Category Archives: Venezuela

Venezuela 2013

Early presidential elections were held in Venezuela on April 14, 2013 following the death of incumbent President Hugo Chávez on March 5. Chávez, who had held office since 1999 and had been reelected to a fourth term in office in October 2012, was – by far – the most famous and important Venezuelan leader in decades. His controversial style, rhetoric and policies transformed his country and left a profound mark on Latin America as a whole.

Chávez had been diagnosed with cancer in June 2011 and underwent several operations in Cuba in 2011 and 2012. Although he had claimed in July 2012 that he had fully recovered from cancer, shortly after his reelection to a fourth term in office, Chávez’s cancer returned and he underwent a new operation in Cuba in December 2012. Suffering from a respiratory infection and later a lung infection which had caused respiratory failures, Chávez remained in Cuba until mid-February 2013, at which point he returned to Venezuela. Although the government claimed he had overcome his lung infection, it later admitted that he was receiving chemotherapy in Venezuela and his respiratory problems returned on March 4. Chávez died in Caracas on March 5, at the age of 58.

According to the constitution, Chávez was due to be inaugurated as President on January 10, but the inauguration was never held because Chávez was still in Cuba and he returned home only for his final days. As per Article 233 of the constitution, if the President is ‘permanently unable to serve’ prior to his inauguration, he is temporarily succeeded by the President of the National Assembly and a new election must be held within 30 days. However, while a President may be deemed ‘permanently unavailable’ for reasons other than death and resignation – such as a ‘permanent physical or mental disability’ such a disability must be certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with the approval of the National Assembly. The National Assembly, controlled by the chavistas, never declared him unable to serve prior to his death and a court ruled that a reelected incumbent could forego the inauguration. Therefore, when he died on March 5, he was deemed to have died after the beginning of his fourth term of office on January 10. In these circumstances, the President is temporarily succeeded by the Vice President and a new election must be held within 30 days. As a result, Chávez’s Vice President, Nicolás Maduro (who had been named to the office by Chávez in October 2012 after the election) was promptly inaugurated as interim President. The opposition claimed that Maduro’s accession was invalid because Chávez had never taken the constitutionally-mandated oath of office, hence he should have been replaced by the President of the National Assembly (in this case, Maduro’s intra-party rival, Diosdado Cabello).

There were also some divergences on the matter of new elections: the constitution states it must be held within 30 consecutive days (se procederá a una nueva elección universal, directa y secreta dentro de los treinta días consecutivos siguientes), but some apparently argued that this only meant that a new election needed to be called within 30 days rather than actually held within 30 days. While this election was not technically held within 30 days, the argument was moot because Maduro and the regime wished to hold a new election as soon as possible.

Chávez’s Legacy

Regardless of one’s opinion on the man, Hugo Chávez will be a tough act to follow. It is undeniable that he transformed his country and left a profound impact on his country, Latin America and even the entire world. But whether he did more good than bad is, obviously, a matter of much debate both in Venezuela and abroad. Chávez was an extremely polarizing figure. His opponents argued that he was a populist autocrat who eroded democratic institutions, stifled opposition and centralized political and economic power in his hands. His supporters still hail him as the hero of Venezuela’s poor, responsible for dramatic improvements in their standard of living and a major decline in social inequality and poverty through the investment of the country’s oil money into social programs (the so-called ‘Bolivarian missions’). They admire him for having stood up to “imperialist” elites who had controlled Latin America for decades. The reality is not as black and white: Chávez was not the hero and selfless benefactor of the downtrodden his supporters describe him as, nor was he the bloodthirsty tyrant who destroyed democracy.

My post on the October 2012 election set the context needed to understand the man, his times and his actions. From that point, anybody can decide for him or herself.

To better understand Chávez’s policies and behaviour, it is important to understand the context in which he originally came to power. Up until the 1980s, Venezuela was a political and economic model for other Latin American countries. Economically, profits from oil – the country’s top export – allowed for major state-led investment into infrastructure, natural resources and nascent social programs. The oil industry was nationalized in 1975, but governments prior to that point had already supported policies which had given the state a hefty share of profits from oil, leading to oil-induced development policies. Politically, a stable democratic systems with free elections and orderly transitions of power flourished. Two major parties, the centre-left Democratic Action (AD) and the centre-right COPEI alternated in power. The country played a major role in the regional and international arena. President Rómulo Betancourt, during his second term in power (1959-1964), sought to oppose any undemocratic regime – left or right – which had come to power by a military coup.

However, this model collapsed in the 1980s with the major fall in the price of oil which drained the country of its main source of revenue. It hardly helped, moreover, that previous oil profits had been woefully mismanaged by governments which were all too happy to spend it away. The government was forced to devalue the currency and resort to price controls, but corruption was rampant and unchecked in all echelons of power. In 1988, Carlos Andrés Pérez of the AD, who had previously served as President during the plentiful 1970s (but whose irresponsible and reckless economic policies proved disastrous and under whom corruption became ingrained), was returned to power. Pérez had campaigned on a populist and anti-”neoliberal” platform which denounced the IMF and the Washington consensus, but upon assuming power – in pure Latin American tradition – he quickly set upon doing the exact opposite of what he had promised. The poor economic outlook forced him to accept the IMF’s (in)famous structural reforms, including a liberalization of oil prices.

These neoliberal reforms came at the price of major social unrest. In 1989, a huge popular protest movement erupted in the capital (the Caracazo), a protest which was followed by a massacre in which up to 3000 may have died at the hands of the national guard. In 1992, Pérez faced two unsuccessful coup attempts, including one in February led by then-Lt. Colonel Hugo Chávez and like-minded supporters in the military. Chávez’s coup attempt failed and he was arrested and imprisoned, but he gained national prominence and for many poorer Venezuelans, he became a hero for standing up to the discredited and corrupt (Pérez would be impeached in 1993 on corruption charges) regime. He was released in 1994 when Rafael Caldera, another former President elected on a fairly left-wing platform with left-wing backers, won the presidency in 1993.

Caldera, facing a major financial crisis, was forced to rescind his vow not to accept IMF help and implement more structural reforms, including privatization and a devaluation of the currency. Out of prison, Chávez used his notoriety from 1992 to build up a strong grassroots base of support from poorer Venezuelans, who had been marginalized by the regime and disillusioned with the turno pacífico style of politics between the AD and COPEI, which had become two corrupt shells by that point. The social situation was explosive, the 1990s having resulted in dramatic increases in poverty and a decline in the per capita income. Within Chávez’s “Bolivarian” movement, the view that they should seek power through electoral rather than military means won out and Chávez ran in the 1998 elections. His support increased as the campaign went along, and he won the election with 56.2% of the vote.

Having been elected on a promise to get rid of the country’s corrupt and discredited political system, he quickly set about working for a new constitution. A constituent assembly was elected in 1999 and drafted a constitution which was then ratified by voters in a referendum. The new constitution enshrined the rights of women and indigenous groups and established the rights of the public to education, housing, healthcare and food. Institutionally, the constitution replaced the old bicameral legislature with a single, unicameral, legislature (the National Assembly) and increased the powers of the executive.

Under the new constitution, Chávez was reelected in 2000 with 59.8% of the vote. While in his first mini-term (1999-2000), Chávez had actually led fairly moderate and ‘prudent’ fiscal policies, his policies moved sharply to the left during his second term. He started major social programs (Bolivarian Missions) which aimed at alleviating poverty in the country, but at the same time he adopted a more confrontational attitude vis-a-vis the United States, private businesses and foreign investors (especially in the oil industry and the state-owned oil monopoly, PDVSA).

An opposition movement coalesced in response to Chávez’s policies, which they decried as authoritarian and populist. The opposition coalition was predominantly formed by the country’s upper middle-classes and had the strong backing of the traditional elites: the media, the employers’ federation, the business community and the old parties with the tacit support of the Bush administration in the United States. In April 2002, Chávez’s opponent attempted to depose him in a coup led by the anti-Chávez sectors of the military, but the coup collapsed within a few days. Following the failure of the coup, Chávez’s opponents attempted to destabilize his regime through a two-month management strike at PDVSA.  Chávez responded by firing striking employees, eventually succeeding in quashing the strike and placing chavistas in command of PDVSA, depriving the opposition of a key base of support.

Following the failure of the military option, the opposition tried to overthrow Chávez by using the recall mechanism embedded in the 1999 constitution. A recall referendum was held in 2004, and Chávez handily survived the recall attempt with over 70% turnout and 59% of voters against the recall. The opposition’s shenanigans in 2002 seriously damaged its credibility, giving much credence to Chávez’s claims that the opposition were the pawns of the global imperialist and “neoliberal” elites.

