CARACAS — Sunday's election in Venezuela is just days away, and opinion polls are predicting a close race between President Hugo Chavez and his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski. While the opposition is guardedly optimistic, critics charge the process has not been fair and that Chavez has abused his power as president to gain political advantage, punish opponents and intimidate voters.
In Venezuela, government offices and workers are routinely used to support President Chavez's political campaign.
Venezuelan Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado says this is just one example of how Chavez is abusing his power to undermine the democratic process.
“People perhaps think that, because Venezuela has had 19 elections during the Hugo Chavez era, there might be democracy in Venezuela. The fact is there is no separation of powers, no freedom of speech. There is no respect for private property,” she said.
Machado says Chavez has unfairly dominated the airwaves by requiring TV and radio stations to broadcast his speeches and closing down TV stations like RCTV that voice criticism of his policies. RCTV lost its broadcast license five years ago and today has only a small staff to maintain a news website.
Congressman Carlitos Ortega, a Chavez supporter, denies there is any suppression of dissent. He says the case of RCTV was not about politics. “For example it [RCTV] showed pornography. It promoted prostitution after 10 at night. It flaunted young girls on a program called Hot Line in the early evening. This is not permitted by law,” he explained.
Ortega says other independent stations like Globovision still operate and often criticize the government.
Opposition figure Diego Arria says Chavez illegally seized some of his land after he publicly criticized the president.
“Why do I say this? Because this is a regime that is linked to narco-terrorist groups that one day could be subject to prosecution. And so it was a process of political retaliation.” Arria said.
Chavez supporters say decisions to seize under-utilized property from rich landowners are made to best serve the public interest, not as a vendetta.
Congresswoman Machado says there is a growing pattern of intimidation that includes the recruitment of militias around the country to protect Chavez's socialist revolution. She says these abuses of power have helped create an atmosphere of fear that could suppress opposition voter turnout.
“Even though technical people tell us that the electoral system, the automated voting system, grants the security of the vote, almost 40 percent of the Venezuelan population believe the government will know how they vote,” said Machado.
But Congressman Ortega says the opposition is just making excuses because its candidate and his policies are not popular with the people.
“In Venezuela no one is afraid to vote. This is a psychological strategy that the opposition uses to motivate their supporters because Capriles is an awful candidate, and they have abused this strategy to the extreme.” he said.
Sunday's vote may determine the next president but the debate on the state of democracy in Venezuela will continue long after.