Did Chávez Win the Elections? Is Venezuela a Democracy?

In the aftermath of Venezuela’s elections yesterday, Hugo Chávez’s win is being cited by predictable sources as legitimizing his regime. “The victory of President Chávez is a victory for democracy,” declared Bolivia’s populist president Evo Morales. The earnest participation of the opposition in the elections further bolsters the idea of Chávez’s legitimacy in the minds of some as do references to the notion that “the people have spoken.”

While opposition candidate Henrique Capriles recognized his loss, it would be a mistake to interpret the election result as an accurate reflection of public sentiment. That’s because Chávez rigged the election process so firmly against any challenger that it’s astounding the opposition did so well (it got about 45 percent of the vote).  Ask yourself this: If the following occurred in your country—as did in Venezuela—would you consider the outcome acceptable? This is some of what the opposition faced in its campaign:

  • The government disqualified leading opposition candidates on technicalities and through legal prosecution.
  • Chávez used unlimited state resources to explicitly engage in his re-election campaign. For example, state television stations broadcast pro-Chávez propaganda, and government buildings display as much too.
  • Capriles was limited to media appearances of three minutes per day, while Chávez appeared for hours at a time on all television stations as required by law.
  • The voter registry included irregularities or was at least questionable. From 2003 to 2012 the number of voters registered increased from about 12 million to almost 19 million even though the population grew by only a few million during that time. 14 of 24 states in Venezuela have more registered voters than those eligible to vote. There are thousands of registered voters between the ages of 111 and 129.
  • Voting ballots were printed in such a way that many people who thought they were voting for Capriles had their votes counted as being cast for a third candidate.
  • Government spending increased by 30% over the past year; 8 million people are directly dependent in some way on government for their income or to receive handouts.
  • Chávez closed the consulate in Miami, home to thousands of likely Capriles supporters, forcing them to vote at the consulate in New Orleans or become disenfranchised.
  • The government intimidated voters, including government employees, by insinuating that their votes will not be secret.

This is an incomplete list. Add to that the fact that Chávez controls every institution of government—including the military, the congress, the supreme court, the national electoral council, the national oil monopoly, etc.—exercises control over most of the media (including much of the private press, whose rights he’s violated), and keeps the private sector on a tight leash through capital controls and other forms of economic repression. The abuse of power has been well documented by the Washington Post, Mary O’Grady at the Wall Street Journal, The Economist and other sources. (See here, here, here, here, here and here).

Venezuela stopped being a democracy long ago. That does not mean that the opposition’s campaign efforts were in vain. On the contrary, and in contrast to years past when it boycotted electoral politics, the opposition showed Venezuelans and the world the degree to which the regime would deploy dirty tricks, break the law, and otherwise undermine the election process—and still Chávez’s opponents achieved substantial support on election day.

So did Chávez win the elections? I don’t think so, but the point is we don’t really know since the contest was hardly fair. We can only really say that in every important way, Chávez heads an authoritarian regime. Let’s not let the election exercise fool us into thinking otherwise.