It should be no surprise that Goliath crushed David when Hugo Chávez defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles (right) in Sunday’s election, says a prominent analyst.
“Incumbents always have advantages over their challengers, and Mr Chávez is an incumbent on steroids,” writes Moisés Naím, formerly Venezuela’s minister of industry and trade:
He controls all the levers of power and can tap Venezuela’s oil revenues at will. Mr Capriles said: “I am not running against another candidate, I am running against the Venezuelan state.” In just one example, according to data compiled by his campaign, in the week before the vote Mr Chávez was on air for nine hours while, after protesting, Mr Capriles was allowed to address the nation for two minutes.
The election could still mark a turning point in Venezuelan politics because the opposition” is better organised and, in Mr Capriles, it has found the best leader it has had since Mr Chávez rose to power,” says Naím, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy
In contrast to the ideological, divisive tactics of the latter, Mr Capriles campaigned on messages of national harmony, tolerance against political opponents and pragmatism – and he succeeded in boosting the anti-Chávez vote by 60 per cent…. Millions of erstwhile Chávez supporters have abandoned him. It is impossible to win the 6.5m votes that Mr Capriles received last Sunday without the support of millions of poor people who in past elections were stalwart Chávez voters.
Chávez won despite his record, not because of it, says Christopher Sabatini, editor-in-chief of the policy journal Americas Quarterly.
“The victory was more about Chávez as a personal figure than his self-named Bolivarian Revolution,” he writes, noting that his supporters have a “personalistic connection” rather than an ideological commitment to his 21st Century Socialism.
“Despite President Chávez’s fiery anti-American and anti-capitalist rhetoric, the majority of Venezuelan citizens are pro-market and U.S. friendly (72 percent support a free market economy and 56 percent have favorable impressions of the U.S. according to the 2007 Pew surveys.”
Turnout was a key factor in Chávez’s victory, writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Suzanne O’Neill, who notes that 80 percent of the eligible population voted.
Another reason was social spending. Businessweek notes that government outlays rose 30 percent this year. High oil prices gave Chávez the fiscal flexibility to undertake ambitious social projects, such as giving away nearly 250,000 houses (although, as Javier Corrales notes, the quality of their construction may be dubious) and subsidizing appliances through the Mi Casa Bien Equipada (or in English, My Well Equipped Home) program, part of an “oil for appliances” deal with China. …. Overall, high oil prices have often been directly correlated with Chávez’s approval ratings (see this Wall Street Journal graph), and international markets obliged this October.
Despite its defeat, Venezuela’s democratic opposition can take heart from the result, analysts suggest.
“It’s not a formidable defeat for the opposition, nor is it a big triumph for Chávismo,” said Mariana Bacalao, a political science professor at Central University of Venezuela. “Never has the opposition been so strong.”
“First among them are the results he delivered on Sunday: 6.4 million voters, 1.5 more than opposition candidates for president in the past,” he contends. “Second is the upcoming December state and local elections. The failings of the Bolivarian Revolution are most felt at the local level, and it is there that the popularity of Chávez’s project – without the former lieutenant colonel on the ballot – will be tested.”
Experts differ on their assessments of post-election scenarios.
Analyst Michael Shifter suggests in the New York Times that a more confident and unified opposition will impede Chávez’s attempts to consolidate autocratic rule, while others believe he will interpret the election result as a mandate to “press ahead with his Socialist revolution, deepening government intervention in the economy, including price controls and nationalizations.”
As COA’s Sabatini notes, if Chávez’s “campaign platform – which calls for a greater role for the military and the formation of popular communes and assemblies stretching from the executive down to communities – is any indication, he has a pretty ambitious plan for consolidating his revolution this term.”
While some observers fear that a further term for Chávez will further undermine the institutional integrity of Venezuela’s democratic institutions, Sabatini believes a more strategically-minded opposition could act as a countervailing power.
“The opposition this time appears to be playing the long-game,” he observes. “Certainly, Capriles’s post- election call for patience and for his supporters to stay the course speaks to a new level of maturity of a fractious opposition movement.”
But it is imperative that the opposition does not return to the fractious, highly-personalized politics of the past and develops a strategic, alternative vision for Venezuela’s future, say analysts.
“Recrimination over their electoral defeat could produce fissures,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College.
“One of the main factors impeding unity is the lack of real consensus on an alternative proposal for the nation that can challenge the Chávez government,” Tinker Salas said.
Divergences over political ideology could also fracture the opposition coalition, with some conservative parties that had lined up behind Capriles already complaining about his center-left stances.
Despite the skepticism, Capriles dismissed suggestions that infighting could compromise the opposition’s unity. The opposition held its first ever presidential primary in February and promptly closed ranks behind Capriles, the winner.
“Without a doubt, we have very big political capital that cannot be lost,” Capriles said. “Our unity remains and our unity should be strengthened.”
What will surely continue is the government machine built by Chávez that many say has won the president 14 years of loyalty. That includes at least 2.4 million national government employees, making up 8 percent of the country’s population. By comparison, the United States, with tenfold the population, has almost the same number of federal employees, at 2.7 million.
“Yet the bigger test may be that faced by Mr Chávez,” says Naím:
No doubt, the president will continue to wield huge discretionary power: that feature of Venezuela’s political landscape is unchanged. But in the coming years, he will have to use his power to deal with something an election victory cannot change: the country is a mess. It suffers from inflation and homicide rates among the world’s highest, decrepit infrastructure, declining oil production, a deeply distorted economy, dismal productivity and rampant corruption.
Venezuela’s domestic failures have also detracted from the international appeal of Chávez’s Bolivarian prohect:
He will have less money and his credibility has been hurt by the many unfulfilled promises he has made to his allies. Most important, the allure of his Bolivarian revolution has faded as Venezuela’s difficulties have become better known abroad. While he may still take the international stage with gestures such as his unconditional support for the Syrian and Iranian regimes, or his alliance with Belarus, his regional influence is faltering.