Democracy Lab

Venezuela's Magical Realist Voters

The key to next month's presidential election may well lie in the hands of a mysterious and nebulous bloc of swing voters.

Even within a region justly famous for its magical realism, Venezuela can seem particularly incomprehensible to outsiders. This is a nation of bellicose rhetoric that has not gone to war since its independence, where oil rents are lavished on foreign allies despite obscene domestic poverty, and where fervent baseball fans decked in blue jeans routinely decry the evils of American cultural imperialism. Yet even by Venezuelan standards, the events leading up to the October 7 presidential election have been strange.

First there was the news of President Hugo Chávez's cancer, followed by the reports of his supposedly impending death, which streaked like lightning across international headlines and then seemed to disappear just as quickly. While certainly less vigorous than in previous campaigns, "El Comandante" has remained very much alive, continuing to travel and offering his supporters broadcasts of his trademark multi-hour speeches. Though apparently quite sick with something, the details of his condition and prognosis remain closely guarded state secrets, shrouded in mystery.

And then there's this issue with the polls. Sitting across from me at a small café in downtown Caracas, Carlos Lagorio looks down at his seven-dollar can of Diet Pepsi (inflation and exchange rate controls have driven up import prices) and shrugs. "The truth is," he confesses, "nobody really knows what's going on with the polls. I've never seen this happen."

Few people understand the intricacies of Venezuelan opinion polls better than Lagorio, who for many years has dedicated himself to designing, interpreting, and collecting political data for municipal and state governments as well as for the two major Venezuelan pollsters, Datanálisis and Consultores 21. With the election less than two weeks away, both groups are reporting vastly different and seemingly irreconcilable political realities. Datanálisis gives a 10-point lead to the incumbent Hugo Chávez, while Consultores 21 assumes a dead heat with a slim 2-point margin favoring the challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski. Polls from other sources have produced similar results, rendering the data far more inconsistent than the polling results from other contested elections this year such as those in the United States or Mexico.

As Lagorio points out, the preferences of a large chunk of the Venezuelan electorate are vividly clear. Of the 79 percent of the Venezuelan population who intend to go to the polls on October 7, around 45 percent of them say they're voting for President Chávez. Another 35 percent of intended voters favor Capriles. With some 80 percent accounted for, the disconnect in the data turns primarily on the unaffiliated "ni-ni" (Spanish for "neither one nor the other") and the "indecisos" (i.e., the "undecided") -- two nebulous voting blocks upon whose pervasiveness, intentions, and likely behaviors no two pollsters seem able to agree.

Many voters dismiss the current Chávez regime as a corrupt and untrustworthy racket, while also mistrusting the opposition as an elitist holdover from the failed neoliberal policies of Venezuela's past. Others personally like the president but are unhappy with the current state of the country; still others mistrust those around the president who might be left in power should his health fails. Yet an increasing number of Venezuelans are simply fed up with politics and parties in general, and prefer to be left alone. Datanálisis estimates these apathetic voters at around 30 to 40 percent of the voter base, with the number of likely voters  who claim to be undecided or refuse to answer at around 15 percent (although this number appears to be shrinking as the election nears.) Since the repeal of mandatory voting laws, apathy has been rising, driven by the polarization, vitriol, and partisanship of the political scene.

Still, it does seem extraordinary that there could be so many undecided voters in a country where the president excites such intense emotions, both positive and negative, among the population. That's why Henrique Salas Römer, a former state governor who was Chávez's principal opponent during his first presidential race 14 years ago, refuses to take the polls at face value. "The idea that so many people would actually remain undecided thirty days before a presidential election is absurd," he told me. "Those ‘undecideds' are not Chavistas. They can't be."

