Venezuelan Election 2012: Complexities, Dilemmas, and Challenges

Margarita López Maya

(translated and reprinted from Letras Libres)

On October 7 this year, Venezuela will hold an important presidential election. Regional elections will follow a little later in December and then, at the beginning of next year, municipal elections. These elections will be held in a confusing and contradictory context, making it difficult to predict their results and consequences. Even taking into account the acute political polarization of society, this time it will not be easy to infer the criteria that will carry the most weight as voters decide whom to support.

In this article we present relevant ideas and information for the understanding of the context of this electoral juncture. We also elaborate tentative scenarios for the course of events.

The confusing context of Chávez´s second government.

In Hugo Chávez´s Venezuela, state-society relations follow the script of populism. Populism is understood here as a way of doing politics that constructs the political subject from a dichotomous discourse of oligarchy and/or the rich versus the poor and/or the people. It has been pointed out that the populist discourse has great strength and capacity for mobilization and that it recurs, catalyzing change in societies with important levels of inequality and exclusion. Populism can be understood as a form of direct democracy that despises mediated forms of politics. While it is very effective in catalyzing change, it also destroys society´s political institutions and produces increasing democratic deficits.

In Venezuela, President Chávez has used a number of populist resources that have helped him consolidate a direct relation with the people that support him. This explains why today he appears to hold the lead for the October election. Here we will mention three of the major mechanisms that link the leader to the people and that have laid the groundwork of chavismo, especially among the poor.

The first of these mechanisms is the “permanent campaign.” Regardless of the level of the office–be it a local councilman or a national assembly representative–the merits of the candidates on the ballots are of no relevance: the frequent elections held in Chávez´s Venezuela amount to plebiscites. Voters always vote for or against the President, not for the candidate on the ballot. This fact has exacerbated something not often seen in democracies: a personalist and autocratic exercise of power, as well as a weakening all forces that could counterbalance the presidential figure. The second, and very efficient mechanism, is the continuous and intensive use of public media in order to create the impression of an everyday, and almost personal, relation of the people with the President. This media strategy includes the use of numerous television and radio stations, social networks on the Internet, massive propaganda, and the funding of community media, but also the approval of laws and norms by the government that pressure and intimidate political dissidence. The TV show “Aló Presidente,” transmitted on Sundays and lasting an average of 8 hours, was increasingly substituted, as it lost ratings, by cadenas (joint forced transitions of radio and TV) by the leader. Oil revenues reaching historical highs have allowed the government to finance a communication policy that projects an image of continental, world, and even superhuman leadership. The third mechanism is the impulse, financed by those same oil revenues, of social networks and organizations. These organizations were initially conceived for popular empowerment and social participation, but today, vacillating between tensions and resistances, they are becoming branches of the state, managing public services and acting as instruments of electoral mobilization for the government.

Thanks to these resources, the President was able to advance his “Socialism of the 21st Century” project, even after it had been rejected in a constitutional referendum in December 2007. This political project seeks the weakening and eventual disappearance of liberal institutions and its substitution by a “Communal State,” centered and concentrated around his persona, without autonomy for public powers and without civil society. The communal state would minimize universal, direct, and secret suffrage and would extinguish pluralism and political alternation in power.

Chávez´s socialist project has advanced in the approval of norms and laws, but still suffers from a lack of legitimacy. For this reason the election on October 7 are crucial for the President. Despite the powerful populist mechanisms pointed to above, the last years have not been entirely favorable to chavismo: its authoritarian tendencies in politics, statism, and the abolition of private property in economics, have been strongly resisted by the population. Also, the 2008 financial crisis impacted the Venezuelan economy, and this, combined with the inefficiencies of the government administration, produced a complex mix of doubt and discontent. Will this be enough to reduce the chavista vote?

General socioeconomic indicators show mixed results for the government. With oil prices averaging around $100 per barrel in international markets, the negative numbers evidenced by the GNP in previous years reversed. . The drop of oil prices in the last week does not seem to modify this situation, at least not before the election.  This has produced huge earnings for the Venezuelan state, which Chávez has used at will. But two-digit inflation has corroded the wage increases that have been announced by decree each year, and poverty and unemployment rates have remained static or have slightly increased in the last three years.

