The fading Chávez legacy

Patricio Navia @patricionavia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 3, 2013


A week ahead of the December 8 municipal elections, things are not going well in Venezuela. The economy is in crisis, there are growing signs that the government has lost control and popular discontent is evident everywhere. This would be a perfect opportunity for the opposition to rise as a credible alternative to President Nicolás Maduro, but divisions over tactics and strategies will deprive the Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition of a landslide victory. Though the government will most likely suffer a setback, the opposition will not benefit as much as it could have from the rampant dissatisfaction among the Venezuelan people.


This coming Sunday, Venezuelans will elect majors and councilmembers in 337 municipalities. Though the government is likely to retain a majority of local governments — as its candidates will win in many sparsely populated rural towns — the opposition is counting on winning in important towns like the capital city of Caracas and retaining important urban areas, including Maracaibo. Divided among those who want to wait until the 2019 presidential election — but be ready in case the government ends abruptly before its constitutional term ends — and those who want to aid the end of the already tumbling government out and pave the way for early elections, the opposition is risking its hard-fought democratic legitimacy. Voices that advocate for an economic boycott and untimely calls for extra-constitutional steps to force Maduro’s government to resign before his term ends have been widely used by the government and ruling coalition to remind Venezuelans that many leaders of today’s opposition enthusiastically supported the unconstitutional military coup against Hugo Chávez in 2002. Though the government is chiefly responsible for the sorry state of the economy and popular discontent is rightly pointed at the rampant corruption and evident economic mismanagement, the Maduro administration seizes every opportunity to blame the opposition for its own mistakes.


As they are well aware that they cannot win on their own merits, President Nicolás Maduro and his ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) have tried to transform the upcoming election into a new sympathy vote in favour of the late president Hugo Chávez. The struggling opposition, led by charismatic leader Henrique Capriles — who narrowly lost the 2013 special presidential election to Maduro — has sought to turn the election into a referendum on the troubled Maduro government. Capriles and his democratically-minded circle have also had to resist efforts by the more radical right-wing opposition that wants to bypass an admittedly trouble-filled electoral process and induce the end of the Maduro government through means outside the democratic process.


Many of those who will show up at the polling precincts will punish the national government by throwing ruling coalition mayors out of office. Others will express support for opposition leader Henrique Capriles by supporting Democratic Unity Roundtable candidates. Yet, most voters will find it difficult to choose between an inept government and an opposition whose democratic credentials are under suspicion. As a result, in such a critical moment for Venezuelan democracy and in the middle of the most complex economic crisis in recent decades, many Venezuelans will show their dissatisfaction with the entire political class by skipping the election altogether.


Since the death of former president Hugo Chávez last March, the Maduro administration has struggled. Rampant inflation, economic stagnation, out of control street crime and the growing popular perception that Maduro lacks the skills to run the country and has lost control of his own ruling coalition have fed rumours that the president will not complete his six-year term. Without Chávez’s charm and charisma, Maduro also lacks the political skills of his predecessor. Though he has strong ties with the Cuban government, Maduro does not command the same loyalty in the army that Chávez enjoyed. Moreover, within the ruling PSUV, opposition to Maduro has grown. The President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello is said to be the prepared to take over if Maduro is forced out. Many believe that Cabello is himself easing the way for Maduro’s departure. When a few weeks ago the Venezuelan Legislative Assembly granted Maduro special powers to deal with the economic crisis, many believed that Cabello was empowering the presidency, convinced that he would soon be making use of those powers.


Though since Chávez came to power in 1999, Venezuela has been used to holding regular elections, there will be a long period without elections after December 8. The next time Venezuelans head to the polls will be to elect state governors in 2015. Thus, the vote this coming Sunday will be last opportunity for people to institutionally voice their views on the way the country is headed. Since both the opposition and government will claim victory — the former because it will win and the latter because it will not lose as decisively — the present political impasse will not be solved by the upcoming vote.

Chávez’s legacy is certainly fading away, but there are no definitive indications that the December 8 vote will shed light on where Venezuela will be headed in the coming months.