The Venezuelan opposition seems to be learning from past mistakes. By choosing a single candidate to represent a coalition of diverse parties through a popular democratic process, and then publically backing the winner, the opposition has tested their candidate’s electability, lent him legitimacy, and acted upon their professed commitment to inclusion. Henrique Capriles Radonski, a 39-year-old lawyer, governor of the state of Miranda who champions being the candidate of all colors and the colorless, overwhelmingly won the country’s first primary elections with 64% of the vote, or more than 1.8 million ballots. Although there is no question that the opposition has never been closer to defeating President Hugo Chávez in the 13 years that he has been in power, the outcome of the presidential elections is far from certain. But regardless of who gets sworn into office, will Venezuelan democracy, political stability and relative peace prevail on October 7 and beyond?
From the primary elections that took place on February 12, as well as surveys conducted by the Instituto Delphos in Caracas, it is apparent that Henrique Capriles is reading Venezuelans correctly. His conciliatory, pragmatic and non-ideological discourse is bearing fruit, as is his readiness to acknowledge Chávez’s contributions to the poor. As president, Capriles has pledged to continue popular government programs, such as the misiones (i.e. health care, education and other safety nets), a rare position from the part of the Venezuelan opposition. At the same time, the opposition’s platform is built around combating government inefficiency, crime and economic stagflation.
Winning the presidential elections will hinge on speaking to those who are unaligned, and critically, enticing them to vote on Election Day. This group comprises 30% of the 18.5 million registered voters—not an insignificant number. Notwithstanding their importance, the “ni-nis” (neither Chávez nor Capriles) have been mischaracterized as apathetic and misinformed. Their defining characteristics are a high level of education and political awareness, as well as a profound sense of disillusionment with all political parties and government institutions. Looking inside the non-aligned group one finds a microcosm of national politics with less dogmatism.
The most positive effect of the primary elections—in which all registered voters were allowed to participate—has been the trust that the process has kindled amongst Venezuelans. Most eligible voters, regardless of political affiliation, think that the primaries were a positive development and that Capriles is a likable candidate. This is good news for democracy and stability.
The weakest link for the Chávez camp remains the President’s deteriorating health. This wildcard—a factor that is utterly unpredictable, marred in speculation and beyond anyone’s control –puts Chavismo on shaky grounds. If Chávez remains active and the formidable campaigner that he is, the opposition will have a very difficult time defeating him. The incumbent has virtually unlimited state revenue and media access. His approval ratings currently hover around 50% and he is just turning to campaign mode at full speed. The strategy of the Oficialismo is predictable and unlikely to shift away from polarization. Indeed, Chávez stands to win from people fearing a transition of power and thinking that Capriles will reverse the socialist revolution. Cracks within the Oficialismo, however, and waning enthusiasm from his core group of supporters are potential consequences of an uncertain future.
Venezuelans now trust the national electoral commission (CNE), thanks in large part to its recognition of past victories by the opposition. This is a hopeful sign that a relatively peaceful electoral season is possible. Involving observers who are impartial and credible to both sides—be they domestic or international actors—would consolidate this confidence. As of now, the CNE has not invited international observer missions, such as from the Carter Center, the OAS or the European Union. UNASUR may be invited as an election observer, but it has minimal experience in this type of endeavor. According to the CNE, international observers would be invited as acompañantes (companions) to domestic monitors. The importance lies in inviting mutually-acceptable elections observers to audit the new electronic voting machines, ensure that the anonymity of voters is preserved, and focus on preventing—or at least denouncing—fraud and intimidation.
Following the elections, the armed forces are going to be decisive in ensuring democracy and stability. Chávez’s armed militias are more than 150,000 strong and make the situation particularly volatile. The international community would do well to encourage the military to respect their supreme duty to protect all Venezuelans and uphold the Constitution. It is also essential for the opposition to continue forging bonds with the armed forces.
It remains to be seen whether Capriles can ride the wave of the primaries and overcome the unequal electoral playing field. The opposition is smart to focus on the paradox in Chávez of creating a socialist and egalitarian community while unrelentingly attacking segments of the population. In the past, Chávez’s divisive discourse coupled with his leadership, charisma, ability to articulate the poor’s grievances and massive handouts proved successful. In 2012, the majority of Venezuelans seek electoral results that are widely accepted as legitimate and a military that stands by its constitutional responsibility to uphold whomever wins at the polls.