Continuing our series of election reports, the following post-election report on the 2013 Venezuelan presidential elections is provided by political scientist Jennifer Cyr of the University of Arizona. Her reports on last year’s Venezuelan presidential election (the final election for the recently deceased Hugo Chavez) can be found here and here.
On 14 April 2013, Venezuelans returned to the voting booth for the third time in seven months. They re-elected Hugo Chávez for president in October 2012, and then largely supported his candidates in the regional elections in December. If not for Chávez’s death on 5 March 2013, he would have overseen a largely chavista country for six more years. As it stands, Venezuela decided that Chávez’s chosen heir, Nicolás Maduro, would continue the job that Chávez left behind.
Chávez’s self-proclaimed son won the election by a very close margin. According to the National Electoral College’s proclamation, Maduro won the election with 7,505,338 votes (50.66%), while his principle opponent – Henrique Capriles Radonski – obtained 7,270,403 votes (49.07%). This result will surely be too close for comfort for many in the opposition. Maduro himself spent a vast majority of his victory speech asking Venezuelans to accept the results. On the other hand, Maduro retained a solid lead throughout the majority of this short campaign, and the opposition has for months taken great pains to validate the legitimacy of the electronic voting process.
So what more can be said of this most recent electoral bout?
As I’ve noted here in the past, Capriles has been the opposition’s best chance of defeating the chavistas. His campaign leading up to the October election against Chávez was the most coordinated and unified effort of the opposition to date. In many ways, his April campaign represented a culmination of that effort. Capriles promised, as he had in October, to end the divisiveness in his country; to tackle poverty by maintaining and improving Chávez’s social policies; and to eliminate the exorbitant oil subsidies Chávez had provided to his allies. Always respectful of Chávez in his speeches, Capriles was much less generous with Maduro, who he attacked for exploiting Chávez’s death and ridiculed as someone who could not win on his own merit.
Indeed, Maduro campaigned largely and quite openly in the shadow of Chávez. A former bus driver and union leader, Maduro came to be one of Chávez’s closest allies and most loyal followers. Calling himself Chávez’s son, Maduro has organized his campaign around the former leader. His campaign proclaimed, “Chávez para siempre, Maduro presidente” (Chávez forever, Maduro for president). He capped off his campaign speeches with a bird-like whistle, in remembrance of a “little bird” that came to him when he was praying at a chapel near Chávez’s birthplace – a bird that Maduro felt sure was Chávez coming to bless him and his campaign. His frequent references to Chávez, along with the speed with which the new elections were called, suggest that the candidate wanted to capitalize as best he could on Venezuelans’ devotion to Chávez.
Indeed, the challenge for Maduro was to maintain the levels of support that Chávez consistently achieved. In all four elections in which he participated, Chávez never received less than 55% of the vote. Rather than cultivate new support, then, Maduro simply had to ensure that Chávez’s loyal base remained loyal to his chosen successor. Maduro therefore had to rally his (i.e. Chávez’s) bases, evoking images of their revered leader and presenting himself as (little more than) Chávez’s chosen son. Capriles, on the other hand, had to convince the undecided voters and at least some Chávez supporters that Maduro was not, in fact, Chávez’s rightful heir. This meant being deferential to Chávez’s legacy while tearing apart – as best he could – the people chosen to carry on that legacy. In the days leading up to the election, Capriles appeared to be closing in on Maduro’s early, rather significant lead.
We know now that Maduro maintained the absolute minimum amount of chavista support to eke out a majority win. Of course, Maduro’s most difficult battle begins now. As the constitutionally elected president,* he faces a dysfunctional economy, an incumbent political party on the verge of fracture,** and an opposition that may not take this most recent defeat quietly.
For the time being, Chávez’s will has been done, but the extent to which Maduro can follow in Chávez’s footsteps is an open question.
- Maduro, as Chávez’s Vice President, became Venezuela’s interim president even though the 1999 Constitution mandates that the head of the National Assembly should succeed the president in the event of his/her incapacitation.
** See, e.g., Steve Ellner’s recent (2013) piece in Latin American Perspectives, called “Social and Political Diversity and the Democratic Road to Change in Venezuela.”