August 17, 2011 / 8:45 AM / in 7 years

Violence threatens Venezuela vote outcome - report

CARACAS (Reuters) - Political violence in Venezuela threatens to undermine the outcome of next year’s election whether President Hugo Chavez wins a new six-year term or not, an influential think-tank said on Wednesday.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez smiles during a meeting with Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) General Secretary Maria Emma Mejia during at Miraflores Palace in Caracas August 16, 2011. REUTERS/Miraflores Palace/Handout

Venezuela is already one of the world’s most dangerous countries, where the presence of organized crime gangs, police corruption, impunity and millions of firearms in civilian hands is a volatile mix.

Yet despite the deep polarization of society after 12 years of Chavez’s socialist “revolution”, political violence has so far proved to be more of a risk than a reality.

“As the country heads into what promises to be a fiercely contested presidential election, with very high stakes for both sides, this fragile equilibrium may not hold,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report

“The greatest danger is likely to come after the election, regardless of who wins, since the entrenched levels of violence are prone to undermine either peaceful regime continuity, hand-over to a successor or any transitional arrangement.”

The 57-year-old president revealed in June he had cancer, and the ICG said uncertainty over his health compounded the risk of political violence in the short and medium term.

The think tank said the government must take steps to disarm and dismantle criminal structures, restore the rule of law and root out corruption in state institutions.

Chavez swept to power promising to end graft and violence, but has since been accused of tolerating the complicity of elements of the security forces and senior ruling party officials with criminal organizations in return for loyalty.

Venezuela’s murder rate was high by global standards when Chavez took office but has increased exponentially since then. The state-run National Statistics Institute projected there were more than 19,000 murders nationwide in 2009. ICG said on average more than 10 people are killed in Caracas every day.

The worst political violence in Venezuela’s recent history was during a march on Chavez’s palace organized by the opposition in 2002 when 19 people were killed. More than nine years later, both sides still blame each for the deaths.

“Conditions are such that it is hard to see any electoral result bringing relief in the short run,” ICG said. “A failure to defuse the time bomb would mean the loss of thousands of lives and seriously threaten the country’s stability.”

Editing by Louise Egan and Anthony Boadle

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