Chavismo, as a populist and socioeconomic movement, is already stumbling out of the gate after Chavez’s death. Five weeks after, his successor Nicolas Maduro was elected president under a close and contested elections. For one part, the hypothesis of Chavismo without Chavez has been ratified by the narrowest of margins. The second part is that Maduro might have won the elections, but Chavismo has been weakened by the consolidation of the opposition around the leadership of Henrique Capriles.
It would be an understatement to say that Chavez’s leadership has been missed dearly since his last television address in December. He stunted many when he chose Nicolas Maduro over, long thought to be the number two man, Diosdado Cabello. On one side you have Maduro, a radical socialist and a power broker with close ties to the Castros, but he possesses little charisma. On the other side you have Cabello, a nationalist who despises the Castros, but he has more charisma than Maduro and has deep military tides. In a not too distant future these two forces will collide, is only a matter of time.
After last year’s presidential and governors elections victories, Chavismo wanted to catch a dishearten opposition off-guard and quickly called new elections after Chavez’s death. Many, including in the opposition, thought that in the moment of nostalgia, people would overwhelmingly elect Maduro. In the myth created around Chavez, Maduro wasn’t the real candidate; he was the vehicle for Chavismo followers to vote for Chavez.
Nevertheless, Maduro’s shortcomings quickly came into view. Under Chavez’s shadow, his little charisma and no self-earned leadership, it became very clear to all that Maduro was not Chavez. Many errors were committed right after Chavez’s death such as: the embalming of Chavez’s body against his wishes, the devaluation of the national currency, and the assumption that the trust and support of Chavez’s followers would automatically transfer to Maduro.
In the other hand, the opposition quickly regrouped turning the campaign reign to the most successful advisor in Latin America, Juan Jose Rendon. He along with Capriles focused in food shortages, devaluation of the national currency, high inflation and high crime rates. They turned a 9-20 point deficit, according to some polls, into a head to head battle in a matter of weeks.
By election night, it was announced that Capriles had lost the elections 49% to 51% with participation of 80% of the electorate. However, most alarming for Chavismo was that, while participation had remained the same as last year Chavez’s victory of 56% to 44% over Capriles, voters who supported Chavez last year voted for Capriles this time around. This was a remarkable turn of events that few predicted, especially because the campaign only lasted 10 days. If the campaign would have lasted a few more weeks, Chavismo would have been a page in history.
The effort by the opposition and Capriles was truly remarkable. Building on last year’s accomplishments, refining his strategy and discourse, Capriles took his message where the democratic majority lives. He went after votes in Chavismo’s turf, to the barrios or slums and to towns and states long thought to be Chavismo’s strongholds.
Maduro won by a narrow majority, but his victory came at very high price. Chavismo lost a lot of political ground in a short period of time, much faster and greater than almost anyone anticipated. Chavismo learned a hard lesson: politics are truly unpredictable and the images of people mooring Chavez’s death were a misleading reflection of the changes taking place. Chavez’s leadership, charisma, and strong connection with people are neither transferable nor inheritable as many thought it was.
In a normal democratic election losing is a bad thing, losing twice is catastrophic, but Venezuela is an abnormal case. Ironically losing by 49% has consolidated the opposition and its leadership. Capriles had done the impossible; against all odds he closed the gap, even as he faced against Maduro’s abusive use of the state’s funds, assets and exploitation Chavez memory to benefit his campaign. Now the government is aware of Capriles’ power; they will try to remove him from the political scene by any means, but it might come at price that they will not be able to afford.
In the aftermath of the elections, Capriles is refusing to accept Maduro’s victory until a full audit which should include a recount of all votes. It should be noted that Capriles’ request is being denied by the country’s main electoral body, Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE). Chavismo might regret winning the highly contested elections; Maduro inherited a country deeply divided with food shortages, high crime rates, power outages and an economy in shambles. These are formidable challenges that Maduro’s weak discourse and lack of charisma is not ready to face, much less solve.
One day this emotional fraud called Chavismo will meet its end, but that day is now a lot closer than many people ever thought possible. Maduro will not get to see the end of his term, he faces many economic challenges, internal rives, a re-energized opposition, and a mid-term recall. He possesses neither Chavez’s style nor his emotional connection to hide the looming storms. By all accounts, this is a weak government right from the start. Venezuela is now entering a new era, for the first time, without Chavez and most likely in the near future without Chavismo.