By Andres Oppenheimer

There has been a lot of speculation in recent weeks that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will rig the vote count in the Oct. 7 presidential elections. But after interviewing opposition candidate Henrique Capriles last week, I doubt that a massive electronic fraud will be possible.

Judging from what Capriles told me in a 40-minute interview, and what I'm hearing from several international election experts, there is no doubt that Venezuela's election process is imbalanced - Chavez is using government funds to buy votes, has unlimited access to television time, and controls most electoral institutions - but it won't be easy for the Venezuelan government to carry out a massive electronic fraud that would go unnoticed.

In the interview, I asked Capriles about a recent column by Carlos Alberto Montaner, one of Latin America's best political commentators, stating that Chavez is preparing a mega fraud in the electronic vote counting process.

Montaner cited political consultants as saying that there are 2 million names of nonexistent voters in the ballots, which the government may use to rig the vote count. (I discussed this with Montaner when I was finishing this column and he no longer feels this way because the situation on the ground has changed).

To prepare the ground, Chavez has commissioned polls allegedly demonstrating that he is way ahead in the polls. On election night, Venezuelan government spokesmen appear before international news media announcing Chavez's alleged victory, which they will claim confirms what the polls have been forecasting all along, Montaner wrote.

Asked about it, Capriles responded that he is not a newcomer when it comes to winning elections against all odds. He added that the opposition has proved in recent gubernatorial and legislative elections that it can win when it is well prepared to double-check the electronic results with manual vote counting at each polling place.

"I have shown throughout my career that when you organize, when you are on top of the vote counting process and have the majority of the country with you, you end up winning despite an uneven playing field," Capriles told me.

"I have never lost an election, and nobody ever gave me an election victory as a present," he said, adding that he won the governorship of Venezuela's second most populous state after defeating a government candidate that enjoyed the same advantages as Chavez enjoys today. "I won because I organized to defend and look after the people's vote. That's the key."

OK, but how can you win against a president who has benefitted from the biggest oil bonanza in recent history, gives away massive cash subsidies, and speaks for hours on national television while you are only entitled to three minutes of television ads a day, I asked.

"I will win the same way David won against Goliath," Capriles responded. "It's true that I am running against all of the state's resources. But despite this use of our oil bonanza, the government doesn't have much to show."

Because of disastrous government policies, Venezuela has one of the world's highest violence rates, the biggest inflation rate in the Americas, a nearly destroyed economy that is forcing the country to import 80 percent of its food, constant electricity blackouts, water shortages and millions of poor, he said.

As for the polls that show Chavez ahead, Capriles said that there are three polls showing Chavez ahead, and four polls showing Capriles ahead.

"It's not the first time I've had to deal with government-fabricated polls. When I ran for governor, it was the same spokesmen, the same polling firms, who said we wouldn't win. The same happened in the recent legislative elections, where the same polling firms said we would obtain 20 congressmen, and we got 67."

He added, "We can win this election by more than one million votes, or a 10 percent difference. I'm absolutely confident that we will win."

My opinion: There is no doubt that this will be a David versus Goliath election. But Capriles makes a good point - supported by a just-released pre-election analysis co-authored by the Wilson Center and the Swedish-based Idea think tank - when he says that the manual counting mechanism to double-check the electronic count will make it difficult to rig the vote.

Besides, I can remember several Latin American elections - including the 1989 referendum that defeated late Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet and the 1990 elections that ousted Nicaragua's commander Daniel Ortega - where all-powerful rulers controlled electoral institutions, used massive government funds, had a virtual monopoly on television time, and most polls projected them to win, and yet lost. Despite the unfair conditions in the race, Venezuela's election could give us a similar surprise.


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