On Sunday Hugo Chávez won his third presidential term. With 55 percent of the total vote, he bested opponent Henrique Capriles by almost 11 percent. With the dust now settling and celebrations or mourning (depending on your politics) coming to an end, here is a roundup of insights into how and why Chávez defeated Capriles, and what this might mean for the next six years.
Part of the reason for Chavez’s victory was turnout—some 80 percent of the eligible population made it to the polls, and this likely helped the incumbent. Though a few scattered voices allege fraud, the election overall seems to have been free. Whether or not it was fair is more widely contested. The opposition has alleged that Chávez used state resources during his campaign, and Bloggings by Boz’s James Bosworth has pointed out that the ballot itself was confusing. Media coverage of Chávez has also been contentious, with opponents claiming that the state-run media favored Chávez in its coverage and allowed him more air time. But today’s Pan-American Post cites a study by the Andres Bello Catholic University that finds, in fact, that Capriles received more exposure in recent weeks.
Another reason was social spending. Businessweek notes that government outlays rose 30 percent this year. High oil prices gave Chávez the fiscal flexibility to undertake ambitious social projects, such as giving away nearly 250,000 houses (although, as Javier Corrales notes, the quality of their construction may be dubious) and subsidizing appliances through the Mi Casa Bien Equipada (or in English, My Well Equipped Home) program, part of an “oil for appliances” deal with China. Many worried that Chávez’s defeat could end these popular programs. Overall, high oil prices have often been directly correlated with Chavez’s approval ratings (see this Wall Street Journal graph), and international markets obliged this October.
What happens now is less clear. Michael Shifter suggests in the New York Times that this term will be different for Chávez, as he now faces an organized and confident opposition. By contrast, the Wall Street Journal published a piece stating that the election just gives Chávez more time to “press ahead with his Socialist revolution, deepening government intervention in the economy, including price controls and nationalizations.” Finally, Chavez’s health remains a question for many. If he cannot complete the first four years of his six year term, Venezuelans will head back to the polls, as the Constitution calls for new elections.
Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations