In the closing days of the presidential race, the contest between Chávez and Capriles was depicted in the media as tightly fought – an ever narrowing gap between incumbent and challenger. This was not what the polls were saying. After Capriles was unveiled as the opposition candidate in February, all surveys consistently showed Chávez with a 10-15% advantage over his rival. Assumptions of inevitability were blown off course in the closing weeks of the race after a Consultores 21 survey bucked the trend and reported that Capriles had overtaken Chávez in popular voting intentions.
Significant domestic and international media attention was given to this one survey, even though it was produced by a historically unreliable firm and contradicted all other poll findings. Suddenly the future of Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution was under threat. It was a huge boost for Capriles, a candidate whose name was always preceded by adjectives conveying his vitality. But the variously ‘youthful’ and ‘energetic’ opposition candidate was misled. In seeking to create a matrix of opinion favourable to a Capriles victory, the Consultores 21 poll may have had the reverse effect. Wavering chavistas and non- committed voters were galvanised to defend the Chávez government, just as ardently as Capriles supporters were mobilised to remove it. The end result was a stunningly high participation rate of 81%, and a broad-based expression of confidence in democratic processes and the election system. And of course the polls were right. Capriles trailed Chávez by 10% when the votes were counted. Nonetheless, Capriles put in a strong performance, boosting the opposition share of the vote to 44%.
With victory under his belt, Chávez has pledged to deepen 21st-Century Socialism over his next six-year term. As outlined by the president, this is to be achieved by improving the quality of the government’s package of social policy measures – the Missions, while expanding the reach and role of the community councils, of which there are currently around 30,000. Consolidation in these two areas will define 21st-Century Socialism as a model of social and economic empowerment configured around localised, participatory governance and decision-making. Failure to institutionalise these initiatives will leave Venezuela labouring with a complex and bureaucratic dualism: missions paralleling ministries, community councils sitting uncomfortably alongside elected mayors, governors and national assembly members.
The Missions and the new ‘geometry of power’ represented by the community councils are key factors in accounting for the on-going success and popularity of Chávez. They have reduced marginalisation and inequality in a country that was infamous (and unstable) in the early 1990s because of searing poverty amid oil ‘wealth’, and profound anti-party sentiment within a ‘consolidated’ democratic system. The Missions initially met with derision from donors and a development community enamoured of more palatable (and infinitely less radical) anti-poverty strategies such as the conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs of Brazil, Mexico and Peru. But ten years on, there is greater appreciation of the political dimensions of economic empowerment and vice versa, of the necessity of holistic provision of basic social services that extends across families and communities and which does not stop with a child’s graduation from primary school. But the trajectory of poverty reduction and increased participation following from the Missions and Community Councils can only be sustained with better, more transparent resource governance and improvements in technical and policy-making capacity. Chávez’s victory speech acknowledged that there is much to be done.
Delivering on improvements will be test of the administration now that Democratic Unity (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD) under Capriles has dragged itself towards the centre ground. The strong showing by Capriles can in large part be attributed to his pledge to preserve the Missions – his defeat due to the fact he failed to fully convince a majority of beneficiaries that he would preserve the gains that they have made under Chávez. But if retained as leader of the MUD he will have the time to develop his critique of the current inadequacies of the Missions. The risk for the chavistas is that the forward march of the Bolivarian revolution could be halted by the opposition if the improvements promised by Chávez are not prioritised or realised by the government over this next term.
Julia Buxton is Head of International Relations and Security Studies, Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford