Today the Carter Center (CC) released the final report of its study mission to the 2012 presidential election. It provides the most comprehensive and balanced review of the elections available. The CC did not go to the election as official observers or even as “accompaniment” but rather put together an independent study mission. Thus rather than an evaluation, the document should be read as a research report. I will not try to summarize its 75 pages, but will point out what I thought was its most important argument. The CC suggests that while accusations of fraud gained little traction this time around, criticisms of comprehensive incumbent’s advantage have grown and become more substantive.

Incumbents usually have the advantage in electoral campaigns as the visibility of office effectively provides them with free campaign exposure. However, the CC argues that several aspects of Venezuela’s current electoral framework exacerbate this advantage. First, a government that has so much money and so few controls has an extraordinary ability to boost spending and spur economic growth before an election. Economists estimate that Venezuela’s public sector spending will have increased by 45% in 2012 over 2011, including huge outlays for La Gran Misión Vivienda—the big government push to construct new housing. More broadly, in contrast to most other Latin American nations, Venezuela has no public funding for campaigns and makes it virtually impossible to track campaign finances.

The CC argues that minimalist definitions of what constitutes campaign advertising—restricted to information that explicitly seeks to mobilize votes for a particular candidate—leaves unregulated public service messages and advertisements heralding the government´s programs and expenditures. Furthermore, while candidates are strictly limited to three minutes of campaign advertising daily, the government gets ten minutes daily of public service messages and unlimited “cadenas”—public addresses that must be transmitted by all broadcast outlets.

The report also has an excellent section on media coverage based on original research. While several sources, including this blog (here) have pointed out that Capriles received as much or more media coverage as Chávez, the CC research looks closely at the content of the coverage. They point out that most individual articles or reports in Venezuelan media contain only one political view. They also show that while overall there was balance, state media was very unbalanced—its coverage of Chávez was almost exclusively positive while its coverage of Capriles was predominantly negative. They also point out that while it is true that state television generally has a small viewership, audience for the main state television station grew to a 24% share of the market–second among all television channels.