Continuing our series of election reports, the following post-election report on the 2012 Venezuelan presidential elections is provided by political scientist Jennifer Cyr of the University of Arizona. Her pre-election report is available here.
Yesterday, Hugo Chávez won his fourth successive presidential election, defeating his main competitor, Henrique Capriles Radonski, with 54% of the vote (Capriles won 45%). In my last post, I set the stage for the election, arguing that Capriles represented Chávez’s toughest competition thus far. Here, I’ll give the election itself some historical context and consider, if briefly, the why of Chávez’s two decades-rule.
First, some details. In Venezuela, the president is elected by plurality vote for a six-year term. The voting process itself is electronic: a citizen’s fingerprint unlocks the machine, allowing him or her to vote only once. The actual vote is, according to the country’s electoral council and outside observers, completed disconnected from the identification process, ensuring voter secrecy. Fears on this point nonetheless persisted, as international media emphasized over and over again.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Chávez won because of the triumph of fear. In fact, 55% of Venezuelans voted for him despite consistently high inflation, regular power outages, food shortages, a soaring crime rate, and a bloated and inefficient government bureaucracy. The less risky choice, therefore, might have been a vote against Chávez, given his recent track record. (In fact, upon accepting his victory, Chávez acknowledged that his government had made mistakes in the past, repeating, if briefly, a mea culpa that had begun a few days earlier.)
Instead, Chávez won by over nine percentage points – a relatively wide margin by most standards. Still, this was Chávez’s most closely contested election ever. In 1998, when he was first elected president, Chávez beat his closest competitor, Henrique Salas, by just over 10%. In 2000, he won by over 22%, and in 2006, by almost 26%. Regionally, Chávez took all but three states: Táchira, Mérida, and Miranda. In 2006, Chávez won a majority in all 23 states plus the capital, and in 2000, he won everywhere except Zulia.* Chávez’s victory last night was a solid one. It represented, nonetheless, the opposition’s strongest showing yet.
These past electoral results, together with last night’s victory, suggest that Chávez has had the stalwart support of 54-55% of those Venezuelans who have shown up to vote since 1998. (If you take into account abstention rates, which have steadily decreased between 1998 and 2012, Chávez’s vote share among the voting population has increased from 29% in 1998, to 43% in 2012.) These numbers tell us a lot about Chávez’s most recent victory. Yes, he possesses massive resource and institutional advantages over any competitor. Oil – Venezuela’s most important export and Chávez’s primary funding source for all of his social programs – is a big factor. Chávez and his revolutionary project have benefitted from soaring oil prices, and Chavez used his almost unrestricted access to state coffers to ratchet up specific social programs in the weeks and months leading up to the election. His abuse of media campaign laws was broadly publicized as well.
Incumbent advantages aside, these elections suggest that Chávez’s greatest resource might be his devoted followers: the men and women who dress from head to toe in red (the color of the revolution) on a daily basis, who cry when they see Chávez speak, and who carry their well-worn copy of the Bolivarian constitution with them everywhere they go.** These are diehard chavistas, and it seems they will support Chávez as long as he competes in elections. No matter how quickly Capriles gathered momentum over the last seven months, and no matter how organized, “innovative,” and “creative” (Bunce and Wolchik 2011) his opposition campaign was, there was a limit to the support that he could have captured.
As a final note, it is difficult to say currently if the support for Chávez is directed toward his movement (called el chavismo) or his person. Might, in other words, this conviction among chavistas endure beyond the man himself? Given Chávez’s current fight against cancer, this is an important question to consider. For the moment, there is no individual in the Chávez camp with the kind of charisma that could make him/her Chávez’s natural successor – something that Chávez himself appears to have taken great pains to prevent. Will chavistas outlast Chávez? Understanding where their loyalty lies is important, since the endurance of chavismo as a movement will undoubtedly impact political dynamics in the country into the future.
*Source: Colegio Nacional Electoral, Venezuela
** Their support is not without material foundations. Under Chávez, poverty rates have dropped and illiteracy has almost been eradicated. (For those of you who are, understandably, leery of these statistics, the CIA World Factbook – no fan, presumably, of the Chávez government – reports a similar poverty rate.)