7 November 2012

When Less Is More: How Chavez Stumbled Onto A “Perfect Victory”

Before the presidential elections of October 7, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez had spoken of a “perfect victory”, setting himself a target of 10 million votes from an electoral register of about 19 million and promising a knockout blow to the Opposition. He fell almost two million votes short of his own target. His victory percentage this time was a little over 11% — not bad after 14 years in office — but his lowest ever. This could not have been the perfect victory that he wanted or was it, by the law of unintended consequences, just that?

The Opposition achieved their best presidential results ever, both in the number of votes and the voting percentage. So why are they sporting such long faces? The answer goes back to 2004 when they thought they could get rid of Chavez through a recall referendum and staked everything on it. The Opposition then played, just like this time, a now-or-never game and lost. The result was Chavez winning the presidential elections of 2006 with a record 63%. 
A year later, Chavez narrowly lost a referendum on constitutional reforms and the Opposition was handed the opportunity to regroup. In 2008, the Chavistas lost the more populated states like Miranda, Zulia and Carabobo, Venezuela’s electoral corridor. Two of their governors would later switch to the Opposition. In 2010, the Chavez and Opposition votes in the parliamentary elections were roughly equal though the Chavistas achieved a large majority in the national Assembly.

This time, the Chavistas have regained some ground from the Opposition in many of the states they had lost four yeas ago and are predicted to take some of them back in the December state governor elections. The challenger to Chavez, Henrique Capriles, even lost in his own state of Miranda. It was left to the veteran Opposition leader, Ramos Allup, to point out that the Chavista votes had increased among the middle and upper classes by 4% while the Opposition votes in the popular sectors had fallen by 7%. 

[In red, Chavez votes, in blue Opposition votes, in green the margin  Source: Left Futures]

The depression in the Opposition ranks, and the enormity of Chavez’s victory, extends beyond mere numbers. They threw everything into the campaign: more unity than ever more, financial resources to make the U.S. presidential candidates envious and saturation coverage by the private media and a million phone calls on the two days before the elections when campaigning was prohibited. It will be difficult for them to manufacture another candidate with trajectory who can take on Chavez six years on if he runs for office. They find that neither armed adventures nor ballot boxes will get rid of the President overnight. Victory will be a slow slog; perhaps this man cannot be beaten in his lifetime. There is little appetite among Opposition supporters for street violence as a means of toppling Chavez. The private media remains the Opposition’s last bastion but the alternative popular media has more presence these days: it is harder to get away with barefaced lies.

This year’s Opposition campaign bore the hallmark of State Department planning. A young, energetic and telegenic challenger against the old beast; a united Opposition with trusted gatekeepers to hand out television time and funds for those who fell in line and a new party, Primero Justicia (Justice First), unafraid of street fights, to take the place of the fractious dinosaurs of the old Opposition: that was how Chavez was to be felled. In the end, Primero Justicia was not even the highest vote-getter among the Opposition groupings and the old guard has come storming back. It’s back to the design board in Washington.

Layers of the Opposition have begun to peel away. About a tenth of the Opposition bench in the National Assembly has broken off from the leaky umbrella of the MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable). Perhaps this marks the emergence of a moderate Right in Venezuela, something that interests Chavez for the strategic reason that if the Bolivarians ever lose power, it is better to do so to a moderate nationalist Opposition than to the rabid Right, something from which it will be easier for them to recover.
Chavez’s vote share decreased in this election in percentage terms but his actual votes increased compared to 2006. This was down to the increase in the election register, with 96% of Venezuelans inscribed in it. Chavez argues that his physical condition contributed to the relatively poor harvest of votes. His last round of radiotherapy ended just two days before the start of the campaign and his participation this time was limited. What is more certain is that there was a fairly large protest vote. This is borne out by two post-electoral opinion polls in which two-thirds of Venezuelans said that the country would prosper under Chavez and 59% of them said theirs was a protest vote for the Opposition. Most of these were in states and municipalities where the local Chavista leadership was out of touch. A quarter of the social classes at the bottom of pile, who have benefited enormously from the revolution and who live in barrios where there was no Opposition campaign, voted against the President.  The editor of Venezuela’s largest-selling newspaper, Ultimas Noticias, put this down to the penetration of the Right-wing radio stations. A record number of Venezuelans voted this time but even with the turnout of more than 80% a fairly large number of Chavez supporters abstained, either as a protest or out of triumphalism. Should Chavez be able to deliver more efficient governance in the new cycle, many of those who voted for the Opposition could migrate back to the Bolivarian camp.

Chavez himself says it is still too early to measure the impact of the victory but believes that the Bolivarian revolution is now safe for the rest of the century. The margin of victory perfectly suits him in two ways. It destroys the narrative of stolen elections. The international Right had to concede that Venezuela did have democratic elections. The internal Opposition too conceded that the elections were transparent and clean. It robbed the United States of the excuse to delegitimise and isolate Chavez internationally and plan for a military intervention. The modest but by no means a narrow victory margin also gives him the mandate to purge his own ranks and a decent interval of six years to set things right. Within days of the victory, Chavez came out with three major planks of his new presidential period. Popular power would be strengthened. The community councils would be woven into communes with extensive powers and the ideas and values of socialism reasserted. The people would have to be convinced; there would be no imposition. What defined the Bolivarian revolution was its democratic character, he said in a live telecast of the first meeting of his new Cabinet.

Second, tactics and strategies for the Bolivarian media are being rethought to counter the private media’s permanently hostile campaign. Chavez acknowledged the inefficiencies of the national, regional and municipal governments and promised that he would come down on inefficiency and bureaucracy with an iron fist and that this would be his best period of governance. He has asked the Bolivarians to subject themselves to self-criticism.  The electoral result gives him the legitimacy and the impetus to push through for a revolution within the revolution, long overdue and with popular clamour behind it.

What more would have 10 million votes given him? Perhaps he could have stepped down knowing that his successor would coast to a victory. Most Chavistas have begun to concede that they need to plan for a post-Chavez era but his succession remains undefined. Chavez says it is not for him to appoint his successor and that he would love to hand over to a woman. But for now the Opposition is reeling, Chavez is secure and the socialist revolution has wind in its sails.

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