Chávez won a third term in office with 63% of the vote in the 2006 election, which was judged to be free and fair by international observers. In December 2007, however, he suffered his first electoral rebuke. He had proposed a series of amendments to the 1999 constitution, which included removing term limits on the President (but not any other office) but also a number of proposals aimed either at increasing executive power or, according to Chávez, implementing his socialist agenda. By a narrow margin (51% again), these changes were rejected. In 2009, however, voters approved (with 54% in favour) an amendment which removed term limits on all office holders. During his third term, Chávez clearly sought to consolidate his power, not only by changing the rules of the game to allow him another term (or terms) in office, but also by uniting his fairly fractious coalition of supporters into a single party, the PSUV.

Chávez’s main achievement will have been his ambitious social programs, styled ‘Bolivarian Missions’ by his government. These various missions – which have included local health services for poorer communities (Barrio Adentro), a literacy campaign and housing projects for the poor (Hábitat) – have been financed by Venezuela’s oil wealth. Indeed, oil is the country’s largest export (95% of export) and contributes to over half of the government’s budget. After the failed 2002 coup, Chávez moved to take full control of the country’s state-owned oil monopoly Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A (PDVSA). Chávez was skilled at using oil as a political and diplomatic tool. Although the United States remains Venezuela’s largest customer, about a third of Venezuelan oil is exported to the Caribbean. Chávez used oil as a diplomatic tool to build good bilateral ties with smaller Caribbean island nations and build a strong alliance with Cuba. Indeed, Venezuela provides oil to Cuba at a discounted price – in exchange for Cuban doctors or exports in the country. There are valid concerns about the country’s economic dependence on oil revenues, which makes it vulnerable to any major dips in global oil prices (as happened in 2008). Furthermore, oil production has dropped since 2002.

It is clear that Chávez’s policies successfully reduced poverty in Venezuela – from 59% of the population in 1999 to only 28% in 2008 (extreme poverty declined from 22% to just under 10% in the same period). The Gini index, which measures income inequality, declined during his presidency, indicating a trend towards greater income equality. However, critics will contend that other Latin American countries (Brazil, Peru, Ecuador etc…) reduced poverty by equally staggering margins in the same period, without resorting to chavismo‘s autocratic tendencies.

Many opponents will concede that some of Chávez’s missions have been quite successful. However, some of these programs have become mismanaged and inefficient; and perhaps corrupt and clientelistic. The number of houses built by the government have fallen short of its target, the government has struggled to achieve food sovereignty and the country remains dependent on imported foodstuffs and it faces chronic food shortages. Opponents have pointed to Chávez’s actions (including expropriations and nationalizations) against private food producers as a reason for these shortages. Furthermore, there has an increasing number of long power outages in recent months.

Some worry that these programs are not sustainable in the long term. The government has borrowed to fund a lot of these projects, in the process piling up the debt. The country’s public debt has been increasing very rapidly, from 26% of the GDP in 2008 to over 50% in 2012 (and it is projected to keep rising quickly).

Opponents of the regime are very critical of the perceived ‘hollowing out’ of the private sector – during his second term, Chávez stepped up nationalizations and expropriations, including key nationalizations of (often foreign-owned) food, steel, gold and cement companies and the expropriation large landowners (who had often owned huge tracts of idle and unproductive land).

Under his presidency, the size of the state grew enormously, and a good part of the country’s oil revenues have been placed under the President’s discretion, often to fund lavish campaign promises. PDVSA has become somewhat of an all-purpose development agency under the state’s control. The main employers federation, which has long been a base of opposition strength, has said that the President’s goal is the destruction of private enterprise. This is exaggerated, because regardless of the extent of state control in the economy, the private sector has not been hollowed out entirely and it retains dominance in some sectors, such as the media – although its political activism has largely been tamed since 2002-2004.

Chávez received extensive criticism, both at home and abroad, for his record on human rights and democracy. There is a lot of dishonesty in these arguments, both those which seek to portray him as a tyrannical monster and those who seek to paint him as a democrat who happens to go against an established norm. He is neither of those things. However, Venezuela has been dinged by several institutions – Amnesty International, the UN, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders for its record on human rights, civil liberties, political freedoms and press freedom. Reports have criticized his administration’s tendency to discriminate on political grounds; erode judicial independence and undercut journalistic independence. While the opposition remains well represented in some media outlets, the government has built up a powerful and loyal media empire – at times through seizing control of previously opposition-owned newspapers or television stations.

There is no proof, however, that Chávez rigged the polls. The 2007 (obviously!) and 2009 referendums, 2006 presidential election, 2010 legislative elections and 2012 presidential elections were accepted by almost all players as being free, if not entirely fair. Through tight control of the media and state institutions, Chávez has been able to create a political playing field which is biased towards him and works against the opposition. For example, the opposition and the PSUV ended up roughly tied in the popular vote in the 2010 legislative election, but the PSUV retained a comfortable majority thanks to gerrymandering. Opposition access to the media is tightly controlled and limited, while the government has free access to the media.

The central government has often picked bitter fights with states or municipalities controlled by the opposition (often by cutting off funding), professedly in the name of “devolving” power to “the people”.

One of Chávez’s main weaknesses in his third term was criminality. The homicide rate in Venezuela has increased at a dizzying pace since the 1990s, making it one of the most violent countries in the world. The homicide rate increased from 25 in 1999 to 67 in 2011, and many have been critical of Chávez’s record in reducing crime, some accusing him of sliding his feet on the issue. Drug trafficking and cross border activity with Colombia seems to be one of the main causes of the recent jump in crime in the country.

Chavismo without Chávez

After his reelection to a fourth term in office, as Chávez’s health took a turn for the worse, Chávez appointed Nicolás Maduro, his foreign minister since 2006, to be Vice President – more or less officially anointing him as his chosen successor. In doing so, Chávez worked to prevent a bloody succession battle for control of chavismo after his death.

Maduro had long been said to be Chávez’s top choice, over other rivals. Maduro, aged 50, is a former bus driver and labour leader who had been at Chávez’s side since the very beginning. Maduro was a legislator between 1998 and 2006 – he even served as speaker for a year between 2005 and 2006 – before Chávez named him as foreign minister in 2006. As foreign minister, Maduro did not deviate from the diplomatic path set for him by the President, but he was relatively well regarded by observers – for example he played a major role in resolving the diplomatic crisis with Colombia in 2010.

Maduro was often described as the leader of a civilian and ideological faction within chavismo, favoured by Cuba. The other faction in chavismo is the militarist faction, whose most prominent leader is Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer and the incumbent President of the National Assembly since January 2012. Chávez sidelined Cabello by picking Maduro as his successor, but Cabello pledged full loyalty towards Maduro.

As interim President and Chávez’s handpicked successor, it was clear that Maduro would be the PSUV’s presidential candidate in this election. If Cabello and other high-ranking PSUV officials harboured presidential ambitions, they would need to bid their time.

Maduro and foreign dignitaries at Chávez’s funeral (source: President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Facebook page)

The opposition in Venezuela has taken the form of a fractious and heterogeneous coalition of politicians and parties of all stripes who oppose Chávez. The opposition has been united under the umbrella of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) since 2009, which has been far more successful, competent and legitimate than the past incarnations of the opposition under Chávez. The MUD is a very heterogeneous coalition, uniting centrist reformers, more liberal right-wingers, former leftist allies of Chávez and the remnants of the old decrepit parties (AD and COPEI). The main forces in the MUD are the centre-right Primero Justicia (PJ), the more centre-left Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) and whatever remains of the two old behemoths – AD and COPEI – which is to say, not much. It also includes some more clearly left-wing oriented parties, some of which are former Chávez allies, such as the MAS and the Radical Cause (La Causa R).

The MUD’s 2012 presidential candidate was Henrique Capriles Radonski, the young and popular governor of Miranda – the country’s second most populous state located just outside Caracas. Although Capriles was defeated by a fairly wide 11-point margin in October, he ran a tough and spirited campaign against Chávez which proved to be the strongest opposition challenge to the longtime President. He finally shook off the image of the anti-Chávez opposition as a ragtag bunch of old privileged right-wing elites in cahoots with the loathed “imperialist” and “neoliberal” elites. He campaigned as a “social democrat” who promised to keep Chávez’s social programs while focusing on mismanagement, clientelism and corruption.

