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Venezuela enters danger zone with election today

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The election today in Venezuela promises to open a tumultuous new chapter in the history of that South American country. For the first time in 15 years, Hugo Chavez’s name is not on the ballot, but his presence is everywhere. This election is all about him and the legacy of a decade-and-a-half of misrule.

Under normal circumstances, in any democratic country, the electorate would be ripe for a change after 15 years of upheaval that have brought misery for many and created an exodus among those who could leave, many settling in South Florida.

Chronic power outages, food shortages, devaluations, rampant crime, corrupt government aided by communist Cuba — this is the legacy of Hugo Chavez.

For Venezuelans, the choice is clear: They can move forward, restoring the democracy that Venezuela once was, or they can watch their country continue to deteriorate under a Chavez apprentice like the official candidate, Nicolas Maduro, the hand-picked political heir and current vice president.

Not surprisingly, the betting is that Mr. Maduro will win, and for that the candidate can thank his late mentor. Over the course of prolonged tenure, Mr. Chavez created a political machine that sharply curtailed the possibility that the official presidential candidate could lose.

The way Mr. Chavez won election three times and consolidated his grip on Venezuela is no secret. He controlled all the levers of political power, including the council that makes the electoral rules, counts the votes and settles disputes. He used the government’s money and power to promote his candidacy in a way that no opposition political figure could possibly match.

He stifled the independent news media and systematically dismantled the independent institutions that could restrain his power, including the judiciary.

A onetime paratrooper and frustrated coup-plotter, Mr. Chavez stacked the military leadership with loyalists and carefully watched over the ranks to ensure that no one would try to topple him from power by force of arms, as he once tried to overthrow a democratic government in 1992.

Finally, he made sure to woo the country’s large underclass by inducements such as free housing and by lavishing political attention on them, though he failed to create a path to prosperity for anyone except his political cronies, who got rich off government contracts.

All of this poses a virtually insurmountable challenge for Henrique Capriles Radonski, an opposition governor and leader of the political front arrayed against the forces of the government. Hundreds of thousands have shown up at his rallies, attesting to the underlying hunger for change.

Clearly, the playing field is slanted in favour of the Maduro ticket. In an implicit admission of potential ballot chicanery, the government has pointedly rejected any role for international election observers, such as the OAS.

But even if he wins, success promises to be short-lived.

The 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader does not possess Mr. Chavez’s rhetorical gifts, wit or political skills. His limited ability will be put to the test as the economy continues to deteriorate and Venezuelans of all stripes become more restless.

Under this scenario, the political situation could degenerate swiftly. The United States and other democratic countries in the region should stand ready to denounce government abuses and support the advocates of democracy as Venezuela enters a dangerous period.

 

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