(NEW YORK) — Presidential contests in Venezuela have recently lacked suspense. In three elections held since 1998, President Hugo Chávez has easily defeated his opponents, winning by at least 14 percent and by as much as 26 percent of the vote.
But this time around it’s a tight race, with some surveys saying that Chávez could lose to Henrique Capriles, the centrist opposition candidate, who summons huge crowds wherever he goes.
A Capriles victory could radically change how the Venezuelan economy is run. It would also have significant repercussions on radical left-wing governments in Latin America that currently receive large amounts of aid from Venezuela.
On the eve of the elections, we spoke to a blogger, a pollster, a political analyst and an academic and asked them for their take on Sunday’s vote. Can Capriles pull off a victory, we asked, and if he does, will Chávez accept defeat?
Here’s what they had to say:
Francisco Toro runs Caracas Chronicles, a popular blog on all things related to Venezuelan politics. “Chávez can certainly lose,” Toro said. “The panorama presented to us by polls is very turbulent right now.”
During the last two weeks of September, for example, a survey by Consultores 21 gave Capriles a 5 percent lead, while another poll by Datanalisis says that Chávez will win by 10 percent of the vote. Many surveys showed large numbers of voters who were undecided, or did not want to tell researchers who they would support on Sunday.
“It’s a fifty-fifty election,” Toro said. “Both sides are highly motivated and mobilized, and both sides think they can win.”
Toro believes there are many scenarios that could happen on election day, including the possibility that the government could attempt to mess with the vote tally. But he also pointed out that Venezuela’s electoral system leaves a clear paper trail of votes, because every vote that is registered by Venezuela’s electronic voting system is also printed and placed in ballot boxes.
“If the government decides to do some sort of power grab [by cheating in the election], it will be possible to verify votes. That would force Chávez to take very drastic actions like shutting down media and repressing protesters,” Toro said.
“The opposition also has a contingency plan that has involved securing support from key people in the military, in order to try to dissuade the government from committing fraud,” Toro said.
Erick Ekvall was born in the United States. But he moved to Venezuela to work on a presidential campaign in 1982, and has lived in the tropical country ever since.
This pollster and political strategist says that a Capriles victory “would be a miracle.” But it’s not because he thinks that Capriles lacks support. Ekvall believes there is a real possibility of fraud on Sunday, even though respected democracy groups like the Carter Center have praised Venezuela’s voting system.
“The Venezuelan electoral system has two main weaknesses,” Ekvall said, explaining that one of them is the national voters’ registry.
“In Venezuela the voter roll had always been consistent with population growth. But over the past 10 years it’s grown by 58 percent, while the population has only grown by 14 percent. This causes many people, including myself, to believe that we have 2 to 3 million phantom voters in the rolls,” Ekvall said.
Ekvall fears that phantom votes could be stuffed into ballots in places where witnesses from the opposition do not have a strong presence. In this election, however, witnesses from Venezuela’s opposition will cover a far greater amount of voting booths than in the 2006 presidential election, he said.
According to Ekvall, Capriles’ chances of winning could also be hampered by the perception amongst many Venezuelan voters that the government “can tell who they’re voting for.”
Ekvall explained that in Venezuelan voting booths, a machine that takes your fingerprint and then shows you your photo on a screen is linked by a cable to another machine with a touch screen, on which you actually cast your vote.
He believes that this set up has stoked fears amongst voters that the government can identify who voted for which candidate. “Many people will not want to risk voting for the opposition and losing benefits,” Ekvall said.
Ekvall pointed out that in a survey conducted by local pollster Alfredo Keller in early September, 21 percent of Venezuelans said they thought the government could tell who they would vote for. Another 21 percent refused to answer the question.
Manuel Malaver writes a political column on the Venezuelan news portal noticias21. He’s also a consultant for international media outlets.
“I think Capriles has a moderate chance of winning,” Malaver said. “I get a lot of information from local newspaper journalists across Venezuela, and based on this, I would say that polls are underestimating how many votes Capriles can get.”
Malaver predicted a 4 to 6 point victory for Capriles, even though some polls in Venezuela gave Chávez a lead of 10 points or more in the last week of September.
“Two important things have happened in this campaign,” Malaver said, citing Chávez’s well publicized fight with cancer. “First of all, Chávez’s mobility has been very limited due to his illness. Capriles has mobilized the country in a way that has not been seen here in decades. He’s generated an emotional connection with people, especially with youth.”
Malaver mentioned that in order to make up for his lack of mobility, Chávez made frequent use of a law that allows the president of Venezuela to take over the airwaves to deliver messages that are “of national interest.” The TV appearances averaged 30 minutes a day during the campaign.
“The overwhelming presence of these broadcasts also shows that there is some fear on behalf of the government that they could lose the election,” Malaver said.
Would Chavez accept defeat?
“Taking into account that he dominates institutions like the national electoral council, he might feel tempted to pull some moves that would lead him not to recognize results, but only if Capriles does not win by a wide margin.” Malaver said.
“But signals are mixed. We have avoided crossing the red line that would lead to a civil war over the past 14 years, despite the country’s [political] polarization. Chavismo is weakened as well, so I think the chances that he would accept [defeat] are high,” said Malaver, who also said that in the past Chavez had accepted defeats in less important electoral races.
Cynthia Arnson directs the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She declined to make a prediction on Sunday’s vote.
“The real story here is that even in a situation where the playing field is so far from being level, Capriles has a chance of winning the presidency. The significance of that shouldn’t be underestimated,” Arnson said.
Arnson pointed out that in the months leading up to the election, Chávez had greater access to media than Capriles, and also the opportunity to use state funds at the service of his campaign.
But she said that Capriles remained a strong challenger in this election, because Venezuelan opposition parties kept a united front. In addition, high crime rates, inflation, power shortages and other problems that have come to characterize the Chavez administration provided fertile ground for Capriles to gain new supporters.
“All of those things would naturally give a challenger a major advantage,” Arnson said. “What’s limited that advantage is that the basic playing field is skewed very heavily in favor of the incumbent.”
“If Chávez wins and it’s a narrow victory, it’s going to be very hard for a lot of people to accept that it was free and fair,” Arnson added. But she noted that Chávez’s health is in frail condition after undergoing several cancer surgeries, and there is a real possibility that he could die in office if he wins on Sunday.
Elections for state governors and for Venezuela’s National Assembly are also coming up soon, Arnson said. “The opposition has an incentive to hang in there and try again in a couple years.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio