As many probably know by now, presidential elections took place in Venezuela yesterday, as Venezuelans went to select either Nicolás Maduro or Henrique Capriles as the next president; Maduro was Chávez’s latest vice president, while Capriles ran against Chávez last fall. While many predicted a comfortable win for Maduro early in the brief campaign, Capriles ultimately picked up significant ground, and Maduro ended up winning the vote, 50.66%-49.07%, a margin of of about 235,000 votes. Unsurprisingly, Capriles refuses to acknowledge defeat until a full recount is completed, a not-unreasonable demand for such a close election.
Last night, Capriles’ supporters took to Twitter to repeatedly proclaim how “the people” suffered with this election (there were too many to link; just look at the tweets under the hashtag “CaprilesganoTibisaymintiu” or, literally, “Capriles won, Tibisay [the head of the National Electoral Commission] lied”). Framed in terms of betrayal, deceit, or just depression or tragedy, the motif was that the election of Maduro ran counter to everything that “the people” wanted or that “the people” deserved. Suffice to say, such rhetoric is a bit out of touch with reality, since a majority of “the people” voted for Maduro; yes, it was a close majority, but it was still a majority. Yet this rhetoric is not just a case of refusing to acknowledge the actual data; I think it is reflective of a broader worldview. Capriles’ supporters are by and large from the middle and upper classes; when they refer to “the people,” they are referring to themselves. Such claims of ignoring “the people” in turn is a telling sign, demonstrating that, even after nearly 14 years of social reforms designed to address inequalities under Chávez, there is still the mindset that poor Venezuelans, who are a significant portion of the Venezuelan population, are not “the people.” That such a mindset, which was characteristic of politics and society for much of Venezuela’s post-independence history, is still visible for all to see may have had some small part in “the people” ultimately turning to Maduro in spite of very real questions on economics, crime, and energy policy, among other things. For, if nothing else, Maduro made clear that he would continue to address “the people” whom Chávez had incorporated and aided after generations of being disregarded for elite interests; Capriles failed to make the case that he would represent their interests, and in defeat, his supporters’ divisive language and political framing revealed the ways some sectors and political groups refuse to acknowledge the role the poor and marginalized play in twenty-first century politics.
The outcome also speaks as closely to how much of the movement was bound in the figure of Chavez. Without him in the election, the outcome was far closer, and I think that speaks to just how personalist and non-institutional his program, rhetoric, and vision for Venezuela were. At the risk of returning to the same well too many times, I’ve repeatedly commented that, regardless of what one thinks of Chávez’s reforms and his vision for Venezuela, one of his biggest failures was to move beyond personalist politics and to institutionalize those reforms and visions. This closeness of this election seems to further reinforce the perils of that type of personalist politics.
At the same time, I’ve also suggested that Chávez’s death means that any efforts to make the reforms more long-lasting will fall to his successor(s) and to the Venezuelan people who support it. Maduro’s victory means that they will at least get a chance to continue to shape Venezuela in the post-Chávez context. What they do with that opportunity, or what they are able to do in the current social, political, and economic context, remains to be seen.
And to be clear, the challenges facing Maduro are significant. A narrative has already emerged that he will pay the political price for Chávez’s shortcomings in areas like monetary policy, energy policy, and crime, and he very well may. But politics and history are both funny things, and Maduro may prove to be a capable leader in his own right, putting his own stamp on years of Chávez’s reforms. Could his term end before his six years are up, as unrest or opposition mount or problems worsen? Sure. But could he also conceivably be quite politically able – we have not really had a chance to see yet, given the short nature of the his time as acting president in unusual circumstances and the unique conditions of a sudden and brief presidential campaign. And even if he should fail, that does not mean the opposition that Capriles represented will fill the void; with Chávez gone, there will be others who disagree with Maduro’s vision of Chavismo who might try to challenge him and arrive in the presidency themselves. After all, as with any political movement, Chavismo is far from unified, and where it goes in its the wake of its namesake’s death can now become a matter of political dispute.
Going forward, one thing is certain – things will continue to be interesting and worth watching.