But despite a fairly successful performance in October, the opposition received a severe blow in the December regional elections. Likely benefiting from a wave of popular sympathy for the feeble President, the PSUV won back a number of state governorships it had lost to the opposition in the 2008 regional elections – including the most populous state in the country and longtime opposition bastion, Zulia. The silver lining for the MUD was that it held the closely disputed state of Miranda, where Capriles won reelection against the foreign minister and former Vice President, Elías Jaua. Henri Falcón, the popular governor of Lara who had split from chavismo in 2009 on the issue of presidential term limits, won reelection as an opposition candidate by a fairly solid margin against former PSUV governor Luis Reyes Reyes.

After Chávez’s death, the main question was whether or not Henrique Capriles would chose to run for president a second time. He announced his candidacy five days after Chávez’s death, and there was no question that he would be the opposition’s candidate – he was, by far, the most legitimate opposition candidate after his October 2012 presidential candidacy.

It was a short, nasty and brutish campaign on both sides.

Maduro does not appear to be a lightweight or glaringly incompetent, but it is clear that he lacks a lot of Chávez’s unique attributes – notably charisma and the ability to hold the disparate elements of the regime together. While Chávez was fairly secure in his position and never really needed to resort to electoral fraud or mass arrests/imprisonment of opponents to safeguard his power, Maduro appears far more insecure and keen on asserting his authority. Hours before Chávez died, Maduro expelled two American diplomats from Caracas, likely a warning shot fired at his PSUV rivals and foreign observers that he was the guy in charge. He also famously claimed that the CIA and the United States had poisoned Chávez and inoculated him with cancer.

Maduro’s campaign constantly invoked Chávez’s legacy – to the point where amused onlookers began counting the number of times he mentioned the late President’s name (7,401 times since his death!). Maduro tried to make up for his lack of charisma by presenting himself as the man who would best represent and defend Chávez’s legacy against the “fascists” and “imperialists” who are conspiring to destroy Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution”. He gave little to no details of what his policies would be, besides parroting old chavista rhetoric. Maduro, as interim president, was  forced to devalue the bolívar, the country’s currency, in order to boost exports and effectively reduce ballooning public debt, and attempt to develop a  foreign exchange scheme to address Venezuela’s dollar shortage.

Maduro and the chavistas might have taken their veneration of Chávez a bit overboard. There were the plans to embalm the late leader, then Maduro launching an oversized check (for 1.8 million bolívars) up to the heavens and Hugo Chávez, representing the dividends received by CANTV, a Venezuelan telephone company which was nationalized  in 2007 and finally Maduro’s fairly hilarious claim that Chávez came back from the dead reincarnated as a little bird which allegedly blessed him. After that, Maduro showed off a little bird named ‘Hugo’ at campaign rallies. To clearly attach himself to Chávez’s legacy, Maduro has almost transformed a political ideology into a secular religion – worshiping Chávez as a sort of deity.

Capriles used only kid gloves when he was up against Chávez in October, leading some of his supporters to criticize him for being too soft on Chávez and not going all-out against him. In contrast, his second campaign this year was much, much feistier and aggressive. He attacked Maduro head-on, contending that he lacks legitimacy because he was never elected and the dubious manner in which he assumed office after Chávez’s death. He attacked Maduro’s February devaluation of the bolívar, and during the campaign he aggressively countered Maduro’s  ‘homophobic’ slurs against Capriles (branded as a ‘little princess’) and the opposition (whom he had previously referred to as ‘faggots’ before apologizing) by attacking machismo arguing for the social inclusion of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation. His campaign also took a fairly nationalistic (read: anti-Cuban) tone – Capriles notably talked about scrapping the oil subsidies to Cuba, speaking to fairly widespread concern in Venezuela that the country’s close alliance (some might even say subservience) on Cuba is a threat to Venezuelan sovereignty and has placed Caracas in a fairly humiliating position against Havana. The perception that Maduro is the candidate favoured by the Cuban regime is fairly widespread in opposition ranks, and it is ruffled some feathers. For example, lots of questions were asked when Venezuelan state TV broadcast footage of a public ceremony where the Cuban national anthem was played.

In this short 21-second ad, Capriles’ campaign offered an indictment of the chavista record in five short points: violence, power outages, expropriations, deficient hospitals and the lack of water:

As is characteristic of Venezuelan politics in the chavista era, the campaign was marked by a whole slew of ad hominem personal attacks and insults from both sides. Maduro described his opponent as “the little bourgeois shit”, “capricious” and the “prince of the bourgeoisie”; Capriles described Maduro as “Satan”, “bird brain”, a “liar” and even went as far as to insult Maduro’s powerful wife, Cilia Flores – the former attorney general.

The conventional wisdom prior to the election was that Maduro would win by a comfortable margin (double digits), in large part on the back of an outpouring of sympathy for the deceased president.

The election

Venezuela uses electronic voting machines, which have been praised by a number of observers. The (pro-opposition) blog Caracas Chronicles explained how the electronic voting system works when the time comes to report the votes in a post-election posting here. To ensure the credibility of the results, the National Electoral Commission (CNE) chooses (randomly?) 54% of precincts to be audited on the spot, with electoral staff opening the boxes and hand counting the ‘vouchers’ given to each voter after he/she has voted. The audit tally must match up the CNE’s official tally and the tally from the voting machines.

By law, the CNE cannot officially report any results – even if it has them – before it deems that the trend is “irreversible”. This means that, unlike in the United States or Canada, there is no official source which reports precinct results to the minute as the stream in.

Turnout was 79.78%, down about one point since the 2012 election. The final results were proclaimed by the CNE, but the CNE’s website is still inaccessible outside of Venezuela – Wikipedia and the newspaper El Universal have published the CNE’s results.

Nicolás Maduro (PSUV and allies) 50.78%
Henrique Capriles (MUD) 48.95%
Eusebio Mendez (New Vision) 0.13%
María Bolívar (United Democratic Party for Peace and Freedom) 0.08%
Reina Sequera (Worker’s Party) 0.02%
Julio Mora (Democratic Unity Party) 0.01%

Venezuela 2013

Election night was a tense and crazy affair. The opposition, at around 6 or 7 in the evening, started implying that they had probably won, which they later ‘confirmed’ through their own quick counts which showed Capriles beating Maduro. However, the CNE remained silent and planned announcements were delayed several times. In 2012, the CNE had reported its official “irreversible” results at about 10pm, and the CNE’s count in 2012 more or less matched the opposition’s own quick counts. Originally due to be announced at around 10pm again, nothing came from the CNE and Twitter went ablaze with various rumours that Capriles had actually won on the CNE’s own count and the regime was panicking and refusing to acknowledge the results. At around 11:20pm, the CNE went out and announced that Maduro had won with 50.6% of the vote.

The way the night played out and the delayed timing of the CNE’s announcement has led many to suspect that the regime tinkered with the result to allow Maduro to win (the CNE is almost entirely staffed with PSUV supporters). Capriles refused to concede the election until there was a full manual recount. The opposition claimed that they had won and said that they had proof of over two thousand incidents of irregularities. The government’s supporters countered by alleging that Capriles and the opposition had fabricated their claims of irregularities and vote rigging. Maduro also claimed that Capriles had called him and offered him a pact – some kind of corrupt bargain, likely in exchange for a concession. Capriles said that there had been no such pact.

The period after the election on April 14 has been tumultuous, marked by pro and anti-government protests, some of which turned violent; and a government which seemed a bit perplexed by the situation it had been put in and found itself hesitating about how to deal with the opposition. On Monday, there were large protests, both pro and anti-government, in Caracas and in other cities in the country. Responding to Capriles’ calls, opposition supporters took to the streets to bang their kitchen pans (a Latin American form of protest known as a cacerolazo); while students clashed with the National Guard who used tear gas and plastic bullets to disperse them. Authorities claimed that there were seven deaths, 61 injuries and 135 arrests in these protests.

Maduro and the CNE initially accepted Capriles’ request for an audit, but it seems like they later backtracked and accepted only the usual audit of 54% of precincts. Less than 24 hours after it published preliminary results, the CNE confirmed Maduro’s victory. By Tuesday, the government adopted a hard line against the opposition. It blamed the opposition for the seven deaths during protests on Monday, calling Capriles a ‘murderer’ and claiming that the opposition was preparing a coup, financed by the US. Maduro later blocked an opposition protest for Wednesday, which Capriles chose to call off to prevent any violence.

It is a bit tough to sort through the violence and identify those responsible. The situation is tense and extremely polarized, with the government and opposition trading blame for the deaths and other acts of violence. There are groups of armed thugs on both sides, although the government has full control over the military and police forces in the country. The government claimed that opposition mobs had savagely attacked outpatient health clinics (CDIs), but it was later reported by the opposition and independent sources that there had been no such attacks.

