Venezuela’s first post-Chavez presidential election, taking place on April 14, has the unfortunate likelihood of suffering from the same shortcomings of the contest that occurred when Chavez was re-elected this past October: the vote was neither free nor fair but extraordinarily distorted by incumbent advantages and political intimidation. On October 7, Hugo Chavez was re-elected to a fourth term by a decisive margin, with 55 percent of the vote. In power since 1999, and emboldened with six-year terms and the right to indefinite reelection as a result of constitutional changes they forced through, the chavistas, now represented by Chavez’s anointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, appear as firmly entrenched as ever. Last October, the opposition candidate in next month’s contest, Henrique Capriles, mounted the most serious electoral challenge to Chavez since he assumed power, uniting disparate opposition forces, attracting many disillusioned former backers of Chavez, and giving hope to Venezuela’s youth in particular. If there had been a reasonably level playing field or an electoral climate free of the pervasive fear that Chavez’s forces provoked, Capriles might well have won the presidency. The April contest will be a rematch on the same unlevel playing field. Thus, it is unlikely that Capriles will secure the presidency.
Despite the likelihood of defeat, democratic forces must participate in competitive authoritarian contests and grab a piece, no matter how small, of the political space allowed.
Capriles — a popular and energetic young governor of Miranda, Venezuela’s second-most populous state and its most developed–is a presidential candidate better suited to an honest election than to the cynical charade that Chavez imposed on the country. In particular, Governor Capriles and his team made a grave strategic error, giving the Chavez government undeserved legitimacy with their swift acceptance of the October 2012 presidential election results and the implied notion that the electoral system as a whole had integrity. This error came back to haunt the opposition in December as they lost every state governorship but three.
For 14 years Chavez has been embodied the “Bolivarian” revolution. If chavismo is to survive Chavez it will have to choose between three paths: radicalization of the current hardline competitive authoritarian model into a fully authoritarian regime (a dictatorship), mere continuation of competitive authoritarianism or, the most unlikely scenario, dismantling chavismo little by little to turn Venezuela into some semblance of a real democracy.
Maduro is a hardline chavista who has longed served as foreign minister and architect of many of the accords Venezuela has signed with Iran, Syria, Cuba, and others. Yet he is sometimes portrayed as a person that can bridge factions within chavismo and facilitate dialogue between government and the opposition–in other words, he’s a pragmatist. His ultimate goal would be the same as his predecessor’s: to hang on to power, thus avoiding the certain consequences of losing it.