2012 Venezuelan Presidential Election Report: Chávez Wins, Again

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.

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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.)

6 Responses to 2012 Venezuelan Presidential Election Report: Chávez Wins, Again

  1. Xavier October 8, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

    One small point: the success of the Mision Robinson on illiteracy has been very convincingly disputed by Francisco Rodriguez: http://frrodriguez.web.wesleyan.edu/docs/working_papers/Freed_from_Illiteracy.pdf At the very least, it is unclear that lower levels of illiteracy today in Venezuela have much to do with the Mision Robinson or any other actions by the Chavez government.

    It is, of course, true that support for Chavez has a material foundation, and that lots of people feel extremely grateful for the Misiones and other social programs started by the government. But how many of the people who benefit from these social programs and are Chavez voters now are also hardcore “devoted Chavez supporters” is much more difficult to determine.

    • Jennifer Cyr October 11, 2012 at 12:03 am #

      Hi Xavier. Thanks for your comment. I’m wondering what you think of this response to the pdf you attached?: http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/literacy_2008_05.pdf

      I know that Weisbrot and company are typically seen as being Chavez-friendly, but the analysis is interesting nonetheless.

  2. Thiago Marzagao October 8, 2012 at 9:59 pm #

    “The Chávez-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) had refused to allow an independent audit of the voter registry, and the likelihood that the list is corrupted is high. How else to explain that there were 11 million registered voters in 1999 and there are almost 19 million voters today? The CNE’s website lists thousands of voters between the ages of 111 and 129.”

    (http://professional.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444897304578044142795718294.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_LEFTSecond&mg=reno64-wsj)

    So it sounds far-fetched to discuss WHY Chávez had 54% of the vote when we don’t even know WHETHER Chávez had 54% of the vote.

    • Jennifer Cyr October 9, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

      Even biased media sources (that is, biased against Chavez!) recognize that Chavez won 54-55% of the vote. See El Universal or the Caracas Chronicles. Or, frankly, see MUD statements since 7-O: they agree that the election was not fraudulent, although they object to the fairness of the campaign (precisely because Chavez circumvented media laws and used state resources to promote his candidacy). If you can find me one credible source from Venezuela that corroborates WSJ’s insinuation, then I would be inclined to take this comment a bit more seriously.

  3. Thiago Marzagao October 10, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    The Venezuelan opposition has learned that denouncing electoral fraud doesn’t change anything and can actually be counter-productive. As one Capriles supporter puts it, when we dispute electoral results “we are discouraging people from [participating in] the next election”*. Also, disputing electoral results fuels accusations of “golpismo” and gives Chávez the evidence he needs to disqualify the opposition (and to further restrict political freedom). So the opposition’s best shot is to pre-commit to respecting the announced results, whatever they are (and hope that perhaps Chávez feels compelled to do the same – which he did). As regards the position of El Universal and the Caracas Chronicles, they are largely based on the MUD’s stance, so we don’t really have three independent pieces of information here.

    The bottom line is: we want to err on the side of caution when it comes to electoral results in non-democracies (remember that Venezuela’s Polity IV score is now -3). The Venezuelan government has imprisoned and harassed opposition figures, shut down opposition media, and put the Legislative and the Judiciary under control of the Executive; it sounds healthy not to take the country’s electoral results at face value. The more so since exit polls suggested that Capriles had won, the number of registered voters increased by 7,890,916 (in a country of 28,9 million people) since Chávez came to power, the voter registry contains thousands of dead people, and the CNE has a history of complacency with the president’s violations of the electoral law. In short, before explaining the puzzle – how Chávez managed to win the election despite crime, food shortages, etc -, we should firmly establish that the puzzle exists.

    That said, even if there was no electoral fraud, it seems that the real puzzle is Capriles’ performance, not Chávez’. You claim that “Incumbent advantages aside, these elections suggest that Chávez’s greatest resource might be his devoted followers”. But that minimizes Chávez’ incumbent advantages. If you are a public employee, your job is tied to your support for Chávez (or at least to your non-support for the opposition),** as 18,000 PDVSA employees replaced by Chávez loyalists have learned the hard way***. If you are in the private sector, supporting the opposition may get you blacklisted by firms with government contracts, as the “Tascón list” incident in 2004 showed. If you really get to Chávez’ nerves, you may end up in prison**** or beaten up by Boliviarian mobs*****. The last independent TV station, Globovisión, was partly nationalized in 2010. And so on. So even when we factor in inflation, power outages, food shortages, and crime, it is still impressive that Capriles got (at least) 44% of the vote.

    *http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/News/students-protest-venezuelan-election-results/story?id=17432844#.UHWG6I68CaE

    ** http://lapatriaenlinea.com/?t=acusan-al-mas-de-campana-prebendal-y-organizar-marcha-de-los-obligados&nota=85396

    http://veja.abril.com.br/071107/p_086.shtml

    *** http://www.economist.com/node/21547829

    **** http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/07/17/venezuela-concentration-and-abuse-power-under-ch-vez

    ***** http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUk9fq6I_dM

  4. oreneye October 10, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    It is odd to me that you footnoted the fact that poverty and illiteracy rates have dropped under Chavez. Whether or not this is directly due to Chavez himself, it suggests that there would be very logical reasons for voters to vote for him. The main text should have included these facts, alongside (the presumably smaller effects of) die-hard supporters and some increases in spending in the months and weeks leading up to the election. If voters are perceiving (and actually experiencing) reduced levels of poverty, then it’s not really much of a mystery why he was reelected despite the continuing economic and social problems you point out.