Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS: Church Criticises Election Authoritarianism

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Oct 27 1998 (IPS) - The Roman Catholic Church in Venezuela has spoken up against against the “ultra-conservativism and temptation toward authoritarianism” involved campaigning in general elections due later this year.

Bishops and Archbishops of the church issued a declaration saying while they favoured a change in the political leadership they had no wish to upset democratic legality and did not want to see populism or violence.

Archbiship Jorge Urosa said there an atmosphere of tension and fear prevailed in the election campaign which he attributed to the “excessive threats” of presidential candidate and retired lieutenant colonel Hugo Chavez.

The 44 year-old Chavez is currently favoured to to win the presidential election on Dec. 6, according to public opinion polls. His party, the ‘Movement V Republic,’ likely will become the strongest group in parliament after the legislative and regional elections on Nov. 8.

Urosa said Chavez had been making anti-democratic statements by constantly repeating that, if his expected triumph goes unrecognised, “there will be disaster in the country” and “blood will be spilled.”

Chavez burst into the public arena in February 1992 when he led the first of two uprisings this year, and he is now supported by a coalition of left-wing groups, former military coup members and protectionist business people.

The polls predicted deep changes in the political scene, with only 23 State governors escaping the worst while the social democrats of the Democratic Action (AD) party were expected to maintain supremecy here.

The Church’s “ultra-conservativism” barb was directed at the AD, the party which has dominated the political scene in the past four decades of democracy along with the Christian Socialists.

The church leaders’ declation also criticised Chavez for dragging the military institution into the electoral battle, “because this creates dangerous situations.” The bishops stressed the armed forces will respect the will of the people and support steps to improve and deepen democracy.

Chavez told the Venezuelan daily “El Nacional” that while the Catholic Church generally opposed his candidacy, he “respects all creeds,” and he has increased the use of biblical refrences in his speeches in recent weeks.

The document stressed that Venezuela is immersed in a serious political, economic, social and ethical “crisis of crises,” with more than 70 percent of the population living in poverty. According to Urosa, Venezuelans were “totally put out, frustrated and tired of the serious faults of the democratic governments of recent years.”

The Catholic clergy stated that 40 years of democracy had brought some great benefits, but had also seen “serious vices and problems which have produced greater poverty and social inequality and significantly deteriorated the quality of life of the large majorities.”

The Catholic Church is the institution most valued by Venezuelans according to all surveys, since the disturbances of 1992 detonated a crisis against the exhausted model of the so- called ‘partidocracy’ which has still not been overcome.

Behind the Catholic Church, which this decade reinforced its social apostolate, surveys showed the media and the armed forces are the other most valued institutions, while the parties, Congress, the Judicial Power and government were all soundly out of favour with people polled.

The Episcopal Assembly asked the 11 million voters not to allow themselves to be led by “irrational emotivity” and the candidates not to fall into impossible populist offers, or manipulatory calls to violence or disqualification.

The dissemination of the programmes and proposals of the 14 presidential candidates and the more than 3,000 hopefuls for posts up for election in November has been overshadowed by a tough debate and propaganda which states what is in play is democracy and dictatorships or peace and violence.

Surveys show that after Chavez the candidate most likely to succeed in former governor and entrepreneur Henrique Salas, aged 62, the only one not backed by any established party.

Despite this, his Venezuela Project party could become the third strongest force in the legislative, ahead of the Copei grouping, although it will not figure much in the regional ambit as it only has its own candidates in 10 states.

Conversely to what happened in the first five year periods of the democratic cycle which opened in 1958, the hierarchy of a Church which is by far in the majority in Venezuela has made no sign whatsoever of support for the self-confessed Catholic party, Copei.

On the contrary, some bishops have spoken out against its candidate, former lady mayor, Irene Saez, a 37 year old who was leading the polls until March, and now ranks fourth behind Chavez, Salas and Alfaro.

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