Venezuela: Maduro versus Capriles, again

By Michael McCarthy*

Henrique Caprile / Photo Credit: ICP Colombia / Foter.com / CC BY-SA and  Nicolas Maduro / Photo credit: OEA - OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Henrique Capriles / Photo Credit: ICP Colombia / Foter.com / CC BY-SA and
Nicolás Maduro / Photo credit: OEA – OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Venezuela’s municipal elections on December 8 didn’t conclusively answer the single question on people’s minds:  Would the parties aligned under the leadership of President Nicolás Maduro or those under opposition leader Henrique Capriles win a commanding victory?  Attention centered on this question because Capriles had rejected the results of the April 14 balloting as fraudulent and this time called on voters to give a clear majority to his opposition “electoral bloc.”  Maduro came out ahead in last Sunday’s contest, with its complex ballot asking voters to choose mayors and councilpersons in 335 districts.  His alliance, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) plus left-wing parties, totaled 49 percent of the vote, and parties aligned with the opposition received 42 percent.

But Maduro’s crowing about a “great victory” that propels the Bolivarian Revolution forward with “greater force” and legitimates a “deepening of the economic offensive” rings hollow.  Some of the 9 percent of the vote that went to candidates identified as independents may lean toward him, but the PSUV aspires to be a hegemonic party, claiming a much stronger base, and some hardcore chavistas are complaining about the opposition’s resilience in major urban centers and victories in the capitals of three interior states, all chavista strongholds, including former President Chávez’s home state of Barinas.  In broad strokes, Maduro’s economic populism – attacks last month on so-called economic criminals and measures forcing stores to lower prices – gave him a late boost.  Polls indicate that, with annual inflation running at 54 percent, the move paid off.  Maduro’s blitzkrieg gave urban working-class voters a means to afford items ahead of Christmas and showed the radical base of chavismo his commitment to challenge crony capitalism.  The opposition failed to mount an effective counterattack.  Preparations next year for 2015 National Assembly elections will tell the staying power of this victory for Maduro and the effectiveness of his “economic offensive.”   Capriles, who offered a calm post-election speech, sounded confident of his strategic game, but some in the opposition are probably disappointed that they did not take more Chavista strongholds.

Even though the opposition didn’t win the global numbers game, its significant presence in city halls around the country gives it a position from which to build the outline of a governance model.  One important winner appears to be the electoral process itself, in which the technical machinery ran smoothly and no sustained allegations of fraud were made.  A second winner was governability.  Notwithstanding some bullying of Capriles campaign workers, no violence transpired during the campaign or on voting day, and both sides can claim victories.  Maduro’s triumphalist rhetoric confirms that Venezuelan politics is going to remain far from harmonious, but even a modicum of governability could go a long way as the country faces many tough, if not intractable, questions in the coming year and beyond.

*Michael McCarthy is Lecturer, Latin American Politics, at Johns Hopkins University, School for Advanced International Studies.

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