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2012 Venezuelan Presidential Election: Pre-Election Report

- October 1, 2012

Continuing our series of election reports, the following pre-election report on the 2012 Venezuelan presidential elections is provided by political scientist  Jennifer Cyr of the University of Arizona.

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In little under a week, Venezuelans will head to the polls to vote for their country’s next president. For some, this will mean voting to re-elect Hugo Chávez for the fourth time (he was elected in 1998, 2000, and 2006, and also survived a recall referendum in 2004), extending his presidency to a full two decades (1998-2018). For others, this election represents the fourth constitutional attempt at removing him from office. In 2002, a failed coup sought to force him from office extra-constitutionally. Unlike past elections, this one is closely contested, and some polls have even predicted that Chavez’s opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, might win (but see here for an analysis that calls this prediction – or any prediction, really – into question).

Chávez came to power with the collapse of a two-party system that had dominated democratic politics in the country for forty years. If he wins again on October 7, Chávez would likely interpret this victory as a green light to deepen his control over Venezuelan politics. In practice, this would mean further centralizing power into the hands of the executive, harsher controls over the independent (read: opposition) media, and a greater capacity to provide selective benefits and incentives to chavistas through his myriad social programs.^*^ It would also bolster Chavez’s claim that the “new,” revolutionary Venezuela, the so-called Fifth Republic, has been blessed by the Venezuelan citizenry. For him, an additional term would undoubtedly signal the country’s rejection of the pre-Chavez era – the “old,” Fourth Republic and the “squalid” individuals that ran the country to their exclusive benefit.

Capriles, a former mayor and current governor of the state of Miranda, stands as the anti-chavista camp’s greatest chance thus far of toppling the incumbent. Currently a member of the newly formed, center-right Primero Justicia (PJ) party, Capriles’ political career began with the now collapsed Christian Democratic party of the “Fourth Republic,” COPEI. Officially, he is the candidate of the entire institutionalized opposition movement (called the Democratic Unity Table, or MUD in Spanish), which includes and relies upon both new and old political parties alike. His political lineage is important because, no matter how fervently Capriles embraces politics in Chávez’s “new” Venezuela, he cannot fully distance himself from the much-maligned pre-Chávez past. Indeed, the 800-lb gorilla in the MUD is Acción Democrática (AD), Venezuela’s historic, labor-based party that, while no longer nationally competitive on its own, has become indispensable to the opposition behind the scenes, thanks to its organizational reach into the country’s “interior.”

Still, Capriles has made every effort to appeal to Chávez’s Venezuela. He has organized a grassroots campaign that rivals in many respects Chávez’s own, carefully crafted army of volunteers. He promises to preserve many of the social programs that Chávez implemented, even as he vows to make them better. His campaign success thus far, while due in part to the organizational resources and institutional legacies emanating from many players of the “Fourth Republic,” confirms the triumph of the “Fifth” as the new way of doing politics in Venezuela. If Capriles wins on 7 October, therefore, it will represent a blow to Chávez’s personal ambition to rule Venezuela for at least twenty years. Less clear, however, is the effect that it will or even can have on politics in the country. Chávez’s control over the state and its institutions will not go away, and millions of Venezuelans will continue to revere him. Even if Capriles wins this election, it is clear that the “new” Venezuela is here to stay. And that might be Chávez’s most important victory thus far.

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^*^ Even though the opposition won a plurality of votes in the 2010 parliamentary election, its presence in the National Assembly (NA) is weak, thanks to electoral rules that strongly favor the president and his party – rules that Chávez put into place. Additionally, prior to the 2010 election, Chavez supporters in the NA passed a law endowing him with fast-track authority to bypass their institution when it came to policy-making on issues of national importance.