An examination of local administration reveals contrasts. The missions, some weakened and others still functioning and receiving important funding, satisfy the most urgent needs of some parts of the population and help to keep expectations alive. Some months ago, new “Grand” missions were launched as part of the chavista electoral strategy: these included Vivienda (housing), Amor Mayor (care and employment for the elderly), Saber y Trabajo (employment), Hijos de Venezuela (teen pregnancy), and Mi Casa Bien Equipada (home appliances at subsidized prices). Missions have been devised for almost every conceivable need. But in contrast, the traditional responsibilities of the State are plagued with inefficiencies that generate frustration. Power outages in mayor provincial cities have become common; insufficient public transportation provokes daily protests; the prison crisis has reached obscene levels; the spiral of social violence, expressed in high homicide rates and the increase in express or not so express kidnappings, among other crimes; and, not least, the corruption and drug trafficking scandals of the last few months that involve high level officials of the government, work against Chávez, and point to an unpredictable result in the October election.

The electoral juncture

Against this background it is useful to highlight the electorate’s voting behavior in the September 26, 2010 legislative elections in which the non-chavista candidates surpassed chavista candidates by around 400,000 votes. Of these, an important part came from a party that had just distanced itself from the government and that managed to capture the votes of what is often termed the “disenchanted chavismo.” This party, Patria Para Todos (PPT), has since itself split into several groups: one has ascribed itself to the opposition Mesa de la Unidad (MUD), and the others have decided to support Chávez once more.

Even though socioeconomic conditions have improved since 2012, with the Venezuelan economy coming out of recession last year and growth expected next year thanks to high oil prices, public management does not appear to have improved significantly. Venezuela’s economic pattern is one of excessive rentism: except for oil there are few tangible goods produced, and close to 70% of food, and most manufactured goods, have to be imported. But the rent based on oil exports helps to hide the severe dysfunctions of the Venezuelan economy and justifies nationalizations, expropriations, and a high public debt. Fiscal revenues from oil sustain a tendency to push for more public spending, channeled through misiones and communal councils, and helps maintain the illusion of a normal economy, or even of “advances in a socialist model”.

There is one more unpredictable variable in the equation: the President´s health. Up to now this issue seems to have played in favor of Chavez´s popularity, but there is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case. It has also created a scenario that was unthinkable some months ago: the absence of Chávez as a candidate.

Since June 2011 the president’s cancer has upset previous predictions of a close race for the October election. Today Chávez seems to hold a comfortable advantage. This development is due to several factors, but lack of knowledge regarding the seriousness of the presidential illness has played an important role. Chávez’s cancer has generated the most contradictory of rumors, which has effectively kept the country divided and in emotional disarray.

The MUD

Before we turn to some of the tentative scenarios we must make reference to the performance of the opposition, united almost entirely in the MUD. Since the presidential campaign of 2006 the MUD, as a coordinating instance of parties and organizations, has made notable advances and today presents a responsible and solid image. In the 2010 legislative elections votes for the MUD were fairly equal to those of the chavista block. In today´s electoral juncture the opposition seems more united and coherent than ever before: It has presented a political program that recognizes the social advances of the chavista project and claims to uphold the Constitution of 1999. Also, most of the MUD candidates, including its presidential candidate, were elected in open primaries that mobilized a massive and enthusiastic participation of more that 17% of registered voters. The presidential candidate for the MUD, Henrique Capriles Radonski, is young (39 years old) but already has had a long political career. Today he is governor of Miranda, one of the most populous states in the country. In recent years the MUD, and the opposition parties, have been working hard to mend errors and to regain the confidence of the people that were polarized and affected by the violent confrontations of Chávez´s first term in office. Will they be able to regain this lost confidence? The past can be held against them. On top of this Capriles has little charisma and comes from a upper-class family. This last point is very negative in a country polarized around class issues. It will surely be exploited by the Chávez campaign. But this is a common trait in the opposition leadership due to polarization, and is also explained by a mistake included the 1999 Constitution: the prohibition of public funding for political parties. This legal imperative limits the funding of independent organizations that represent the poor, but is no limit for Chávez´s party, which indiscriminately uses the resources of the State.

