If someone had been following the events in Venezuela in the run-up to the elections through the Western press, he or she might have expected a different result than what came out this Sunday. The Western press had already read the epitaph on President Chavez and were, for all practical purposes, ready to usher in Henrique Capriles Radonski as the next president. The reality was off the mark and substantially so.
Incumbent Hugo Chavez was re-elected Venezuelan president for 2013-2019, trouncing his younger conservative rival Capriles for the Roundtable of Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD). The election marks Chavez's third term in office under the amended 1999 constitution and is his fourth election as president since 1998. In fact, with this, he has won 12 victories in all, including the parliamentary elections as well as a recall referendum.
With almost all the votes totalled, Chavez bagged 55.11 per cent of the popular vote against Capriles’ 44.27 per cent, a lead of 11 per cent. The Latin American firebrand also won a majority in 22 of Venezuela’s 24 provinces, including the capital territory of Caracas. He won with 0.5 per cent margin in the province of Miranda, which is governed by opposition candidate Capriles. The opposition took the two Andean provinces of Merida and Tachira. Chavez also won in Zulia and Carabobo provinces currently held by opposition governors.
While it was expected, based on some documents and evidence that came out through sting operations and investigative journalism, that the opposition would try to discredit the election, Capriles was quick to accept the verdict and congratulate the incumbent. International election observers and independent experts, including former US President Jimmy Carter, have gone on record to suggest that the electoral system in place in Venezuela is fool-proof and impossible to rig and is probably one of the best in the world.
Following the elections, the UNASUR election observer team congratulated the Venezuelan election commmission for the free and fair polls. “Venezuela has given an exemplary demonstration of what the functioning of democracy is and has taught a lesson to the world, and this is important,” the Argentine observer team head Carlos Alvarez was reported as saying.
However, in the run-up to the elections, this fact did not stop the Western press from going on a wild goose chase. Now since the voting machines are hi-tech and impossible to sabotage, the press gave it a curious spin by saying that “since it was hi-tech, Capriles' voters are fearful that their fingerprints might be used for retribution against them.” In fact, the reporting on the Venezuelan election will go down as one of the most biased in recent history, even more so than the Iranian or Russian ones. While the exit polls across the board clearly showed a lead in the range of 10-14 per cent for Chavez, reports in the Western press suggested his imminent fall. Headlines like “How Hugo Chávez Became Irrelevant” (NYT), “President Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan dictator” (NWR), “Hugo Chávez: A Strongman's Last Stand” (The Guardian) and “The End of Chavez?” (The New Yorker) indicate the level of biased reporting the Western press resorted to.
“Luckily both the candidates shared a pleasant telephone conversation in which Chavez invited Capriles and the opposition 'to respect our differences,' while Capriles urged Chavez to promote national unity and 'respect for all'. This reflects the maturing of the electoral process,” asserts Ewan Robertson, a political analyst with Venezuela Analysis.
However, there is a visible reduction in the margin of victory for Chavez. That can be attributed to several factors. To start with, this election was more polarised than any of the elections in the last decade and a half. The opposition coalition consisted of 30 political parties and outfits ranging from Left to Right with opposition of Chavez the only common goal. There were four candidates other than Chavez and Capriles but they were so irrelevant that none managed to win even 0.5 per cent of the vote. The third place went to Reina Sequera with 0.47 per cent votes.
Another factor in this election was the media campaign targeted against Chavez. Contrary to popular belief, more than 70 per cent of all the active media outlets in Venezuela are privately owned. And a majority of them are controlled by elites who are virulently against Chavez and his socialist brand of politics. For example, one of the biggest groups is owned by a Cuban in exile based in Miami. No prizes for guessing who he will be rooting for. Also, unlike the previous elections, a remarkable synergy developed between these media outlets and those from the West, creating an atmosphere of doubt where many started believing that Chavez might not return.
The anti-incumbency factor also set in. A large section of voters believed in the old adage that nobody should rule thrice. Plus, there is genuine concern about corruption and lethargic bureaucracy as well. “There indeed is some discontent with the bureaucracy and corruption within the ranks of the ruling coalition as well as other government departments. Also, the government has not performed satisfactorily on the issue of revamping the justice system and rein in crime. These things affect all the voters and has played its part in the elections,” explains Tamara Pearson, an analyst with Venezuela Analysis.
Although the victory for Chavez is complete and overwhelming, his task is clearly cut out. His coalition will have to gear up for the upcoming elections for the National Assembly. The opposition, emboldened by the show, will not disintegrate on the face of defeat as they would have had their tally been less. The margin of victory in provinces like Amazonas, Anzoategui, Bolivar, Carabobo, Lara, Nueva Esparta and Zulia, is slender and the opposition might spring a surprise there. Chavez would want to reinforce these areas.. His recent speeches suggest that he acknowledges the shortcomings and is ready to make amends.
But for the next six years, Chavez is going to stay and push his revolution deeper. And that will definitely not go down well with several capital cities in the Northern Hemisphere.