Hugo Chavez, meet your competition

For years, Venezuela's opposition to Hugo Chávez looked like a bit of a joke. Thanks to unsuccessful attempts to unseat the president (including general strikes, an electoral boycott, and even a coup),  it deservedly earned characterizations like "disorganized," "leaderless," and "self-defeating."

On Sunday, Venezuela's opposition finally got its act together. In a national primary that drew more than 2.9 million voters to the polls (double what was expected), Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles was chosen as the opposition's standard-bearer and leader. (The photo above shows his followers celebrating the win.)

Capriles's victory over four other candidates was impressive: at 62% of the opposition vote, he doubled his nearest rival's tally, earning a strong claim to be the opposition's consensus candidate. Yet the task he faces is a daunting one, for he will have to face the popular, silver-tongued demagogue Chávez in October's presidential elections.

From day one, Capriles has run a general-election campaign, ignoring the more radical elements within the opposition movement. His main message to the voters: "I am electable because I can make inroads with swing voters who once supported Hugo Chávez but who are now looking for an alternative and long for an end to political strife. I am here to work, not to talk or fight."

Capriles's intense message discipline throughout the primary belies a thoughtful approach to the campaign. Realizing that Venezuelans value some of the Bolivarian Revolution's achievements, he tailored his message around reconciliation and inclusion. While vowing to maintain the popular aspects of the government's policies, he promises an end to the bitter partisan politics that have plagued this country for the past 13 years.

The focus of his program is education, one of several areas where Hugo Chávez appears vulnerable. Capriles views it as the key to creating jobs and lowering daunting levels of violence that have made Venezuela one of the most dangerous places in the hemisphere.

Capriles won in a landslide. He won across all income levels, and triumphed in every state except for Zulia, the home state of his closest rival, Governor Pablo Pérez.

Pérez is young and charismatic, but he could not overcome his association with Venezuela's old, discredited parties, which endorsed him. His campaign began late and struggled to find a message that would stick. In a gracious speech Sunday, Pérez heartily endorsed his "brother" Capriles.

The strategy for the Capriles team moving forward is to try and break the emotional bond between lower-middle class sectors and the President. Capriles will attempt to convince voters that a presidency will not mean the end of Chávez's generous social policies, but rather an improvement on them.

He also needs to convince the military that the country would be governable under his stewardship. Hugo Chávez, already in campaign mode, has repeatedly said that none of the other candidates can handle the presidency, and claims that only his victory can ensure stability.

He might have a point. He has created militias loyal only to his political project, and there is no telling how they would respond to a defeat at the polls. As an ex-army officer he also retains a sizeable following among the military proper (and especially among the officers he's promoted to key positions). Less ideological members in the military brass might be skeptical of Capriles's ability to hold the factions at bay and ensure the peace. Finally, the uncertainty surrounding Chávez's cancer -- and his possible successor -- might prompt one of these groups to try and seize power. It is noteworthy that one of the first groups Capriles mentioned in Sunday's victory speech was the Armed Forces.

Capriles faces a monumental task. Even putting aside Chávez's charisma, his war chest is basically the state itself. He has free rein to dip into the public coffers for campaigning and, with oil prices at over $100 a barrel, there is no way Capriles can come close to matching his spending power. And given the president's absolute control over Venezuela's airwaves, there is no way to match his media access either.

In spite of all this, recent head-to-head polls put Capriles within striking distance of the incumbent.

For all his structural advantages, Hugo Chávez now has something he hasn't had in years: an organized opposition, headed by a legitimate, disciplined leader.


Democracy Lab

Uganda's oil scandal

Non-Ugandans may not realize that our country makes a lot of money from oil. The recent discovery of a massive new oil field in the Albertine region of the country is raising the stakes. All citizens are supposed to benefit from the sale of these resources, but this is not always the case.

Ugandans are growing more dissatisfied with the way oil deals are being carried out. Many people in civil society organizations and the media are decrying the absence of a proper oil policy, particularly the lack of transparency about oil-related transactions and how the resulting money is put to use.

Nobody foresaw that the discovery of oil in Uganda might be monopolized by President Museveni's right-hand men. But that's what has happened. (The photo above shows the president entering Parliament a few days ago with Speaker Rebecca Kadaga.) A number of senior government officials, right up to the prime minister, have been accused of pocketing millions of dollars in bribes from the oil companies.

Ugandans are not happy with the situation. The most frequent sentiment I've been hearing from people in Kampala boils down to this: "We have plenty of oil, but fuel prices are still going up. Why?" Some say that the President's reluctance to pursue corrupt individuals in the oil sector shows that he is using the oil sector to reward his followers.

When the first oil discoveries were made in 2006, Ugandans had high hopes. Oil wealth, they assumed, could help to revive the nation's economy. But it hasn't worked out that way. You could argue that the flow of black gold has actually made things worse by aggravating conflicts of interest and political instability. I would attribute this to the inadequate institutions and poor resource governance that characterize Uganda. There are many reports that the discovery of oil has actually led to people losing access to the resources on which they depend on for their livelihoods and food security.

Recently, one of my journalist friends visited Hoima, an area where Tullow Oil Company is carrying out oil exploration. What he found there can be described as the complete absence of corporate social responsibility on the part of Tullow. He concluded that the locals, and in particular those whose existence depends on local lakes and rivers, have suffered a lot. He documented how many people have been driven off their land. Some have received compensation, others have not.

Most of the affected individuals live in villages. They are poor, but rather than benefiting from the discovery of oil near their homes, their livelihoods are ruined. Where others see business opportunities, these villagers end up as the losers.

In Kampala as well as in northern Uganda, many Ugandans are skeptical whether they will ever see any benefit from the oil resources. Civil society groups have condemned the manner in which transactions are being carried out. They argue, among other things, that the deals often result in environmental problems whose costs are not paid by those who cause them. A BBC report quotes a Tullow manager's response: "In our view, not only the legislation, but our practice as a company ensures that there are no issues with respect to environmental management."

There are many aspects of the oil industry that have been left unexplained. Laws regulating the industry are weak and poorly enforced; the details of deals in the sector are often kept secret; the government and the oil companies have failed to disclose signed Production Sharing Agreement (PSAs); and, perhaps most worrisome of all, there are many allegations of oil companies bribing ministers and other government officials.

During the heated parliamentary debate in October 2011, documents were revealed alleging that Tullow Oil bribed Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa, and former Energy Minister Hilary Onek. Onek, who was accused of receiving about 17m Euros ($23m; £15m), strongly denied the allegation.

Meanwhile there are cases of oil companies continuing to operate on expired licenses. There are also cases where licenses have been issued without competitive bidding.

On October 11, 2011 the Parliament of Uganda passed a number of resolutions designed to clean up the sector. The parliamentarians demanded a stop to all deals until new laws can be passed, a review of existing contracts, removal of all ministers suspected of receiving bribes from oil companies pending full investigation, and so on.

Yet the government ignored Parliament's resolutions and moved ahead with signing new Production Sharing Agreements with Tullow Oil, failed to introduce new oil bills, and has allowed the implicated ministers to stay in office and to preside over the signing of new oil contracts. Many Ugandans understandably remain puzzled about who is really profiting from our oil resources.