Maduro further said that he would not recognize state governors who do not recognize him as President, and the President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello announced that opposition deputies would not be allowed to speak in the legislature. The opposition claimed that there was a warrant out for the arrest of Capriles (for ‘inciting violence’) and Leopoldo López (another opposition bigwig who is banned from running for office until 2014). As the government was seemingly tightening the screws and cracking down on the opposition, many opposition supporters felt that the government was laying the groundwork for an autocoup (a la Fujimori).

Because Maduro is far more insecure than Chávez ever was and because he lacks Chávez’s legitimacy and authority, there is a chance that he will crack down on the opposition like Chávez had never really done. Chávez (and vice-versa, the opposition) had used vitriolic rhetoric, but he had never really violently cracked down on the opposition through arbitrary mass arrests and detentions of opponents. Many fear that Maduro will actually take the vitriolic rhetoric to the next level and quash the opposition.

But just as it seemed that Maduro was moving to silence opposition, the CNE (certainly with the government’s blessing, clearly) announced that it would conduct a manual audit of the remaining 46% of precincts, as originally demanded by Capriles. This manual audit could take up to a month, and in the meanwhile Maduro was inaugurated on April 19 (in a ceremony interrupted by a heckler). Capriles has accepted the audit and he says that he will present ‘proof’ of electoral irregularities to the CNE.

It is very unlikely that the CNE, with Maduro already inaugurated, will somehow reverse the result and proclaim Capriles as the winner instead. Capriles and the opposition seem to have accepted this, and they prefer see the whole election and post-election shenanigans as a moral victory for themselves, which has brought the whole chavista regime to the brink. It will likely focus its efforts on the 2015 legislative elections, in the hopes of winning a majority in the National Assembly.

The government went from initially accepting Capriles’ first request for a full audit/recount, to forgetting about it and threatening to quash the opposition before going back to announce a full audit/recount. It is clear that Maduro’s very tight margin of victory has destabilized the regime, which has had a tough time deciding how it should respond: should it press on the pedals and silence the opposition, or should it tread carefully in an attempt to salvage legitimacy?

What compelled the government to backtrack on Thursday/Friday and try to strike a more conciliatory tone? Foreign pressure is probably not part of the equation – Venezuela’s Latin American partners (with a few, minor, exceptions) have recognized the result and have not posed any problems, the United States backed Capriles’ request for a recount but Caracas doesn’t pay much attention to Washington’s pronouncements. Additionally, American and foreign media attention was focused on the tragic events in Boston rather than on the situation in Venezuela after April 15.

Rather, it seems that the government was likely responding to domestic pressure. It is quite possible that the government, remembering what happened in 2002, was expecting to actually stage a coup to overthrow them. Once they realized that no such coup was forthcoming, the government (including the CNE and the Supreme Tribunal) probably realized that it had damaged its legitimacy with the evenly-divided population with its reaction to the opposition’s behaviour. For the first time in years, the chavista government had probably lost the upper hand.

Was the election rigged? Stolen? Tinkered with? It is pretty impossible to answer that question with a definite answer.

I think that we can exclude the possibility that there was massive, organized fraud and vote rigging in the election. Chávez did not rig elections, because he enjoyed genuine popular support and did not need to rig elections in order to maintain power. It is unlikely that the government would have fabricated these results, given that it was fairly confident that it would win without too much trouble. This is not really like the Mexican 1988 election – that election was pretty clearly stolen and the results largely invented by the government.

It is possible that the CNE, which is an overwhelmingly chavista institution, did some tinkering with the results before announcing them. A few elements allow us to be suspicious that there was something shady going on behind the scenes before the CNE announced the results on the evening of April 14. Immediately before the CNE publicly announced the results, it was reported that the government met with the military leadership and, later, the military and interior minister met with Capriles. This chain of events leads to suspicions that the government wanted to ensure that it had the support of the military before going public with the CNE’s results.

There were over 2,000 incidents of irregularities reported on election day, including men in PSUV jackets “helping” people cast ballots, forty election-related arrests,  and a case of National Guardsmen carrying away ballot boxes before the paper audit could be done. This may indicate that there might have been localized fraud or vote rigging, especially in precincts where the opposition is very weak and the government/PSUV has the power to overwhelm any opposition scrutineers pretty easily.

The opposition claims that it won the election by a margin of about 100,000 votes (Maduro won by 273,056 votes on the CNE count). While the opposition did not release its own set of results, the opposition’s quick count is a bit more trustworthy than the usual claims made by any defeated opponent that they won when they certainly lost. The opposition had poll watchers in every single precinct in the country, and in October 2012 their ‘quick count’ numbers had mirrored the CNE’s final results. Nevertheless, while the opposition has some fairly solid claims, we should be careful before assuming that Capriles actually won and that the regime ‘stole’ the election, just on the basis of Twitter and the opposition’s own claims.

The CNE website is still inaccessible from outside Venezuela, but ES Data has released an Excel file with full results by precinct here. A few quick statistical tests does not show that there was blatant, widespread fraud. For example, in Russia’s 2011 legislative elections, there was a very strong correlation between high turnout and higher support for Vladimir Putin’s party (United Russia). In Venezuela, there was absolutely no correlation between high turnout and higher support for Maduro – on the contrary, that correlation was actually negative (-0.15). This, obviously, does not constitute proof that the election was entirely clean.

Furthermore, even if the election was free (without any tinkering or vote rigging) and that Maduro won on the numerical count, one can very easily claim that the election was not actually ‘fair’. The electoral process is controlled by the government, which has full access to the airwaves and tightly controls the state apparatus including the huge oil company PDVSA. A good number of votes, like in past elections, were probably bought and some voters (like PDVSA or other state employees) coerced into voting for the PSUV candidate. In some countries – like Russia – electoral fraud is blatant and pretty crude. In Venezuela, if there is fraud it is far more sophisticated and hard to prove beyond any reasonable doubts.

What next?

At this point, regardless of the CNE’s audit, we will probably never really know whether Maduro ‘actually’ won or if the CNE/the government tinkered with the results at 10pm on April 14. Even the opposition probably knows that, and, as mentioned above, it has probably given up trying to reverse the results and claim power for itself. Capriles will not take the road of the ‘colour revolutions’ which was taken by Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia following the stolen 2003 legislative elections. He may either take the road taken by Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador after the 2006 Mexican election – refuse to recognize the results and the new government’s legitimacy, proclaim himself as winner; or that taken by American politicians such as Al Gore (2000) and Richard Nixon (1960) – bow down to the results, despite lingering doubts about what actually transpired. The AMLO route is far more risky path to take.

Maduro will become President, but he faces a very difficult situation. Firstly, he will need to attend to an economy which is in fairly poor shape despite high oil prices and the revenues it procures. As aforementioned, Maduro already devalued the country’s currency in February. The nation’s public debt and deficit have increased a lot in recent years, and the government realizes that it will need to do something about it. Will Maduro continue traditional chavista economic policies or will he perhaps reverse the trend by slowing down ad hoc expropriations or by directing more capital to be re-invested in PDVSA, the oil company which is in dire need of investments to boost production and developing refining capacity. Maduro has the reputation of being more dogmatic, hailing from the ‘ideological civilian’ faction of chavismo and his close ties with Cuba; but he has given some indications that he could be a bit pragmatic. For example, he has reportedly told visiting American diplomats and politicians that he would like to improve relations with the United States.

We can legitimately ask whether or not Maduro will be able to last out his entire term, which expires in January 2019. Chávez had the unquestioned loyalty of the entire PSUV and government apparatus, and he was the man who held the disparate factions of chavismo together. Maduro, clearly, does not have the unquestioned loyalty of the entire PSUV or the government. He comes out of the election, first of all, with his own standing within the PSUV much diminished. Maduro almost blew a 20 point lead, turning what should have been a comfortable landslide on the back of sympathy for the late Hugo Chávez into a tiny victory which clearly destabilized the whole regime. Maduro has strong and powerful rivals within the PSUV who have accepted his authority only temporarily, as long as it suits them and as long as Maduro is able to keep the government in a solid position. Even some of his current allies might turn on him later on down the road, if they feel that Maduro is no longer working out well. His Vice President, Jorge Arreaza is young and is Chávez’s son-in-law. Chávez’s brother Adán, governor of Chávez’s home state of Barinas, migth also have presidential ambitions. There are persistent rumours that Chávez’s two daughters are politically ambitious as well.

On top of these names, his most dangerous rival is probably the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who was seen as the other potential ‘crown prince’ of chavismo and is connected to the military sectors (he is a former officer). Cabello publicly claims full loyalty to the regime, but it is pretty evident that he isn’t going to efface himself just now. On election night, two of Cabello’s avalanche of tweets raised some eyebrows:

 

In the first tweet, Cabello said that these results imposed “deep self-criticism”. In his second tweet, he said that they needed to search for their “failures” without endangering the fatherland and Chávez’s legacy.

