You are Hugo Chavez. You have been elected and re-elected President of Venezuela three times since 1998. You are apparently in remission from a life-threatening cancer. You have a Castro-like vision of the country you are trying to transform. It’s a work mixed with major successes and failures and still very much in progress.
But, for the first time as President, you face an opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, who might possibly defeat you in the Oct. 7 election. Unlike the campaign playing field, which you have tilted sharply in your favour, you have allowed the installation of a virtually tamper-proof electronic voting system – an achievement you are proud of and that has helped you disarm national and foreign criticism of your many appropriations, arbitrary measures, frequently incompetent administration and authoritarian style.
It’s noon on election day and your senior advisers report the possibility that you might lose – an outcome that was unthinkable until very recently and one that’s probably unacceptable to many of your loyal supporters. What do you do?
Of course, it may not come to this. Most polls in Venezuela are notoriously unreliable, including those now suggesting that Mr. Capriles is slightly ahead. But if these polls are proven right, do you graciously stand aside, while democracy dismantles the vision that has driven you for the past 25 years? Or do you go into damage control?
This would mean engaging in fraud by rearranging enough votes through blatant manipulation or creating disturbances and power outages in opposition strongholds, so that citizens can’t vote or are inhibited from voting. You control the National Electoral Council that runs the voting system, the police, the armed forces and the rent-a-mob squads. If you want to, you can fix the system to ensure that you win.
The problem with fixing the election is that the voting process is now so solid that it can’t be manipulated without setting off alarm bells and exposing your manipulation. Venezuela’s electronic voting system, which relies not only on ID cards but on technologically advanced fingerprint identification, is now probably as good as any in the hemisphere.
The experts admit it isn’t completely foolproof if the opposition is asleep at the election switch. But, this time, the opposition is unified, well organized and determined to deploy well-trained monitors to every polling station in the country. These poll watchers will be supported by thousands of civil society volunteers, so any organized fraud will be detected. The opposition and the domestic poll watchers will make a loud noise and report all transgressions to the media and to the international community.
For this election, however, they will not be joined by the professional and objective judgments of international observer teams. You have taken precautions. Unlike previous Venezuelan elections, you have not invited the Organization of American States, the European Community or the Carter Center to send observer teams with full access to polling stations, computer centres and other electoral offices. But you have invited some observers from friendly states on whose compliance you can rely.
For many in Latin America and around the world, your credibility would soar if you admitted defeat and no one could deny your commitment that the vote is the only route to power. The election is only presidential. Your party will still control Congress and most of the state governors.
But all that would be cold comfort for the Cubans and Nicaraguans for whom your oil and cash are a lifeline, bad news for many others who benefit from Petrocaribe, devastating for those in your bloated public service and security organizations and, of course, lethal for key parts of your vision. The very possible return of your cancer won’t diminish your stress. In sum, it’s hard to overstate what’s at stake. The chances are that you will be spared this agony, but you may face a tough decision.
John W. Graham, a former Canadian ambassador to Venezuela and a former head of the OAS Unit for the Promotion of Democracy, led two OAS election observations in Venezuela in the 1990s. He is chair emeritus of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas.