The Key to Miraflores

Iñaki Sagarzazu

Now that the presidential election has been called and both sides have chosen their candidates–Vice-president Nicolas Maduro for the governing socialist party (PSUV) and Miranda’s Governor Henrique Capriles for the opposition–it is time to think about strategies. First, however, we need to take a quick look at where the numbers are at.

In the past October presidential elections president Chavez defeated Miranda’s Governor Henrique Capriles by 11% (55-44); this with a participation rate that reached 80% of those eligible to vote. In the subsequent regional elections chavismo defeated the opposition by a similar margin 55%-45%, this time around participation reached 54%. Finally, based on Hinterlaces past poll we can see that voter intention for the Maduro-Capriles race had a similar pattern 55-45. More recently Datanálisis released numbers that (when adjusted for abstention) show Maduro with a 15 point lead

At first sight one would think that the government’s candidate is in position for an easy victory in new elections. That is why a majority of analysts, me included, have suggested that it is in the government’s best interests to call for elections as soon as possible. A short campaign would help the government keep the emotions surrounding Chávez’s passing high. Nevertheless, it also benefits the opposition because it prevents Maduro’s image as a statesman to solidify.

In what follows I am going to try to hint at some challenges that the government and the opposition might face and how they can overcome them.

The Government’s Worry: Turnout

Abstention could affect the upcoming election in three possible ways. First, it could be split evenly between actors; this is the most common scenario, and is what happened in both 2012 elections. Second, it could benefit the government, as it did in the 2004 regional elections and the 2005 legislative elections. Third, it could benefit the opposition; like it did in the 2007 referendum. 

As is well known, Maduro does not generate the same fervor that Chávez does. The opposition, in contrast, has the same candidate and it should be expected that those who voted in 2012 for Capriles would do so again. Thus government officials might be worried about their supporters failing to turnout. From their perspective, low turnout is the one thing that could undermine Maduro. A simple way for them to mobilize their votes is by making sure that Chávez is on the ballot…or at least in one ballot. 

Article 187 of the Constitution establishes that a person can only be placed in the National Pantheon 25 years after passing away; as such, for President Chávez’s remains to receive this honor immediately, the constitution would need to be amended. An referendum that asks voters about this topic would be a very emotional event and one likely to mobilize large numbers of Chávez supporters. This is similar to the strategy used by Republicans in the United States in recent presidential elections. Constitutional amendments to prohibit gay marriage were added to the ballot in many states to mobilize conservative voters.

A referendum to modify Article 187 of the Constitution could be used not only to mobilize large sectors of the population (in order to solve the dilemma of low chavista turnout) but also to reinforce the Chávez-Maduro connection in order for Maduro to benefit from the coattails of Chávez’s passing. As such it should not surprise anyone if the government’s next move is to request an amendment to the constitution. 

The Opposition’s Problem: Chávez’s Aura

President Chávez clearly had an ability to mobilize supporters in support of his program, and his candidates. If he was able to do that while alive, the emotional wave caused by his passing can surely take Maduro to Miraflores Palace. In Argentina one year after the passing of former President Nestor Kirchner, his wife Christina Fernandez de Kirchner was re-elected to a second term with 54% of the votes, the second place had 16%.

In order to overcome this disadvantage Capriles will have to do two things. First, he needs to mobilize his supporters, many of which were demoralized by two electoral defeats in 2012. I believe the more aggressive tone taken in his press conference accepting the candidacy will do that. Second, he needs to de-mobilize, or change, that group of people that voted for Chavez but are unsure about Maduro. I have mentioned in the past that he needed to speak to this group. And the way he can do so is by making sure that Maduro can’t make the connection with Chávez. You do this if you make sure people remember all the constant criticism of Chávez to his cabinet and members of his government. Capriles also did this in his announcement.