Venezuela is in a delicate situation. Maduro will have only limited room to maneuver and govern as he wishes, as rival politicians and factions within the PSUV keep him on a tight leash and might be conspiring to bring him down; while half of the population voted for his opponent, who has certainly come out stronger from the whole thing despite losing. Venezuelan politics are tenser and more polarized than they had been in years. More than ever before, chavismo - although still a formidable force with a large base of supporters and a strong machine backing it up – is no longer unshakable.

Venezuela 2012

Presidential elections were held in Venezuela on October 7, 2012. The President of Venezuela is now elected for a six-year term with no term limits.

Understanding the Context

Venezuelan politics since 1998 have revolved around the figure of President Hugo Chávez, a controversial love-or-hate figure who has left few Venezuelans and indeed many foreigners indifferent. Chávez is a former military officer, born in a lower middle-class mestizo family in a rural region of Venezuela known as los llanos. He gained national prominence in 1992, when he was the leader of an unsuccessful coup attempt against then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Released from prison in 1994, he used his grassroots popularity with the country’s disillusioned and socially marginalized impoverished masses to win the presidency in the 1998 election. He was reelected under a new constitution in 2000 and once again in 2006. He survived a 2002 coup attempt and a 2004 recall referendum initiated by the opposition.

Chávez is an extremely polarizing figure. His opponents argue that he is a populist autocrat who has eroded democratic institutions, stifled opposition and centralized political and economic power in his hands. His supporters view him as the hero of Venezuela’s poor, behind dramatic improvements in their standard of living and a major decline in social inequality and poverty. They admire him for standing up to “imperialist” elites who had controlled Latin America for far too long, and brand the opposition as a ragtag band of privileged selfish elites in bed with the “neoliberal” financial elites embodied by the IMF or the World Bank.

To better understand Chávez’s policies and behaviour, it is important to understand the context in which he originally came to power. Up until the 1980s, Venezuela was a political and economic model for other Latin American countries. Economically, profits from oil – the country’s top export – allowed for major state-led investment into infrastructure, natural resources and nascent social programs. The oil industry was nationalized in 1975, but governments prior to that point had already supported policies which had given the state a hefty share of profits from oil, leading to oil-induced development policies. Politically, a stable democratic systems with free elections and orderly transitions of power flourished. Two major parties, the centre-left Democratic Action (AD) and the centre-right COPEI alternated in power. The country played a major role in the regional and international arena. President Rómulo Betancourt, during his second term in power (1959-1964), sought to oppose any undemocratic regime – left or right – which had come to power by a military coup.

However, this model collapsed in the 1980s with the major fall in the price of oil which drained the country of its main source of revenue. It hardly helped, moreover, that previous oil profits had been woefully mismanaged by governments which were all too happy to spend it away. The government was forced to devalue the currency and resort to price controls, but corruption was rampant and unchecked in all echelons of power. In 1988, Carlos Andrés Pérez of the AD, who had previously served as President during the plentiful 1970s (but whose irresponsible and reckless economic policies proved disastrous and under whom corruption became ingrained), was returned to power. Pérez had campaigned on a populist and anti-“neoliberal” platform which denounced the IMF and the Washington consensus, but upon assuming power – in pure Latin American tradition – he quickly set upon doing the exact opposite of what he had promised. The poor economic outlook forced him to accept the IMF’s (in)famous structural reforms, including a liberalization of oil prices.

These neoliberal reforms came at the price of major social unrest. In 1989, a huge popular protest movement erupted in the capital (the Caracazo), a protest which was followed by a massacre in which up to 3000 may have died at the hands of the national guard. In 1992, Pérez faced two unsuccessful coup attempts, including one in February led by then-Lt. Colonel Hugo Chávez and like-minded supporters in the military. Chávez’s coup attempt failed and he was arrested and imprisoned, but he gained national prominence and for many poorer Venezuelans, he became a hero for standing up to the discredited and corrupt (Pérez would be impeached in 1993 on corruption charges) regime. He was released in 1994 when Rafael Caldera, another former President elected on a fairly left-wing platform with left-wing backers, won the presidency in 1993.

Caldera, facing a major financial crisis, was forced to rescind his vow not to accept IMF help and implement more structural reforms, including privatization and a devaluation of the currency. Out of prison, Chávez used his notoriety from 1992 to build up a strong grassroots base of support from poorer Venezuelans, who had been marginalized by the regime and disillusioned with the turno pacífico style of politics between the AD and COPEI, which had become two corrupt shells by that point. The social situation was explosive, the 1990s having resulted in dramatic increases in poverty and a decline in the per capita income. Within Chávez’s “Bolivarian” movement, the view that they should seek power through electoral rather than military means won out and Chávez ran in the 1998 elections. His support increased as the campaign went along, and he won the election with 56.2% of the vote.

Having been elected on a promise to get rid of the country’s corrupt and discredited political system, he quickly set about working for a new constitution. A constituent assembly was elected in 1999 and drafted a constitution which was then ratified by voters in a referendum. The new constitution enshrined the rights of women and indigenous groups and established the rights of the public to education, housing, healthcare and food. Institutionally, the constitution replaced the old bicameral legislature with a single, unicameral, legislature (the National Assembly) and increased the powers of the executive.

Under the new constitution, Chávez was reelected in 2000 with 59.8% of the vote. While in his first mini-term (1999-2000), Chávez had actually led fairly moderate and ‘prudent’ fiscal policies, his policies moved sharply to the left during his second term. He started major social programs (Bolivarian Missions) which aimed at alleviating poverty in the country, but at the same time he adopted a more confrontational attitude vis-a-vis the United States, private businesses and foreign investors (especially in the oil industry and the state-owned oil monopoly, PDVSA).

An opposition movement coalesced in response to Chávez’s policies, which they decried as authoritarian and populist. The opposition coalition was predominantly formed by the country’s upper middle-classes and had the strong backing of the traditional elites: the media, the employers’ federation, the business community and the old parties with the tacit support of the Bush administration in the United States. In April 2002, Chávez’s opponent attempted to depose him in a coup led by the anti-Chávez sectors of the military, but the coup collapsed within a few days. Following the failure of the coup, Chávez’s opponents attempted to destabilize his regime through a two-month management strike at PDVSA.  Chávez responded by firing striking employees, eventually succeeding in quashing the strike and placing chavistas in command of PDVSA, depriving the opposition of a key base of support.

Following the failure of the military option, the opposition tried to overthrow Chávez by using the recall mechanism embedded in the 1999 constitution. A recall referendum was held in 2004, and Chávez handily survived the recall attempt with over 70% turnout and 59% of voters against the recall. The opposition’s shenanigans in 2002 seriously damaged its credibility, giving much credence to Chávez’s claims that the opposition were the pawns of the global imperialist and “neoliberal” elites.

Chávez won a third term in office with 63% of the vote in the 2006 election, which was judged to be free and fair by international observers. In December 2007, however, he suffered his first electoral rebuke. He had proposed a series of amendments to the 1999 constitution, which included removing term limits on the President (but not any other office) but also a number of proposals aimed either at increasing executive power or, according to Chávez, implementing his socialist agenda. By a narrow margin (51% again), these changes were rejected. In 2009, however, voters approved (with 54% in favour) an amendment which removed term limits on all office holders. During his third term, Chávez clearly sought to consolidate his power, not only by changing the rules of the game to allow him another term (or terms) in office, but also by uniting his fairly fractious coalition of supporters into a single party, the PSUV.

The Incumbent

Chávez’s main achievement during his years in office have been his social programs. He launched his first social programs, which have been styled ‘Bolivarian Missions’ by his government (always keen on utilizing revolutionary or ‘Bolivarian’ rhetoric), during his first years in office, and stepped them up during his second term. Venezuela’s oil wealth – and the rise in the price of oil throughout his presidency (with the exception of a sharp dip during the 2008 economic crisis) – have financed most of Chávez’s social programs.

He can claim credit for significantly reducing poverty in Venezuela. Poverty has declined sharply from 59% of the population in 1999 to only 28% in 2008, while extreme poverty from 22% to just under 10% in the same period. The Gini index, which measures income inequality, declined during his presidency, indicating a trend towards greater income equality.

Some of his government’s most famous Bolivarian Missions have included Mission Barrio Adentro, which aims to provide local healthcare to impoverished barrios; Mission Robinson, a literacy campaign and Mission Hábitat, a project to build new housing units for the poor. Some of these projects, notably Barrio Adentro, have been developed with foreign assistance and participation, notably from Cuba – Cuban doctors staff and run the local clinics which are part of the Barrio Adentro program.

