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October 8, 2012 6:00 pm
In the end, there was none of the violence that so many feared. But then the incumbent, Hugo Chávez, comfortably won Venezuela’s presidential election, extending his 14-year socialist rule for another six years and cementing, for now, his position as one of Latin America’s most commanding figures.
Standing on the balcony of Miraflores presidential palace on Sunday night, Mr Chávez brandished the sword of Simon Bolívar, his 19th century hero, and declared “it was a perfect victory” to the cheers of red-shirted supporters in the plaza below. “Every day, people are more in agreement with the Bolivarian revolution.”
Mr Chávez overcame three cancer operations to win with 55 per cent, a 1.5m vote lead over rival Henrique Capriles, who secured 44 per cent of the vote.
Although that is less than the 63 per cent he won in the 2006 presidential vote, “in the context of the US election a 10-point lead counts as a landslide”, said Eric Farnsworth, vice-president of the Washington-based Americas Society/Council of the Americas.
Mr Chávez’s victory will relieve regional leftist allies, such as Cuba and Bolivia, which receive subsidised oil from Caracas. Despite long faces in the opposition camp, Mr Capriles meanwhile ceded defeat gracefully. “The people’s choice is sacred,” he said.
With the election over, Venezuela now faces three main uncertainties: the extent to which Mr Chávez further radicalises the country and its economy; the true state of his health, which remains a state secret; and the opposition’s future.
Mr Chávez ramped up the economy with a vote-winning 30 per cent increase in state spending this year. This has opened a fiscal deficit, and the black market exchange rate is now a third of the official rate. Many Wall Street economists expect a punishing devaluation that could feed inflation, prompt a recession and undercut Mr Chávez’s popular support.
To compensate for that, the strength of Mr Chávez’s victory will likely lead to “more radicalisation and a greater emphasis on centrally funded communal organisations that undercut governorships and are completely aligned with the presidency”, said Diego Moya-Ocampos, analyst at IHS Global Insight.
“But that requires more oil revenues, which means more oil production. That means Chávez will also have to be more flexible with foreign company terms in the Orinoco oil belt”, where more than two-thirds of Venezuela’s 300bn barrels of oil reside, he added.
Mr Chávez’s health provides another possible impetus for radicalisation. Although the 58-year old claims to be fully cured of cancer, his poor health was evident in the campaign where he looked bloated and tired. Further radicalisation would lock-in his “Bolivarian Revolution” for any successor; under the constitution, fresh elections are called if a president steps down within four years.
“Chávez’s remarkable electoral strength and a weakened and more divided opposition . . . [would make a Chavista candidate] highly competitive, especially in a managed transition,” said Risa Grais-Targow, Venezuela analyst at Eurasia, a risk consultancy. Nicolás Maduro, the foreign minister, and Diosdado Cabello, leader of the National Assembly, are often cited as possible candidates.
Such a scenario would not leave much political space for the opposition, even though Mr Chávez called for national reconciliation and dialogue in his victory speech. Mirroring that, Mr Capriles said that Mr Chávez needed to recognise that almost half the country voted against his vision of “21st Century Socialism”.
“Until now, Chávez has completely rejected consensus politics . . . and used past elections to deepen the process of change,” said Steve Ellner, a leftist historian at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela. “There are two possible courses: radicalisation or national dialogue. Which occurs depends on Chávez but also the opposition.”
That, in turn, depends on whether Mr Capriles, who positioned himself as a social democrat, remains head of an often fractured opposition ahead of gubernatorial elections in December and mayoral elections in April.
“Although he lost badly, Capriles has been roundly praised within the opposition for an energetic, forward-looking campaign, and he doesn’t face a credible rival at this point,” said Francisco Toro, an influential opposition blogger.
Venezuela’s immediate future, then, looks to be its usual improvised mix of heterodox economic policies and grand socialist promises.
One aspect that will have to change, however, is Mr Chávez’s attitude to growing corruption and government maladministration, two points seized on by the opposition and recognised by the president, who promised his next term would be “more efficient” and “better in all ways than it has been these years”.
“Mr Chávez learnt during the campaign that he needs to deliver more concrete results and that growing corruption – such as the sight of senior Chavista politicians dining in fancy restaurants – undermines his discourse,” said Mr Moya-Ocampos.
“The problem with corruption, though, is that it is embedded in a system that has no checks and balances. One way round that might be to make a few examples, as Cuba has done recently, and ‘chop off’ a few heads.”
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