world,” Venezuela’s election process ensured transparency every step of the way. In addition, there was also a manual count of the almost 15 million ballots cast to ensure the accuracy of the computer’s tally.
Despite the success of the ballot counting, one could hardly call the whole process “fair.” Although TV ad space for electoral campaigns is publicly financed to ensure equity, Chávez clearly exploited state resources for campaign purposes. At any given time, Chávez can, and did, monopolize the nation’s TV and radio airwaves to promote himself and his party rather than to speak about issues of governance. His addresses were injected with vitriol and violent rhetoric, producing an atmosphere of fear aimed at enticing supporters to take to the streets if Chávez were not reelected.
Nevertheless, the elections represented a victory for change. Compared to the last presidential elections in 2006, the opposition’s votes increased by more than 2 million, while Chávez’s increase was less than half of that figure. No previous candidates have achieved the level of mobilization that Capriles inspired in his whirlwind campaign tour of over 200 cities during the past months. Although Capriles was unsuccessful in his bid for the presidency, he inspired a valuable movement for democracy, transparency, and progress that will continue on into the future. As Capriles’s slogan goes, “Hay un camino”— there is a way.