It is clear that these programs have been at least somewhat successful, and it would be tough to deny Chávez any credit for the decline in poverty. However, some of these programs have become mismanaged and inefficient; the opposition claims they are also corrupt and clientelistic. For example, the number of houses built by the government have fallen short of its target. The government has also struggled to achieve food sovereignty, originally one of Chávez’s key targets. The government has stuck to its policy of price controls and has set up discounted, subsidized supermarkets. However, the country remains dependent on imported foodstuffs and it continues facing chronic food shortages. Opponents have pointed to Chávez’s actions (including expropriations and nationalizations) against private food producers as a reason for these shortages.

While most agree that these social programs have been successful, some critics worry that these programs are not sustainable in the long term. The government has funded its programs and other activities by borrowing, in the process piling up the debt. The country’s public debt has been increasing very rapidly, from 26% of the GDP in 2008 to over 50% in 2012 (and it is projected to keep rising quickly).

Related to concerns about Venezuela’s rapidly increasing public debt, many of Chávez’s critics worry about his perceived hollowing out of the private sector in the country. Indeed, during his second term, Chávez stepped up nationalizations and expropriations, including key nationalizations of (often foreign-owned) food, steel, gold and cement companies. As part of a program of agrarian reform, his government also expropriated large landowners, who had often owned huge tracts of idle and unproductive land. While Chávez insists that he supports private property, according to The Economist (obviously not too keen on Chávez) this seems to mean that “he believes individuals should be entitled to their personal belongings, but not control of the means of production.”

Under his presidency, the size of the state has grown enormously, and a good part of the country’s oil revenues have been placed under the President’s discretion, often to fund lavish campaign promises. PDVSA has become somewhat of an all-purpose development agency under the state’s control. The main employers federation, which has long been a base of opposition strength, has said that the President’s goal is the destruction of private enterprise. This is exaggerated, because regardless of the extent of state control in the economy, the private sector has not been hollowed out entirely and it retains dominance in some sectors, such as the media – although its political activism has largely been tamed since 2002-2004.

One point on which both supporters and opponents of Chávez will agree upon is that his foreign policy has placed Venezuela as a major actor on the world stage. The agreement, however stops there. Chávez, who sometimes seems to act controversial and provocative on purpose, has led a very controversial foreign policy, tied in closely to his ideology of “socialism in the 21st century.” He has made himself into one of the most prominent critics of American foreign and economic policy, and he has allied himself with other opponents or rivals of the United States including Iran, Russia, China, Cuba, Syria and Libya (until 2011).

At the regional level, he has promoted Latin American integration. While Chávez’s election in 1998 was identified as the first victory in a series of electoral victories for the Latin American left in the late 20th and early 21st century, not all left-wing heads of states elected in his footsteps in the region have aligned with his model of socialism or adhered to his policy. Chile, but also Argentina and Brazil have tended to steer towards a more moderate brand of leftism, reminiscent of social democracy rather than chavismo. However, Chávez has found strong allies in Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba. Venezuela has used its oil wealth to promote its foreign policy and partake in development efforts in other countries, most significantly through the Petrocaribe program which offers Venezuelan oil to countries such as Cuba and Nicaragua at discounted prices.

Chávez has received extensive criticism, both at home and abroad, for his record on human rights and democracy. There is a lot of dishonesty in these arguments, both those which seek to portray him as a tyrannical monster and those who seek to paint him as a democrat who happens to go against an established norm. He is neither of those things. However, Venezuela has been dinged by several institutions – Amnesty International, the UN, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders for its record on human rights, civil liberties, political freedoms and press freedom. Reports have criticized his administration’s tendency to discriminate on political grounds; erode judicial independence and undercut journalistic independence.

There is no proof, however, that Chávez rigged the polls in recent elections. The 2007 (obviously!) and 2009 referendums, 2006 presidential election and 2010 legislative elections were accepted by almost all players as being free, if not entirely fair. Through tight control of the media and state institutions, Chávez has been able to create a political playing field which is biased towards him and works against the opposition. For example, the opposition and the PSUV ended up roughly tied in the popular vote in the 2010 legislative election, but the PSUV retained a comfortable majority thanks to gerrymandering. Opposition access to the media is tightly controlled and limited, while the government and Chávez have free access to the media.

After Chávez’s close call in the 2010 elections, he stepped up his plan to reorganize local government institutions in the country through the creation of “socialist communes”, presenting them as a grassroots way of devolving more power to the people (and curbing the power of municipal governments, some of which are controlled by the opposition).

One of Chávez’s main weaknesses in his third term has been criminality. The homicide rate in Venezuela has increased at a dizzying pace since the 1990s, making it one of the most violent countries in the world. The homicide rate increased from 25 in 1999 to 67 in 2011, and many have been critical of Chávez’s record in reducing crime, some accusing him of sliding his feet on the issue. Drug trafficking and cross border activity with Colombia seems to be one of the main causes of the recent jump in crime in the country. It would be fair to identify crime as one of the main reason for the dip(s) in Chávez’ popularity since 2006.

Hugo Chávez was diagnosed with cancer in June 2011, and since then he has been in and out of the country receiving treatment and subsequent convalescence in Cuba. Few details have been leaked about his cancer or its gravity, which has allowed for a whole slew of rumours on Chávez’s actual health.

By all measures, Chávez entered this fight for a fourth term in office in a more precarious position than in his past reelection campaigns. His popularity took hits under accusations of corruption and mismanagement while frustration over food shortages, housing policy, rising inflation and criminality, deteriorating infrastructure and power outages have also hurt Chávez’s popularity. However, even a fragilized and frailer Chávez remains a truly formidable campaigner, a master communicator and a talented politician. He is very charismatic, with a remarkable ability to draw huge crowds and an ability to connect with poorer Venezuelans.

The Opponent

As in most countries where recent politics have been dominated by one man, the opposition in Venezuela has taken the form of a fractious and heterogeneous coalition of politicians and parties of all stripes who oppose Chávez. The opposition has been united under the umbrella of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) since 2009. The MUD is a very heterogeneous bunch, uniting centrist reformers, more liberal right-wingers, former leftist allies of Chávez and the remnants of the old decrepit parties (AD and COPEI). The main forces in the MUD are the centre-right Primero Justicia (PJ), the more centre-left Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) and whatever remains of the two old behemoths – AD and COPEI – which is to say, not much. It also includes some more clearly left-wing oriented parties, some of which are former Chávez allies, such as the MAS and the Radical Causa (La Causa R).

The MUD held an open primary election to nominate its presidential candidate in February 2012. There were five candidates in the MUD’s primary, but the top two contenders were Henrique Capriles Radonski (HCR), the governor of the state of Miranda (in suburban Caracas) and Pablo Pérez, the governor of the state of Zulia in the far-west. The ideological differences between the two candidates were fairly thin, though Pérez – a member of the UNT party – was judged as being slightly more to the left of Capriles, more centrist and linked to PJ. Pablo Pérez was notably supported by the two old parties, AD and COPEI, something which allowed Capriles to depict himself as being outside Venezuela’s old party machine politics. The MUD primary was a phenomenal success for the opposition, attracting over 3 million voters (roughly 17% of the total electorate). Capriles won easily with 64%.

Capriles proved to be a strong candidate, even up against Chávez, and certainly a much more capable opponent that Chávez’s 2006 opponent, the hapless Manuel Rosales. Capriles is charismatic, energetic and young and while his family background might indicate a middle-class upbringing and style, he was fairly successful in broadening his appeal. He crisscrossed the country, even campaigning in chavista bastions.

Capriles presented himself as a “modern” social democrat, in the style of Brazil’s Lula – though unfortunately for him, Lula endorsed Chávez wholeheartedly. He vowed to maintain (and expand) Chávez’s main social programs, while targeting mismanagement, clientelism and corruption in them. Otherwise, Capriles also focused his message on some of Chávez’s core weaknesses: deteriorating infrastructure, crime or power outages.

However, Capriles was very much the underdog throughout the campaign. While Venezuelan pollsters are notoriously partisan (and hence often inaccurate), most established pollsters had him trailing Chávez by some 10 points, though Capriles’ team held out hope that the high level of undecided voters and Chávez’s standing below 50% would give them a shot.

