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Few options left for Venezuela’s opposition

Hugo Chávez, ever the soldier, likes to refer to elections as "battles." But after last Sunday’s vote, in which Venezuelans re-elected him for another six-year term (which will give him a total of twenty years in office altogether), he might as well start referring to them as "massacres." The tightening of the polls and the ...

LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/GettyImages
LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/GettyImages

Hugo Chávez, ever the soldier, likes to refer to elections as "battles." But after last Sunday’s vote, in which Venezuelans re-elected him for another six-year term (which will give him a total of twenty years in office altogether), he might as well start referring to them as "massacres."

The tightening of the polls and the greater apparent enthusiasm of the Capriles campaign led many, including me, to forecast a tight race. We even dared suggest there was a chance Capriles could win. Little did we expect that the President’s formidable electoral machinery was alive and well, and that the lumbering chavista vote, dormant in the past few elections, would come back to life.

In 2006, Hugo Chávez beat Manuel Rosales with 7.3 million votes, 63 percent of the electorate. In the years that followed, votes for Chávez’s party (or proposals) in various elections ranged from 4.3 million to 6.3 million votes. In the 2010 legislative elections, the last contest before this year’s, support for Chávez’s party dipped to 5.4 million. This led the opposition to believe that Chávez was on his way out, and that they could capitalize on his disenchanted voters.

However, there is clearly a different pattern at play when Venezuelans’ beloved comandante is on the ballot. Whether it is because of genuine affection, pocket-book issues (Venezuela’s economy is growing at a healthy pace, thanks to an oil boom), or a combination of both, Chávez’s voters came back to him with a roar. The president won last Sunday with more than 8 million votes.

Capriles won 6.4 million votes, the highest number the opposition has ever reached. He ran a solid campaign that tapped into deep-seated frustration at the president’s many unsolved problems — crime, crumbling infrastructure, inflation. In spite of that, he got walloped.

What now for Venezuela’s opposition?

Unity within the fractious group, apparently solid during the campaign, has begun to crack. There are signs of discontent from fringe groups who believe there was fraud, even though the opposition leadership claims there is no evidence of that.

A greater threat to opposition unity could come from an alliance of old-guard politicos and the center-right faction led by Maria Corina Machado, a legislator. During the primary in which Mr. Capriles won comfortably, Machado insisted that "one couldn’t fight Hugo Chávez by trying to appear to be like him." She was referring to the fact that Capriles was adapting many of the same policy positions as the president, albeit promising to deliver the goods more efficiently.

Sunday’s results could provide a push to the proverbial pendulum and convince opposition voters that trying to look like Chávez gets them nowhere, so they might as well try something different. This could accentuate tension within the opposition’s ranks.

Barring an act of God — an international crisis, or Mr. Chávez’s premature death from cancer — the president is not going anywhere. He has a clear mandate and the support of a majority of Venezuelans. Faced with this scenario, the opposition might be tempted to think they could benefit from drawing a sharper contrast with Mr. Chávez, so as to be able to say "I told you so" when the economy tanks.

A shift to the right, however, is unlikely. A more pressing issue is unity within its ranks in the face of regional elections to take place this coming December, when the nation will elect 23 state governors and 330 mayors. Venezuela’s depressed opposition is already wary of yet another contest in which they will be shown to be in the minority. However, the leadership will insist on the importance that they preserve at least some presence in the nation’s political life, as total exclusion would surely cement their irrelevance.

Chávez frequently likes to say that he "wishes" he had a worthy opposition. As demeaning as the statement is, he is right in that Venezuela’s opposition doesn’t stand a chance against him. Chávez’s lament may simply be the result of his own success.

 Twitter: @juannagel

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