Following the recent demise of President Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan government has called for new presidential elections to be held on April 14, barely a month from now. The interim head of state, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, has stated that he will run for office to continue Chavez’s vision of establishing a Bolivarian Venezuela (and Latin America). Meanwhile, the opposition candidate is Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, who already unsuccessfully ran against Chavez in the October 2012 elections. Even though he appears as a likable person and a challenger to the status quo that has governed Venezuela for over a decade, Capriles will most likely be unable to defeat Maduro.
Too Late to Unite?
With elections just one month away, the pressure is on for Capriles and his followers to organize a successful presidential campaign. In the October 2012 elections, Capriles was the closest thing to a real contender Chavez faced in over a decade in power, but he still lost by around 10 percent of the vote (the incumbent head of state won 54 percent to Capriles’ 44 percent). Time is not only against Capriles but other issues offer a losing battle. For example, the government continues to have widespread control of the country’s media. In an ongoing development one of the last major media outlets (which was private-owned and renowned for being anti-Chavez), the TV station Globovisión, will be sold due to unsolvable financial losses. Hence, it will be an uphill battle for Capriles to obtain air time to deliver his message and attract followers. Resorting to the internet is an option as Venezuela has a high degree of connectivity, but internet usage in that South American nation is still not as widespread as in the U.S. or Europe, and poses its own set of challenges. In other words, Capriles will have a difficult time getting his message to the masses.
Arguably, the anti-Chavez movement lost its chance to push for a leadership change back in January and February, while Chavez was still in Cuba. At the time there was very little information made available to the population regarding the head of state’s health status. This informational vacuum sparked concern as the population demanded to know how ill Chavez was and also who exactly was in charge of the government. The situation created a constitutional crisis in the country, as it was unclear whether Chavez’s poor health meant that elections were supposed to be called for and who was next in the chain of command. Nevertheless, the opposition, while making a plethora of statements calling for new elections, failed to apply enough pressure on the interim Maduro government.
Does Capriles have a fighting chance to win the upcoming elections? His one ace in the hole will be his ability to organize a presidential debate against Maduro. This would allow Capriles to show the Venezuelan population that its interim president lacks concise policies for the country as well as the immediate challenges that Venezuela faces. Rather than attacking Maduro for being a chavista, Capriles must focus on specific areas that Chavez did not, arguably, properly address while in power and argue that if Maduro is elected, the situation will worsen.
An issue that Capriles could raise and use against Nicolas Maduro would be on the subject of the worsening Venezuelan economy. In addition, the opposition candidate could argue that Maduro plans to continue donating Venezuelan oil to Caribbean states, including Cuba, via the PetroCaribe initiative rather than selling the precious commodity to customers around the world, who would pay good money that can be used to help the country’s economy.
Moreover, Capriles could raise the issue that the government has spent billions in revenue on state-of-the-art weaponry (mostly Russian) for the armed forces, police and the Bolivarian militia. Nevertheless, major cities such as Caracas continue to be rife with low-level crime, such as robberies, gang-related violence and even murder. Capriles could promote the idea that citizen security will worsen under Nicolas Maduro.
Finally, Capriles could attack Maduro over Venezuela’s energy crisis, an ironic development given the country’s massive oil wealth. He could specifically focus on the energy crisis that affected Caracas back in 2010 due to a drought that affected the country’s main rivers. The lack of electricity brought about severe blackouts, causing the government to enforce electricity rationing. Capriles could argue that Maduro has no plans for alternative energy sources for the country (such as a controversial nuclear power plant center).
Voting for ‘El Heredero’
Ultimately, the aforementioned “discussion points” may give Capriles some extra votes, but it is highly questionable if he will be able to woo enough potential swing voters who voted for Chavez back in October in the next 30 days. The reason for this is that Chavez publicly declared Maduro to be his heir, and that the population should vote for him. Maduro has been quick to maintain this image and thus the “sympathy” vote, explaining that he will follow his mentor’s vision and lead through his footsteps. That should be enough to get him re-elected.
Finally, while Maduro is not as charismatic as Chavez, he does have an appealing story. The interim head of state was once a bus driver who moved up the ranks of the chavista movement as Chavez’s trusted sidekick to his current position. While Capriles could attack Maduro for his lack of education or governmental experience, Nicolas Maduro’s life is the kind of rags-to-riches story that resonates well with the masses of a country that still has a large sector living in poverty. Such a move worked well for Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), who played the ethnicity card and emphasized his own rags-to-riches story in neighboring Peru. In Toledo’s case, using his life story and background as a tactic to gain a “sympathy” vote helped him get elected to the Peruvian presidency.
Barring some massive corruption scandal or some incident with powerful factions like the military, which already swore loyalty to him, it would seem that Nicolas Maduro will be Venezuela’s first president in the post-Chavez era.