All Eyes on Venezuela on Sunday

Venezuelans will go to the polls on Sunday for their most important presidential election in a generation. At stake is the end of the thuggish, corrupt, and autocratic 14 year-old regime of Hugo Chávez.

The opposition, led by Governor Henrique Capriles Radonsky, has a real chance of winning the vote—if it’s fairly done. The most credible polls show a very tight race with still a number of Venezuelans undecided. However, there are good reasons to believe that most of the undecided are actually “hidden” votes for Capriles, people who are intimidated or afraid to express their support for the opposition candidate.

As I’ve written before, it won’t be a fair election. Four out of the five seats in the National Electoral Council (CNE) are loyal chavistas. The CNE has resorted to increasingly dirty tricks. The latest has been to announce that people who mark one of Capriles’ pictures in the ballot won’t actually be voting for him, but for a lesser known third candidate (see the explanation here).

The electoral registry, which is controlled by Cuban operatives, has increased its size by 58 percent since 2001, even though Venezuela’s population has risen only 18 percent during that period. Fourteen of the country’s 24 states have more registered voters than total adult population. There is even the documented case of 2,272,706 voters that appear to live at the same address.

Thus, even though the opposition claims that it is well prepared to defend its votes at the polling stations, it is very likely that in the dawn hours of Monday, the CNE will announce Chávez as the winner. In my opinion, there is no real scenario under which Chávez would accept defeat by Capriles. The question then becomes: what happens next?

One thing to watch for is the reaction of the so-called Bolivarian militia, which consists of die-hard chavistas that have been well armed with Russian rifles and trained by the government to “defend the revolution.” Some estimates put their number at 25,000 people, enough to terrorize those opposition supporters who might consider going to the streets to protest against electoral fraud. It is still a mystery what the reaction of the army would be if chaos broke out in the streets of Caracas and elsewhere. Several generals have profited enormously from the regime, and they would loath to see Chávez go. But the extent to which they actually control the troops is unknown.

The Obama administration has been wise to avoid making statements about Venezuela’s election prior to the vote. Any comment by a U.S. official will play into Chávez’s hands as a gross interference by the “Empire” in Venezuela’s sovereignty. Nonetheless, Washington should keep an eye on the election and its aftermath. The outcome will likely have far-reaching consequences for the region.