An Opportunity for Venezuela
An Opportunity for Venezuela

An Opportunity for Venezuela

The Venezuelan opposition has a youthful new leader to run against President Hugo Chávez in upcoming elections. But despite their optimism Chávez can be defeated, they still face a stiff test.

In primaries held last Sunday, the Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD) selected Henrique Capriles, of the centrist and humanist “Primero Justicia” party, to face Chávez in the Presidential ballot on 7 October. With a strong showing of 64% of the Coalition choosing him, the challenger now seems poised to rally all political opposition in the country behind him.

Though only 39 years old, Capriles is no rookie to the Venezuelan political field. He chaired the former Chamber of Representatives, was a successful mayor for the Baruta municipality, and is the governor of the state of Miranda. His candidature was supported by a coalition of centre-right movements and received a last-minute endorsement from Leopoldo López, who had previously declined his candidature. Still, Capriles has maintained a certain distance from the traditional political parties, giving him an invigorating image and an innovative message.

The surest sign that the opposition may be on a roll with Capriles is that over three million voters participated in MUD’s primaries, which is far more than anyone expected. Such a turnout is all the more impressive considering it was generally felt many Venezuelans would not dare to show up, fearing revenge by the government.

It was not a remote threat, but one born of real experience. People who had signed a petition in 2004 to revoke Chávez’s mandate suffered retaliation afterwards. Last weekend’s high turnout is thus understood as a very positive sign that official intimidation may not work, and raises the expectations of an opposition victory in October.

This significant achievement also reflects the progress the MUD has made in bringing the opposition together. This is the first time a presidential candidate is being supported by all the movements and parties working to defeat Chávez. In the last presidential election in 2006, the candidate, Manuel Rosales, was chosen through inter-party deals without primaries, and Rosales was decisively defeated by Chávez, 63% to 37%.

The opposition seems to have been learning lessons as it goes along. In the 2008 regional elections, they took only five of Venezuela’s 22 states – albeit five of the most populous. In parliamentary polls two years later, they scored a virtual draw with chavismo, represented by the United Socialist Party (PSUV). This meant that the President lost the qualified majority required to impose constitutional reforms, a stunning victory for the opposition.

In the months building up to the primaries, MUD concentrated on the drafting and dissemination of a manifesto that mirrors its heterogeneous membership and also responds to citizen demands, covering many issues that have often been dominated by President Chávez. Capriles’s ideas have been mostly about social inclusion. In short, the opposition seems to have built a big tent and encouraged many to come into it.

Still, this is going to be a stiff fight. Chávez has some powerful machinery at his disposal, and the campaign ahead will not be played on a level field.

Chávez has announced his firm intention to remain in power for a third term and has reinforced his links with the armed forces. He has in previous elections shown his willingness to use public resources to boost his campaigns, and, of course, he still does enjoy significant support, particularly among the poor and rural population of the country.

Still, if the opposition has an opportunity, it is surely now. They have to make solid proposals to address the acute problems facing Venezuelans, particularly security, which in a country where two people are murdered every hour, is very high up on the public’s agenda. The MUD must propose viable and clear alternatives to recover social trust in institutions and to face a clear danger of political violence as well. To this end, it is indispensable that all parties commit to constitutional rules, expressly renounce the use of violence as a political weapon, and fully respect the will of the electorate.

In this highly charged environment, political violence has so far remained more a latent threat than a reality. However, as the country heads into what promises to be a fiercely contested presidential election, with very high stakes for both sides, this fragile equilibrium may not hold. The greatest danger is likely to come after the election, regardless of who wins, since the entrenched levels of violence are prone to undermine either peaceful regime continuity, hand-over to Capriles or any possibility of a transitional arrangement.

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