Scenarios and challenges

As seen above, this electoral juncture is determined by diverse and contradictory factors that generate high levels of uncertainty for the immediate future. However we will offer here some scenarios:

Chávez wins the election and serves the whole of the next constitutional period

In this scenario the legitimacy conferred by the electoral triumph will consolidate the structures of the communal state that already exists legally. Therefore, the current tendency to weaken the liberal democratic institutions and the political-administrative checks and balances of the Bolivarian Constitution would continue. Resources would continue to flow to the communal councils. The strengthening of the political and administrative centralization and the concentration of powers in the Presidency would continue. Governors and mayors´ offices would continue to lose power in favor of the communal structure. A win by Chávez would probably pull some governorships from the opposition in the December regional election. Chávez would most likely push for some kind of constitutional reform, as the current constitution clashes in many aspects with a socialist-statist model. The MUD would suffer from conflicts and tensions and could very well split apart. A continuation of conflicts and violence in politics is to be expected, but without bearing on the general orientation of the state, although it could serve as justification for an increase in repression. 

Capriles Radonski wins the election

The legitimacy generated by the electoral triumph would create the conditions that could help revert the excessive centralization and statism of the communal state project. If the MUD remains as a united force tied to its accords, the decentralization process begun in the `80s and halted by the chavista project could be restarted. A win by the opposition could also be more favorable to the opening of dialogue and political negotiation with the forces of chavismo. This dialogue would be necessary because chavismo will continue to control other state powers, will dominate many governor and mayor´s offices, and will continue to be the main party in the country. But dialogue would only be possible if chavismo is willing to concede defeat and temper its polarizing strategy. The Armed Forces would also have to recognize a win by the opposition. On the other hand, if Capriles were to carry the election, this would also push some governorships to the opposition side in December, and could also mean changes in the current composition of the National Assembly. Accords by the MUD stipulate that Capriles will only use legal administrative procedures to revert current structures and politics that contradict the 1999 Constitution. The structures of communal councils and communes would continue to exist, but these would be re-linked to their constitutional territorial base, i.e. municipalities and federal entities. This would mean a rectification towards the Participatory Democracy enshrined in the Constitution, but it would probably develop in a context of intense conflicts and, possibly, escalating violence. This would highly depend on the conduct of defeated chavismo, the behavior of the Armed Forces and the will and political abilities of the winners in honoring their commitments with the voters and in managing a peaceful power transition.

Middle Scenarios

The first scenario described here, Chávez wining and serving the whole period, seems very unlikely at this time. There is little official and trustworthy information on his illness, but everything points to a very serious sickness that could force him out of power, before or shortly after October 7. It is therefore necessary to enumerate several middle scenarios, all of them possible and challenging for Venezuela´s future.

1. Chávez wins, but retires from office some time after October 7, a new election is held and a chavista candidate wins.

2. Chávez pulls out of the race, but designates a successor and he wins.

3. The election is postponed.

4. There is a violent takeover of power, pro-chavista or anti-chavista.

In all these scenarios, political tensions, violence and conflicts increase the diminished legitimacy of whoever becomes President. The scenarios of chavismo without Chávez could favor conditions for dialogue and negotiation between the two political sides. If chavismo remains in power, the flow of public funds and resources to the communal state will continue, but the opposition could hold a more effective resistance to the weakening of municipalities and states. How effective could those that oppose the authoritarian tendencies of the state be under such circumstances? It will depend on the strategies and interactions that develop among the actors, their political abilities and political negotiations, and also on their capacities to mobilize and seek the support of civil society to defend political and civil right.

Even if chavismo wins in October, it can be expected that the opposition will hold important municipalities and regions in December, such as the governorships of Zulia, Miranda, and Lara, as well as cities such as Maracaibo and Caracas. These could be spaces for resistance to the more authoritarian tendencies of chavismo. For example they could push for initiatives of public management that could reorient the communal structures towards a more democratic and empowering trend, in line with the 1999 Constitution.

But the scenario of postponed election or violent takeovers could trigger all kinds of tensions and conflicts and could result in further scenarios that are, for now, unpredictable.

As is shown in this analysis, Venezuelans face huge challenges in the context of major uncertainties. In this electoral juncture we will have to balance contradictory signals; to keep the balance when winds blow from every direction is hard and frightening.  We need to favor the option that will guarantee the most inclusion, respect for minorities, and respect for human dignity above paltry ideological blindness. The common citizen is challenged to force the politicians to come down to earth. Venezuela is lagging behind in its development as a society and moving backwards in its political institutional development because of the perverse distortions of a wealthy State and an immature leadership, with despotic tendencies. It is time to think clearly, discerning priorities from the superfluous and bet on a better future.

Translated by Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

Margarita López Maya is a historian at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and President of the Venezuelan Studies Section of the Latin American Studies Association