Can Chávez pull it off a third time?
By Julia Buxton*
Venezuelan politics has followed a bumpy road over recent decades. There have been coup attempts (1992, 2002), impeachments (1993), a presidential recall referendum (2004), protracted lock-outs (2002-03) and the national oil company PDVSA has been paralysed (2002). All the while, the economy has cycled through great booms (2005) and dreadful contractions (1999, 2003, 2010).
Framing this instability has been a grand struggle between two opposing visions of Venezuela. At one end of the ideological spectrum is incumbent President Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian revolution. This mix of state socialism, popular democracy and multicultural nationalism has been an unstoppable force across the country and continent since Chávez was elected thirteen years ago. It has constantly clashed with the immovable object of an unwieldy domestic opposition nurtured and encouraged by the Bush and Obama administrations. Sitting in the middle are around a third of Venezuelan voters. Chávez and his opponents are scheduled for renewed confrontation in October’s presidential election, in which Chávez is seeking an historic third term.
Pro- and anti-Chávez forces have evolved over time. The Chavistas have shifted from the Third Way Socialism of 1999 to Socialism of the Twenty First Century, a lurch to the left that was pronounced after Chávez’s re-election in 2006. Chávez’s opponents have moved in the opposite direction, from unconstitutional and reactionary to reasonably moderate and sensible – although right-wing histrionics are never far from the surface.
In primaries held early February, the MUD (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática/Table for Democratic Unity) took a stride toward centrist credibility with the election of Henrique Capriles Radonski as the alliance’s presidential candidate. The young, energetic governor of Miranda state presents the opposition with their best opportunity yet to unseat Chávez and halt the Bolivarian revolution. The neo-liberaledges of the opposition have been shaved and the MUD has finally grasped the importance of preserving the welfare gains delivered by the Chávez government to the poorest sectors of Venezuelan society. The vitriolic and irrational anti-Chávez rhetoric has gone (save for the presence of Diego Arria and Maria Corina Machado in the primary race) and, despite lingering problems of party-based schisms, the MUD finally resembles some form of palatable electoral alternative to Bolivarianism. But there is still a long way to go until October, and Chávez is in a comfortable position.
Problems of crime and violence, shortages and inefficiency are seen as Chávez’s Achilles heel. Yet the president has traditionally shown a remarkable capacity to elevate himself above the failings of those around him. He remains broadly popular and the voting preference of a solid 30-35% of the electorate. Although the MUD trumpeted the 3 million voter turnout for its presidential primary, the figure was 2 million below opposition votes in the 2010 National Assembly elections. There is certainly no mass-based popular demand for Chávez to go. And the economy is moving out of recession, with higher oil export prices flushing an additional US$127.8 billion through PDVSA and into government-sponsored social programmeand fors.
Given the advantages that he enjoys, Chávez’s reaction to the election of Capriles was quite extraordinary. In a live national broadcast, Chavez called Capriles a ‘low life pig’ and demanded the MUD candidate remove his mask to reveal his pig’s tail, ears and snort. Castigation of Capriles as a bourgeois enemy of the revolution and an agent of the US followed a stream of homophobic and anti-Jewish comment generated by talk show host Mario Silva. Senior party and government figures variously described Capriles as a fascist and allegations have been made of sinister links to Catholic organisations.
The move stunned the MUD and stamped personality politics into a campaign that Capriles wants to focus on the government’s policy failings. The opposition have learnt that direct attacks on Chávez backfire into a groundswell of support for the president and for this reason prefer an emphasis on issues in the 2012 election. But the coordinated assault on Capriles shows that Chávez believes he has much to gain from a personalised campaign. This may well prove a mistake given the incumbent’s ill health.
Last week Chávez announced he will undergo further surgery and radiation therapy to treat his cancer. He has returned to Cuba, where he had an operation in June to remove a cancerous tumour, followed by four rounds of chemotherapy. There have been strong denials of terminal illness amid limited information and fevered speculation as to the succession in the event of Chávez being forced to step down.
The reality confronting the Chavistas is that there is no heir apparent, no individual capable of welding together the factions and enmities of the PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela/United Socialist Party of Venezuela) as Chávez does. Chávez is the ideological heart of the revolution, the personification of Bolivarianism. Without Chavez can there be Chavismo? There is no talk of alternatives, only the leadership of Chávez and an unending focus on Chávez in all his evident physical frailties.
The election campaign officially starts on July 1, but the early signs are of intermittent and frenetic activity on Chávez’s part, as and when his health allows. In this context the continued use of confrontational and derogatory language against his opponent may chime well with a minority hardcore,but it has yet to prove appealing to those floating voters that will decisively influence October’s result. Capriles, by contrast, is embracing the middle ground – or as Chávez views it ‘Mrs. Bourgeois…is flirting with the chavistas’. Capriles’ language of unity and consensus, of fixing problems, may give him traction among the third of voters who are undecided.
Indeed, health considerations aside, the only other thing that threatens Chávez’s re-election is a negative and aggressive campaign against Capriles. Chávez cannot win without the centre ground, so the recent apparent appointment of Brazilian election strategist João Santana, adviser to Brazilian presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rouseff, may indicate the intention to steer back to moderation. But ill health gives Chávez a narrower time frame than Capriles to convince the undecided, presenting the MUD with a real opportunity. The outcome of this latest clash of political visions of Venezuela remains unpredictable.
* Julia Buxton is Joint Head of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford