The differences could not have been starker. On Sunday Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski registered his candidacy for the Presidency of Venezuela. The energetic 39 year old ran for six kilometers to the National Electoral Council (CNE); accompanied by a multi-color volunteer tide which numbered in the hundreds of thousands (if not a million). Capriles (as he is known by the people) gave a speech about hope and the future. The event felt like a celebration.
On Monday, President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s most familiar face, registered his candidacy for a term that would finish with him having been in office for 19 years. Due to a debilitating fight with a rare form of cancer, Chavez was ferried to the CNE on a truck, taking a few painful steps to the podium where he delivered a three hour message which, as Venezuelans have come to expect, was laced with threats, insults and attacks. Chavez was also accompanied by a large crowd, a red tide that flowed alongside his carnival truck. Using the anonymous mechanism of social media, not-so-revolutionary public servants began to fill the twittosphere with copies of letters sent by the government demanding that public servants be forced to march alongside their comandante. The mood was somber; a clearly aging and swollen Chavez seemed to personify the revolution that he is so keen to protect, though it may cost him his life.
This election campaign, which culminates in the October 7th general election, could not offer up a more divergent set of ideas. On the one side have marshaled the forces of representative democracy, a hard nucleus of civil and political rights, the pre-eminence of private property and entrepreneurship and free market capitalism as the means to advance personally while delivering the best quality, most affordable services to the greatest majority. On the other side are the forces of 21st century socialism: of communes, economic and social rights given in exchange only for total loyalty to a caudillo, the centralization of power in the executive and the eternal government of one man.
It would seem a fool’s choice; save that the perennial poor have come to accept the role of their government as a service provider and expect from their executive the handouts that President Chavez has been so successful in delivering. This is not the time to challenge these now-ingrained ideas. For this reason, Governor Radonski has been walking a fine line, comparing a potential Capriles administration to Brazil’s wildly popular and generally successful “Lula” administration. It seems to be working; polls show him tied with President Chavez.
To be sure, as in any election cycle there are wild cards, and Venezuela is no different. Speculation continues around President Chavez’s health. A formidable campaigner, his disease has kept him out of the public eye and has unleashed tremendous speculation about his potential successor. Should he not make it to the October 7th date, the United Socialist Party (PSUV) would have to choose a different candidate which could postpone the elections.
Another wild card is the role that fraud will have in this election. The Government of Venezuela has perfected 21st century electoral fraud. Instead of ballot stuffing, so popular in authoritarian regimes of the past, they use a more sophisticated system. The issuing of voter IDs to millions of ghost voters; the crushing use of state propaganda in favor of Chavez; the use of state oil resources in favor of the government’s candidates; the open threats to the over 5 million people who depend directly on the government that their votes are not secret; the migration of opposition voters to other voting centers far from their homes; and most recently the closure of the consulate in Miami in order to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of potential voters. Will the people, the same who filled the airwaves with silent protests against forced marches, choose to risk a vote against their comandante?
These are the questions, for the government’s fraud is not foolproof. It is overcome through massive voter turnout and the vigilance of organized poll watchers present in every single voting booth. This is the challenge of the Venezuelan democrats; to transform the excitement for change into an organization which leads to action at the polls on Election Day. For them, and for those who come after, this is the most important election in history.