Much to the surprise of political analysts, the Venezuelan political setting has taken an uncertain path in the last few weeks, and the outcome of their presidential election this Sunday the 7th, can no longer be easily predicted.
Henrique Capriles, the former governor of the Miranda state and chosen candidate for the united opposition parties (MUD), did not seem to attract crowds or to have a charismatic image like President Hugo Chavez. Most observers still believe it is unlikely that Chavez will not be re-elected.
Having said that, Chavez’s health has been deteriorating since cancer was diagnosed in 2011, which provoked talks of succession. And though the President claims to be cured, his condition seems to have disturbed his campaign: Chavez had 20 campaign assemblies around the country, versus 260 by the opposition. This raises questions of whether he will actually be able to lead for another six years.
But the difference in numbers also reflects something else: a new approach. Noticing diminished support for the current President, the MUD has taken a U-turn from “coup-like” actions taken against Chavez in the past, opting now for a face-to-face campaign targeted at the masses. It has worked. For the first time in 13 years the opposing parties are reaching Election Day with real conditions of winning. As polls show, the decision now lays on the hands of the indecisive, which accounts for about 30% of the electorate.
This loss of support that allowed the MUD to make a move hides something equally important: the rise of discontent. Venezuelans are starting to question “Chavismo”. The model may not have lived up to expectations. What would President Chavez pass on to Capriles after all?
The Political Legacy
In terms of politics, Chavez has demonstrated a blend of charismatic leadership and an indisputable ability to achieve support from adversaries, two qualities that are very difficult to reproduce.
On the one hand, the support of the people is at the core of his government as in any populist regime. Chavez’s popularity stems as much from his image of the common man as from his poverty alleviation policies which have, since his rise to power, been the main concern of the State. And Chavez’s programs did have some successes. More than two million people were taken out of poverty, making Venezuela of the leaders in economic equality in their region today. This makes for a solid electoral base, and hard for any successor to waive the programs.
On the other hand, there is the highly politicized military arm of the government. Chavez has created two insurances aimed at reducing the threat of coups: the Bolivarian militias and the National Guard, secondary armed forces under his direct control. With this, Chavez hampered the possibility of a united military action against his government. Indeed, the military might be only one of the elites that would be unwilling to renounce to their privileges; but it is what could turn a civil unrest into a violent breakdown and that is a significant factor.
The Economic Legacy
On the economic sphere, Chavez would leave behind rather gloomy forecasts for the near future, with a slow economic growth, high inflation, and rising unemployment rates.
Chavez’s model is based on a strong role of the state through nationalisations. Among the many businesses nationalised are telecommunications, electricity, cement, oil (PDVSA), and the biggest industry of the country, steel, run by Sidor. Illustrating the outcome of such policy, Sidor currently produces at 50% of its capacity. Similarly, PDVSA, once among the biggest oil producing firms in the world, has seen its staff doubling while output declines since 2002.
But the biggest issue lies on the lack of diversification. Venezuela has one of the world biggest oil reserves. Since 1998, as the price of oil has gone up, concentration policies seemed to make sense. Today, about 95% of the export revenue of Venezuela comes from oil. But what happens if the price of oil falls?
Venezuelan economy is vulnerable and increasingly dependent on imports, especially from Brazil and economic difficulties are aggravated by a lasting divorce between the public and private sectors since 2002, and the distorting results of subsidies and an artificial exchange rate. Capriles would inherit deep structural economic challenges.
The International Legacy
Adding to the domestic sphere, it is noteworthy that Chavez’s Venezuela is increasingly important for the stability of the region, through the Bolivarian Revolution, as Cuba’s ally, or as the newest member of the MERCOSUR (Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentine). Outside the region, Chavez has bet on risky foreign policy choices by strengthening relations with China, Russia and Iran. Thus, it does not come as a surprise that the international community will be paying close attention to the outcome of ballots this Sunday.
Regardless of the result of the election, a transitional period for the Venezuelan government is underway and the effects of it are still uncertain. Chavez has built a model around himself, making it hard to see a stable transition to the hands of any other leader – even one introduced by Chavez. It is thus increasingly important to understand this legacy. Of course trying to deeply explain its complexities in less than 1000 words would be a rather impracticable task. So this paper should be seen as an introduction and an invitation for further debate.
Photo Credit: www_ukiberri_net
Veronica holds a BSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and is a former Research Analyst for the Military Balance and for the Transnational Threats and Political Risk Departments of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). She currently works as a political risk and market intelligence junior consultant at the Barral M Jorge Consultants in Brazil. Her focus is on Latin American Politcal, Economic and Security Affairs.