Here's what he means. Since the risks of being openly pro-Chávez are low and the benefits of supporting the famously clientilistic regime can be quite high, it stands to reason that people who will eventually vote for Chávez would admit it right off the bat. In contrast, those supporting the opposition may not be quite so comfortable speaking openly against the regime -- even if only to share their supposedly anonymous voting preferences with pollsters. "Polling outfits contact people in their homes, and that can make people feel threatened," explains Salas Römer. "People are understandably on guard." After a 2004 recall referendum aimed at removing Chávez from power, Luis Tascón, a parliamentarian loyal to Chávez, made the supposedly secret list of 2.4 million signatories public. Many of those who had voted for the president's recall were subsequently blacklisted from government jobs, and some were even denied public services.

Should Salas Römer's assertion prove correct, and if it turns out that fear is actually motivating Capriles voters to hide their preferences, then the challenger is likely to gain a majority. Of course this scenario also assumes that these covert opposition supporters are still willing to cast their votes against the government even though they're afraid to speak publicly against it. Though the constitution assures that a voter's identity will be kept secret, the latest voting machines require fingerprint identification (ostensibly to protect against those attempting to vote multiple times.) This may frighten off some potential opposition voters -- a possibility likely not lost on the government that opted to switch to these new machines in the first place.

And what if the undecided voters aren't being secretive about their preferences? There's always the possibility that the ni-nis and indecisos may be feigning indecisiveness due to social pressure, or in the hope that either side might offer them some incentive in exchange for their vote. The major Venezuelan political parties of the late twentieth century were certainly not above doing so, and the current government often rewards its supporters with free social events, clothing, goods, and even free houses.

The idea that some sizeable portion of those not reporting a preference for a particular candidate actually represents a type of "crypto-opposition" is quite common on the ground in Caracas. Yet both sides in the election remain vocally optimistic about their chances.

To be sure, even now Chávez remains formidable. He leads in more polls than not and by larger margins, and he can rely on many inherent advantages, such as endless oil funds and the ability to commandeer national radio and television at will. He likewise counts on the complete support of all national institutions (including the nominally independent electoral authorities) and a fiercely loyal and organized core of popular support both among the urban poor and hard-to-reach rural populations.

On the other hand, the opposition does seem to be enjoying greater unity, energy, and optimism than at any other point in the last ten years. The primary vote that put Capriles in charge of the nation's united opposition parties involved the participation of nearly three million voters, a national record for a primary. Unable to draw upon Chávez's powerful resources, Capriles has instead crisscrossed the country, entering rural and slum districts far from the traditional urban middle class base of the Venezuelan opposition.

In contrast, Chávez, who has been unable to keep up with the breakneck electioneering pace of his hyperkinetic challenger, may come across to voters as seeming older and weaker. Meanwhile, recent scandals such as the recent explosion of the Amuay oil refinery that killed at least 50 people, a bridge collapse in a high traffic area of Caracas, and confusion over a reported massacre among the Yanomami tribesman at the Brazilian border, have made the government seem less in control.

Nor is the overall state of the country likely to favor an incumbent. Wages have remained stagnant while inflation is above 20 percent and is by far the highest in the region. Scarcities of basic consumer goods have become a way of life, and utilities and public goods have become increasingly unreliable. Furthermore, over the last decade Venezuela has become an exceedingly dangerous place. Kidnappings and assaults are common and the country also leads in regional homicides and ranks the fourth-highest in the world.

Ultimately, of course, it's the outcome of the vote that matters most. Yet the importance of polls should not to be discounted either, as they may eventually offer a crucial yardstick for assessing the validity of the declared result given the real possibility of electoral fraud. If Chávez declares victory under suspicious circumstances, and the opposition cries foul, polling data will likely play an important role in making a convincing case that fraud has occurred. Even if the opposition loses, the strength of their support will have to be recorded and acknowledged.

After fourteen years of Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution, it belies belief that anyone could truly be neutral. Yet in Venezuela, where magical realism has always been more an exercise in observation than in creativity, it is probably best to expect anything and everything. In two weeks' time we will know for sure.... Or will we?

Photo by AFP/Stringer/Getty Images


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