Turnout was 80.72%, a record high turnout – likely the highest in a presidential election since 1988. The results are as follows, with the CNE stuck at 98.4% reporting:

Hugo Chávez (PSUV) 55.25%
Henrique Capriles Radonski (MUD) 44.14%
Reina Sequera (Poder Laboral) 0.47%
Luis Reyes Castillo (ORA) 0.05%
María Bolívar (PDUP) 0.04%
Orlando Chirino (PSL) 0.02%

The above map was drawn by Shilly, on the US Election Atlas Forum.

Chávez won by 11 points, a solid margin. His victory was never really in doubt, I would say, even though some flawed pollsters with an “hidden agenda” led us to believe that Capriles was ahead of Chávez. Capriles likely had the momentum in the final stretch, though given the wide differences between each pollsters’, it is hard to quantify.

However, Chávez certainly was the main benefactor of the unexpectedly high turnout. High turnout usually favours the chavistas, who have traditionally been very efficient at driving out their voters and maximizing support from their core constituencies (the poor, the working-class and the public sector) in such circumstances. It is true that Chávez was probably unfairly advantaged by his control of institutions – the opposition has often decried during this campaign his tendency to plunge into the country’s oil wealth to finance his campaign and his pre-electoral “spending sprees” – but it is clear that Chávez remains the choice of a majority of Venezuelans, and he remains a formidable candidate.

Though Chávez’s margin of victory this year is much less impressive than his 20+ point squashing of the hapless Manuel Rosales in 2006, this is still a significant and comfortable victory after a six-year term which was fairly difficult. Regardless of what Chávez might have failed to deliver on (crime, food sovereignty, housing, infrastructure, allegations of corruption), his electoral base still trust him and are willing to forgive him for his “imperfections”. He has a great ability to connect with low-income voters, who see in him somebody who has their best interests at heart and their first leader who uses the state apparatus for the country’s benefit rather than personal gain. Fears of an uncertain future if Capriles had won – the army had made some fairly ambiguous (and contradictory) statements as to what they would do if Capriles won and Chávez repeatedly said civil war would ensue if the opposition won – likely played a role in moving undecided voters.

Chávez also benefited from his “lock” on the vote of public sector employees. While the opposition claimed it had a hidden vote with public sector employees, the government had a lock on this vote. There were rumours of intimidation, with public sector employees allegedly threatened to be fired if they voted against and others compelled to sign a pledge that they would vote for Chávez. However, even if Chávez probably have an unfair advantage in the campaign and the process, the vote was free. The new electronic voting system was regarded by almost all actors as being tamper-proof.

The opposition was graceful in defeat, it did not cry fraud as Chávez claimed they would. Capriles quickly conceded defeat and congratulated Chávez on his victory, while noting the importance of the 6 million votes he had won and the need for Chávez to heed the opinion of those 44% who voted against him. The opposition’s result is not excellent, but it is a rather good result. It would have profited more from lower turnout, as in 2007 or 2010, but with nearly 6.5 million votes, it has won the most raw votes in any Chávez-era electoral event. Holding the MUD together for some time might prove difficult, but it can be pleased by its relatively strong performance, even if ultimately insufficient and slightly underwhelming.

Even Chávez, who had styled his opponent as a “mediocrity” at best or a “pig” and “fascist” at worst, was quite conciliatory in victory. While reaffirming his commitment to his platform of “socialism in the 21st century”, he gave signs of reaching out to the opposition. He has an historic opportunity at this point to bridge the gap between the government and its opponents and put an end to the bitter and acrimonious politics which have marked the country since 2002.

This election shows that while Chávez remains strong, he is not as unassailable as he was in the past. Rising concerns about crime, inflation, infrastructure, food, housing and corruption have damaged his standing, but as long as Chávez is able to maintain his standing and credibility with his base of lower-income voters, he will remain in a strong position – after all, he wants to remain in power until 2031.

However, Chávez’s new four-year term is very uncertain. There is, to begin with, the fundamental question of his health. He has gone through a few operations for his cancer since last June, and while he insists that he is better now, some noted that he was slower and slightly less energetic on the campaign trail. Some have asked, legitimately, if he will survive the entirety of his six-year term.

There would be much uncertainty, likely chaos, if he died in office. The law seems to requires a new election within 30 days (!) if he dies in the next four years, and in the meantime the Vice President – appointed by the President – would take power. But the current Vice President, Elías Jaua, seems on his way out and he is not a high-profile figure within chavista circles. In the pre-electoral talk about the eventuality of Chávez not surviving until the election, the names of Diosdado Cabello (the president of the National Assembly) and foreign minister Nicolás Maduro (apparently favoured by Cuba) were mentioned – but the probability of the army moving in to fill the void or even Chávez’s relatives (his brother, governor of Barinas, and his two eldest daughters) making their moves should not be discarded.

Questions may also be asked about the survival of chavismo without Chávez. There is no natural heir to Chávez, certainly not one with his charisma and formidable ability to connect to poorer Venezuelans.

Regardless, he also faces growing economic problems. While Venezuela’s oil wealth remains solid, rising inflation and the ever-increasing debt are causes for concern. Economists seem to predict that the country will inevitably need to devalue its currency soon. Others naturally worry about the government’s dependence on a single source of income (oil), one which is particularly prone to wild fluctuations and volatility (though the future for the country seems bright with oil prices remaining high).

The map was a blowout for Chávez, Capriles won only two states (and not the ones you would have expected) – Táchira and Mérida. Capriles won 56.3% in Táchira and 51.1% in Mérida, he came close in his homestate of Miranda (49.5% against 50%) and Lara (48.5% against 51%). Most surprising was Zulia, where Chávez won 53.3% against 44.1% for Capriles, which is better than what he had won there in 2006 (51%), and he had lost the state in 2000. It is understandable in part given that Chávez’s 2000 and 2006 opponents were both former governors of Zulia, but the state has generally tended to be an opposition stronghold even in the absence of a local favourite son (such as the 2009 referendum).

Táchira and Mérida have also been traditional bastions of opposition strength, Chávez had already won them by tight margins in 2006 and both states had voted No in 2009 (with Zulia, Miranda and Nueva Esparta). In these states, Capriles and the opposition found their core strength in the respective state capitals (64% in Libertador, the city of Mérida; 68% in San Cristobal in Táchira). These cities specifically have very low levels of poverty and they have an economy apparently based around small and medium businesses, the state of Táchira seems notably reliant on cross-border business with Colombia. Affluence is of course a major factor, for example, in Miranda, most of the opposition’s strength revolves around the wealthy suburban communities of Caracas, notably Chacao (81.3% for Capriles).

A surprising underperformance for Chávez is Amazonas, usually one of his strongest states, but he won only 53.5% in the remote jungle state this year. Otherwise, however, Chávez found strong support in rural regions (including los llanos) and lower-income areas in major cities – Chávez won 54.9% in the capital district after all. The opposition needs to break into these chavista citadels if they are to win.

Chavismo, for good or bad and for better or worse, remains dominant in Venezuelan politics, but it is no longer the unshakable force it used to be. The opposition found itself a strong candidate this year, who led a strong campaign, and while they fell short by quite a bit, they seem to have entrenched themselves as a solid and, for many, credible, opposition to Chávez. With Chávez’s health problems and other factors, however, the country’s political future is uncertain.

Venezuela 2010

Venezuela held general legislative elections on September 26. Venezuela’s unicameral 165-seat National Assembly is elected through a sort of mixed-member proportional representation, with 70% or 110 seats elected in single or multi-member constituencies (of which there are 87) with the remaining 52 elected on a party list system in each state, with each state having either two or three representatives depending on population. The most confusing aspect of the electoral system is the FPTP constituency aspect, given that some of these seats are elected in single-member traditional FPTP constituencies while others are elected in two or three-member constituencies where each party usually nominates two or three candidates and where voters have the choice to split their votes or vote for both, but most often vote “straight ballot”. This system allows for parties with a strong machine to have a shot at winning all of the constituency’s seat with less than 50% of the vote. Such systems were used in the Deep South during the segregation era and in Venezuela forms exhibit one of Chavez’s toying around with the system. Second exhibit is more straightforward: gerrymandering. The new electoral redistricting for this election has given the countryside – which votes Chavist heavily – more weight than the cities – where the opposition does better. In addition, the actual districts drawn up often tend to pack opposition votes in one or two constituencies where they win 80% of the vote while the other districts elect Chavist members with much thinner majorities. The best examples of such seats are in and around Caracas.

After the highpoint of his 2009 referendum win which allowed him to stick around for a long time, Chavez has fallen quite a bit since then. The economic crisis has affected Venezuela more than one would expect. Inflation is riding at around 30%, public services are in ruins and criminality is rampant, claiming 20,000 lives a year. The government was hit by a series of scandals, and, earlier this year, power cuts.

