Hugo Chávez won the presidential election on an uneven playing field
Henrique Capriles didn’t do anything wrong. The 40-year-old Venezuelan opposition leader ran a nearly flawless presidential campaign against Hugo Chávez. He was the right candidate—energetic, creative, passionate and tireless—to go up against an ailing leader who makes no excuses for his desire to be president for life.
But near-perfection isn’t enough when you are competing with a modern authoritarian like Hugo Chávez. All the same, even in failure, the Venezuelan opposition is offering a textbook lesson on how best to challenge 21st century authoritarians and a guide to how Chávez (or one of his political heirs) is likely to be dislodged in the future.
The Venezuelan presidential election, held on 7th October, was never supposed to be close. The government did everything it could to see to that. At rallies, Chávez and his cronies used the state’s massive oil wealth to hand out refrigerators, washing machines, home appliances—even new homes—to those who professed their loyalty. While Capriles was limited to three minutes of TV advertisements each day, the government blanketed the airwaves with ads extolling Chávez’s accomplishments. All radio and television networks were required to carry the president’s speeches, which came nearly every day. Government employees—whose ranks have swelled in the last decade—were reminded that their livelihoods depended on punching their ballots for Chávez. Polls vary, but with as much as half of the population doubting that voting is secret, it’s a potent threat. Fear and free goods are durable currencies for a modern authoritarian.
Capriles may have done nothing wrong, but his defeat could still lead to a grave error: the Venezuelan opposition could abandon the strategy it has only recently begun. Even though Chávez has been in power for 14 years, almost all of the strides the opposition has made have come in the last two years. It took a decade to jettison the old generation of political leaders responsible for the failed policies of the 1980s and 90s before Chávez was elected in 1998. Although Capriles may have lost, he and his cohort of younger leaders are the most potent challenge to Chávez—note that in October’s election Chávez added only 135,000 votes to his 2006 election total; the opposition added nearly 1.9m.
Most modern authoritarians are more like Hugo Chávez than Muammar Gaddafi. They allow for some modicum of opposition, and at times a chance to challenge them at the polls. The Venezuelan opposition understood three basic points essential to effective campaigns against such regimes.
First, the opposition must be unified. In Venezuela, that meant holding primary elections to winnow the field of candidates to the one person best equipped to lead. It’s far easier for a strongman to maintain his rule when his opponents are divided and bickering.
Second, it isn’t enough to be against the regime—you must offer solutions. Capriles focused on Venezuelans’ real concerns: soaring crime, inflation, and corruption. He proposed following Brazil’s successful economic model and launching education initiatives to combat youth crime. Rather than overturn all of Chávez’s social programs, he zeroed in on those that have failed. While Chávez denounced him and his supporters as “fascists,” Capriles responded with an inclusive message that welcomed all Venezuelans.
And finally, the opposition put forward a candidate who has a direct connection to the people. Capriles has been the governor of Miranda, a large, politically influential state where 70 per cent live in poverty. He couldn’t have become governor without the support of the poor. As a presidential candidate, he campaigned everywhere. He addressed massive crowds in Chávista strongholds. In the last two months of the campaign, he travelled the length of the country—twice.
In the end, it wasn’t enough. That Chávez could win on an uneven playing field is no surprise. Nor should the country’s opposition be taken aback by what comes next: Chávez will ratchet up the pressure. It was after his last presidential election that he truly radicalised his agenda. With regional elections around the corner, he will look to destroy whatever inroads the opposition has made. Expect selective corruption investigations, greater censorship and anything that could sow discord in the opposition’s ranks. Even though the opposition failed to deliver a shocking upset, it got the caudillo’s attention. If it holds true to their new playbook, when it does succeed, it won’t be shocking to anyone.