By Christopher Sabatini, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of the policy journal Americas Quarterly. The views expressed are his own.
For a brief moment last week, a few started to believe the impossible: that after 14 years, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez would lose an election to a unified opposition led by a young, energetic former governor, Henrique Capriles Radonski. But when the results were announced on Sunday night, Chávez had won, again.
This time, though, the victory was more about Chávez as a personal figure than his self-named Bolivarian Revolution over a fractured, discredited (and smeared) opposition. For the first time, the Venezuelan opposition made the election a referendum on Chávez’s record, rather than – as it had too often in the past – on his personality. With a record as governor of Miranda state and as a fresh face, the 40-year-old Capriles separated himself from the shadow of the corruption and mismanagement that preceded Chávez, instead focusing on the dismal record of the Bolivarian Revolution.
And there is a lot to focus on: in the last 14 years, Caracas – with a murder rate of about 67 per 100,000 residents – has become one of the most violent cities in the world; profligate public spending has led to an inflation rate that topped 27 percent last year (again one of the highest in the world), and reliance on oil and the capricious expropriation of business has led to one of the lowest rates of economic growth in the region, registering a flaccid 4.2 percent last year compared to 6 percent for Chile and 6.9 for Peru.
The strategy earned the opposition its strongest performance since Chávez was first elected in 1998, with 14 years of difficulties managing Venezuela’s problems and exorbitant promises reducing Chávez’s vote share to just over 10 percent, with Capriles – when the final votes were tallied – scoring 44 percent of the vote compared with Chávez’s 55 percent.
According to interviews and surveys, many of the poor that have remained Chávez’s base maintain a personalistic connection to the Afro/Indigenous descendant leader as a man who speaks their language and defends their interests. Less clear, though, is how many of them actually identify with Chávez’s broader project of creating a 21st Century Socialism. International surveys like those conducted by Pew have shown that despite President Chavez’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).
Just as important for Sunday’s results has been the evolution of the opposition. Since 1999, the opposition has consistently shot itself in the foot, in a series of self-inflicted political wounds. Among them have been: an April 2002 coup attempt (and the return of Chávez after the interim president unwisely attempted to dissolve the constitution); a December 2002 general strike intended to force Chávez out of office (instead he fired striker oil workers); a refusal to accept the election results of a 2004 referendum on President Chavez’s mandate; and a miscalculated decision to not participate in the 2005 legislative elections. Throughout, the opposition underestimated Chávez and handed him numerous victories and a carte blanche to consolidate his power.
This time, though, in February 2012 a broad coalition of opposition groups held a free, democratic primary in which 3 million voters participated, selecting Capriles. And that unity has held even after the opposition’s defeat. For now, the opposition has hewed close to the consensus candidate, whose concession remarks have shown a remarkable level of moderation and a long-term view. Despite fears of post-election violence, Venezuela has been quiet – something due in no small measure to the restraint and commitment of Capriles and the opposition to the democratic process and securing the gains of Sunday.
The ultimate question will be what both sides will do in the next month and over President Chavez’s new six-year term that will start in January 2013. For Chávez, the question will be whether he ramps up his Bolivarian Revolution or recognizes that he is now governing a country split largely down the middle – just over 50 percent with him and just under that against him. For most political leaders, that result would be a sign of the need to reach across the aisle and moderate political goals. But this is a former military officer and coup leader who when he has won in the past has engaged in a flurry of nationalizations and policies to consolidate power. And if his 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.
The opposition this time appears to be playing the long-game. 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. The question is whether – given their differences – they are willing to stick with him.
They have three good reasons to do so, however. 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. 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. The voting represents a real opportunity to make genuine inroads in the state to practically demonstrate the difference between Chávez’s inchoate political project and the opposition’s claims that it can govern more effectively.
Last is Chávez’s uncertain health. In the past year, Chávez has undergone two separate surgeries and treatment in Cuba for an undisclosed cancer. According to Article 233 of the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution, should a president fail to complete the first four years of his or her term, new elections must be held immediately. Until now – as is often the case with charismatic leaders – Chávez has failed to groom a successor who has the same popular appeal and authority. If the president should be unable to fulfill his term before 2016, it will be a mad scramble among the parties and movements that make up his Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) to find an electable replacement. In contrast, the opposition already has one. President Chávez may have won Sunday’s elections; it’s unclear though if Chavismo without Chávez could do the same.