Maduro’s Dilemma

Michael McCarthy

On April 1 the party hierarchy of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) quickly pushed back against a “critical open letter to President Maduro” from Chavista intellectual and media figure Nicmer Evans. Evans’s letter suggested that Nicolas Maduro’s candidacy could become a superficial effort to carry on and continue Chavez’s legacy. Responding to the letter, Elias Jaua, the current foreign minister, said “now is the time to close ranks, there will be time for debate later”   

This exchange raises a question about the central goal of the Maduro candidacy and its likely tension with the goals of Chavista believers in “el proceso” (referring to the Bolivarian process or revolution) of grassroots political change they see as underlying Chavez’s initial rise to the Presidency. 

First and foremost, Maduro needs to establish his legitimacy as an elected politician. Here’s why: He has never run for national office. Maduro was elected to Congress with the MVR faction in 1999 and continued to depend on his position on the PSUV ticket to win elections. And though he was appointed by Chávez as his political successor, Maduro spent most of his time in government carrying out foreign policy and out of the public spotlight.  

Thus, Maduro faces a dilemma common to presidential candidates. On the one hand, he needs to keep the PSUV’s core ideological constituency content through deepening efforts to build a communal democracy and promote channels of political action for grassroots leaders.

On the other hand, he needs to make a name for himself among the “chavista light” middle sectors of the electorate that may find Chavismo’s nationalist appeals attractive (see, for example,  entertainer Roque Valero’s comment that “he likes the nationalism” promoted by the government) but not be interested in rhetoric about socialism. 

There is no way for a candidate like Maduro to strike a perfect balance. At bottom, elections are about numbers and so it is hardly surprising to see him using what some would consider impure means to try and cobble together a majority.

This is actually a rather urgent matter for Maduro. The battles for power within Chavismo make it such that a large margin of victory for Maduro on April 14 (e.g., equaling Chávez’s eleven point margin of eleven October 7) would provide him with what he currently lacks–the air of being indispensable because of his popularity.

It is possible that Maduro can use the same basic formula as Chávez to brand his candidacy. But it is highly unlikely his candidacy will turn out as many voters as Chávez did in October–80.52% of the eligible population, a record high, turned out to vote. In elections in which Chávez did not stand for reelection, participation dipped significantly and the opposition performed better (with the important exception of the December 16, 2012 elections for governors).  

This first post-Chávez election is not about the issues per se. Given the truncated campaign period, it never could have been. Instead, these special elections are almost strictly about mobilization issues-redrawing the post-Chávez electoral map as the ground conditions change. 

Michael McCarthy is a professorial lecturer at Johns Hopkins-SAIS and a consultant to the Carter Center in their work on Venezuela.