The opposition had taken the ill-advised decision to boycott the 2005 parliamentary elections, which gave Chavez pull power to pass key legislation and constitutional amendments. Needless to say, the opposition did not repeat the same mistake this year and also took the intelligent step of allying with one another to form a broad opposition coalition against Chavez’ PSUV coalition. This opposition coalition, composed of the various outfits and old parties which broadly oppose Chavez (including the ancient COPEI and AD), is named ‘Coalition of Democratic Unity’ (MUD).

Here are the results:

PSUV-PCV (Chavismo) 48.13% winning 98 seats (71 direct, 25 list, 2 indigenous)
MUD (Opposition) 47.22% winning 65 seats (38 direct, 26 list, 1 indigenous)
PPT 3.14% winning 2 seats (1 direct, 1 list)


In elections for the Latin American Parliament, the main seats split 5-5, with the PSUV taking 46.71% of the vote to the MUD’s 45.01%.

Despite the media claiming this as an important win for Chavez, in an election which was a referendum on Chavez, he did quite poorly. In a gerrymandered electoral system, the popular vote is the indicator which should be used for analysis. Not the seat count. Even on the seat count, the PSUV falls short of two major thresholds: the two-thirds needed to pass constitutional amendments and organic law or the three-fifths needed to pass enabling legislation (though it is only 3 seats or so short of that). Of course, in the seat count, which is what actually matters, Chavez’s PSUV has a comfortable majority, with nearly 60% of the seats. In addition, even though the law says that he should work with the opposition more than in the past, the lessons of the aftermath of the 2008 regionals show us that Chavez won’t be willing to play nice with the “imperialists” in Parliament. Following that election, in which the opposition won several key governorships, Chavez proceeded to cutting state and municipalities of good number of powers. Chavez’s government is also drawing up a plan for sham “communal assemblies” to be controlled from the Presidential Palace itself, something which would strip the legislature of its power. Chavez is a very good strategist and is able to manipulate the system in a lot of ways so that he doesn’t give up power – which he clearly doesn’t want to do.

The seat count numbers above should give a pretty good indication of the extent to which Chavez and the electoral commission (CNE, which is controlled by chavistas) were able to toy around with the electoral system to guarantee him a “48% landslide”. The dictionary entry for Chavist gerrymandering is undoubtedly Miranda, a suburban Caracas opposition stronghold. The opposition won 57% of the vote here, making this key state its second best state after Nueva Esparta. Yet, in the seat count, the result is a 6-6 split between the government and the opposition. Other example in Carabobo, where the opposition took roughly 54% of the vote, but lost on the seat count 4 to 6. In the capital district of Caracas, another fine example of gerrymandering a la Chavez, the opposition took 3 seats to the government’s 7 seats. But the opposition narrowly won the popular vote! In an entirely proportional election, the PSUV would have edged out the MUD by only two seats: 81 to the MUD’s 79 (the PPT would take 5).

The reason I insist on the popular vote count is the role it plays in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, in which Chavez, of course, is a candidate. If the opposition managed to nearly tie Chavez (or, as some say, beat him when you include the PPT’s 3%) in an election which was a referendum on him, and this despite Chavez’s charismatic appeal and the quasi-full control of the media by chavistas, that is a good sign for their chances in the 2012 election. That being said, Chavez is a formidable campaigner and still has rabble-rousing charisma. He can also count on a rather solid electorate, which is convinced in every election to forget the present and look at the future, and thus keep voting for the government which promises a utopic future.

In Venezuelan elections, at least those under Chavez, there has been a rather stark urban-rural divide. As insinuated earlier, the cities are more favourable to the opposition. The reasons – higher levels of education, wealth and welfare – shouldn’t come as a surprise. The opposition polled some of its best results in the affluent middle-class areas of Caracas, of which a lot are in the state of Miranda. Miranda is one the opposition’s three main traditional strongholds in Venezuela. The second one, which is perhaps most famous in the minds of election nerds, is Zulia, which is also the most populous state and one with an important petroleum industry. Zulia is known to be a state more inclined to private enterprise and free trade than the rest of the region, and also remarks itself for a separate identity and culture than the rest of Venezuela. The relative isolation of the state – the city of Maracaibo has been united to the mainland by a bridge only since the 60s probably contributes to this. The third base of the opposition is Nueva Esparta, which is in fact the opposition’s best state this year. This is an insular state, composed primarily of the island of Margarita, which has become a major tourist resort. The tourism industry (which is private) has contributed in part to the state’s lean towards the opposition, as has the recession and rampant criminality.

To this base of states, the opposition has added the Andean border state of Táchira, which used to lean Chavez’ way but has since swung to the opposition rather heavily. The presence of FARC camps in this state has led to a huge crime rate, which hasn’t gone down to well with voters here. This election, the eastern state of Anzoátegui gave the opposition a surprisingly large victory. It is industrialized and heavily populated, but its governor is a key Chavist and the state in general has not been an opposition stronghold or anything similar. The heavy vote in favour of the opposition here may stem from the unpopularity of the governor, who doesn’t have a great reputation (at least on the internet).

Chavez still has the backing of a big machine, largely composed of unionized workers, the urban poor and the rural poor. These groups are particularly dominant in the llanos of western Venezuela, where Chavez is from. The llano states gave the PSUV some of its best result, and this is no oddity. Furthermore, in a lot of sparsely populated jungle areas out here, the army and various unsavoury paramilitary groups of sort hold much sway. They also control politics.

One oddity this election was Amazonas, the large sparsely populated state in the southern tip of the country. Being isolated, poor and having a large native population, it is one of chavismo’s best states along with the Delta Amacuro (which is similar in demographics to Amazonas). However, this election, you had the PPT, a left-leaning party which broke with Chavez but whose main base is in Lara, win 41.6% of the vote and take 2 of the state’s total 3 seats. While it only won 28.4% in its traditional home base of Lara. Some things don’t change, however, because Amazonas was by far the opposition’s worst state with a mere 14.7% of the vote there.

More ample information on the various states, these elections and their results can be found on two excellent English-language local blogs, the first one being the Venezuela News and Views and the other being the Caracas Chronicles. Both of these come from a very anti-Chavist view, but the analysis is excellent, insightful and also extremely honest.

Venezuela 2009

Venezuelan voters approved yesterday a new (Chavista) constitution by an important margin, less than two years after rejecting a similar one by a very narrow margin. The new constitution only removes term limits on the President, National Assembly, regional legislators, and Governors. This differs with the 2007 proposal, because that constitution also included many Chavista planks, such as a 36-hour workweek, voting age at 16, ending the central bank’s autonomy, administrative reorganization (aimed at strengthening the President’s powers), seven-year presidential term, and so forth. Polls in this campaign were all over the place, from 60% NO to 60% YES. However, exit polls last night all showed a NO victory between 58% and 53%. Early returns (from western states like Zulia, the stronghold of the opposition) even favoured the NO.

However, the CNE was actually quick to post its results up, which indicated a YES victory with around 54%, with a turnout of 67%. In 2007, voters rejected two proposals by a very narrow margin: around 51% NO with 56% turnout. Without further adue, the results.

Yes 54.36%
No 45.63%

venezuela-referendum-2009

Before anyone asks, the referendum seems to have been judged as transparent and clean on average. The NO vote is concentrated in the western states, such as Zulia, a stronghold of anti-Chavez opposition. The NO also won in the Caracas suburban state of Miranda, which I believe is the wealthiest state and has the highest HDI of all Venezuelan states. It was also rejected in the insular state of Nueva Esparta, which includes the touristy island of Margarita and other wealthy places.

On a totally unrelated note, those waiting for Sardinian results can wait with me over here. Also a good opportunity to polish up your electoral Italian!

Venezuela Regionals 2008

Regional and local elections were held in Venezuela on Sunday November 23. 22 governors (Amazonas was elected in 2005, and not 2004), 2 metro mayors (including Caracas), 328 mayors and 251 alderman were up for election. This was also the first election since Hugo Chavez founded the PSUV in April of this year.

Gubernatorial:

  • PSUV 17 (-3)
  • Opposition (AD, Primero Justicia, UNT) 5 (+3)

In addition, outspoken Chavez critic Antonio Ledezma (Fearless People’s Alliance) was elected Mayor of Caracas (metropolitan mayor) with 52.4% against 44.97% for the PSUV-Chavista candidate.

Top four states (excluding Caracas, which is weird):

Zulia (Maracaibo): (3.620 mln) – opposition hold
Miranda: (2.828 mln) – oppozition gain
Carabobo: (2.227 mln) – oppozition gain
Lara (1.795 mln) – chavista hold

venezuela-regional-2008

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