The World from Berlin: Venezuela Elections 'Free, But Not Fair'

Opposition supporters in Venezuela were disappointed by the results of Sunday's elections, when President Hugo Chavez beat his opponent by a comfortable margin. German media concede Chavez was the clear winner, but warn his provocative populism is incapable of solving the country's problems.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gestures to supporters after casting his vote Sunday. Zoom
REUTERS

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gestures to supporters after casting his vote Sunday.

With a record voter turnout of roughly 80 percent, the results of Venezuela's presidential election on Sunday are hard to dispute. Hugo Chavez, in power since 1999, won another six-year term with 55 percent over his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski's 45 percent.

It's a much less lopsided victory than the 26-point margin by which he won in 2006, but it is a clear mandate nonetheless. Still, there have been questions raised about the fairness of the electoral system in Venezuela, where the president made significant use of state resources in his campaign.

Capriles told supporters at his campaign headquarters not to feel dejected. "We have planted many seeds across Venezuela and I know that these seeds are going to produce many trees," Capriles said. "I hope a political movement that has been in power for 14 years understands that almost half the country does not agree with it."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle released a statement on Monday saying he saw the high turnout "above all as a mandate from the voters to take responsibility for the future of Venezuela."

"That's why I'm coupling my congratulations with the expectation that the president and his government will act responsibly, not just in his own region but also domestically, and that he will tackle the great challenges that face Venezuela with economic consistency," Westerwelle said.

His words echoed doubts in the German press that Chavez can really fulfil his promise to eradicate poverty with his economic policies, which are completely dependent on the country's vast oil reserves. Many also say that while Chavez is rightfully concerned about the poor, he should allow a more open and democratic debate about the direction of his country.

Instead, he pejoratively denounced Capriles as a "loser", "sycophant" and "fascist" -- audacious, considering Capriles's great-grandparents died in the Holocaust.

German media commentators take a closer look at the election results on Tuesday.

The center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Comandante Chavez is not a democratic role model; he is more the prototype of the democratic caudillo -- charismatic, mission-oriented and populist. Venezuela's elections were free, but not fair. The president made use of the entire state apparatus for his campaign.... He made his re-election possible by changing the constitution, and others are entertaining the idea as well."

"Chavez's victory can be a lesson for Latin America. So far Brazil has done the best job at balancing growth, popularity and democracy. Under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, millions of Brazilians entered the middle class. In 2011 Lula stepped down despite his popularity. After a senseless coup attempt, strikes and boycotts, Chavez's opponents have recognized that elections are the only way to get Chavez out. But he still has the majority on his side."

The left-leaning daily Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Make what you will of Chavez, but he's the first one in history to serve the underclass; his historical achievement is to put the social question on the agenda. Voters gratefully acknowledged that fact, even if the Chavez years lack balance. A high murder and inflation rate, the resentful friend-foe mentality, the inefficiency and cronyism, the authoritarian behavior -- those would all be good reasons to vote the comandante out. If only it weren't for the suspicion that the candidate of the middle-class would radically turn back the clock."

The business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"In his re-election, Chavez won votes above all from the lower class, and it's no wonder: He has indeed managed to significantly lower poverty. However this victory has a high price tag. The programs that fight poverty are financed with oil revenue. Here Chavez has been able to draw on unlimited resources. When he took office, oil was priced at $8 per barrel; it's now more than $100.

"But that won't last much longer. He has failed to restructure the ailing oil industry. There isn't enough labor to make use of the difficult-to-exploit oil resources in the Orinoco Delta. Investors from abroad fear orgies of nationalization, and the recent spike in crime and violence is not enticing them either."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Chavez has taken out massive loans for the state and its oil company, leading to Venezuela's current debt problem. How the state plans to liquidate big portions of foreign-currency bonds starting in August of next year is not at all clear.... He has little choice but to strengthen the bolivar with his oil revenue, thereby restructuring the budget. But the consequence will be growing inflation -- which is why Chavez will ultimately be passing the bill for his incompetent economic leadership onto the country's poor."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"Bogus democratic elections took place in Venezuela over the weekend: An omnipotent power apparatus faced an opposition that had finally united behind a competent, young candidate. Henrique Capriles Radonski winning 45 percent of the vote under these conditions is a tremendous accomplishment. A third of Venezuelans were always against Chavez. Every vote beyond that is evidence of the growing uneasiness of the other half of the country. One of the most far-reaching developments of the years under Chavez is the division he has knowingly forced on the country. Chavez is a hatemonger, and it's no wonder that he -- like no one before -- has anchored the region to the government in Iran. Teheran is active today in many countries in Latin America. Especially where there are uranium deposits, like in Bolivia."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"For the poorer population of Venezuela, Chavez remains the guarantee that they get a piece of the cake too… For Capriles's supporters, the trauma of the Bolivarian revolution continues. No one has yet cried 'ballot rigging.' But anyone who was that convinced of a victory will interpret the hammering from Sunday as fraud. No small number of people are considering packing their bags. Will they really do it? Walking through their residential neighborhoods, you don't get the impression that economic hardship will push them out of the country."

-- Andrew Bowen

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