Venezuela’s Presidential Race

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Members of Venezuela's militia and supporters of Venezuela's President Chavez attend a ceremony in Caracas (Jorge Silva/Courtesy Reuters).

Members of Venezuela's militia and supporters of Venezuela's President Chavez attend a ceremony in Caracas (Jorge Silva/Courtesy Reuters).

Today, chances are Hugo Chávez will face off against Henrique Capriles Radonski in the 2012 October presidential elections. The 39-year-old former mayor of Caracas’s Baruta Municipality (2000-2008) and current Miranda state Governor is leading the opposition candidates, and polling just 2 percentage points below Chávez. He is a lawyer who entered politics at the age of 26 to become the youngest member of the Chamber of Deputies until it was dissolved in 1999.

Capriles appeals to the non-Chavista Left. Following in Lula’s Brazilian footsteps, he has poured money into education and social programs, drawing strong support among the lower classes as well as from a growing contingent of independent voters put off by the Chávez-centered polarization of Venezuelan politics. Comfortable among slum dwellers and businessmen alike – and unafraid to don Chávez’s signature Veneuelan flag jacket– the young candidate has won hearts and minds with his intensity and obvious passion. He has also attracted Chávez’s ire. In 2004, he was arrested for “trespassing, intimidation and ‘violating international principles’” for his involvement in a protest outside the Cuban embassy in the wake of the 2002 attempted coup. The charges were eventually thrown out and two months after leaving prison he was reelected to his post as mayor with 80 percent of the vote.

Yet while a rising star, he faces three major challenges. The first is the divisions within Venezuela’s anti-Chávez opposition. There are other worthy competitors — Leopoldo López, the former Mayor of Chacao Municipality and Pablo Pérez, another young and dynamic governor of the state of Zulia. While one of these — probably Pérez — may give him a run for the nomination, the real test will be whether the opposition can remain united. In the past, their divisions have weakened them perhaps as much as any moves Chávez has made.

The opposition’s track record has gotten a lot better. In the 2008 regional elections they were able to come together, winning governorships in 5 of Venezuela’s 22 states (including the two most populous, Miranda and Zulia). The 2010 Congressional run was their best showing yet. By uniting behind candidates chosen either by consensus or in local primaries, they managed to win the popular vote (52%) — though only  40% of the legislature due to gerrymandering. Signs look good for this coming year, as last month the three major opposition parties signed a pact promising to support the winner in February’s primary.

A second challenge is Chávez’s electoral machinations. While the ballot box itself has not yet been in question, the Chávez administration has repeatedly tilted the electoral playing field —  arresting prominent opposition leaders, silencing independent media outlets, and undercutting autonomous institutions such as the National Electoral Council (CNE). The meddling for 2012 has already started, beginning with moving up the election date from December to October 2012. This is likely just the first of many measures to take the wind out of opposition sails.

The third, less analyzed challenge is Chávez’s health. At first brush his potential inability to run for reelection should boost the opposition’s chances. But it could make it all the much harder. Left without a popular candidate, hard-line Chavistas might pull the plug on elections all together. Hugo’s brother Adán has already suggested as much, saying recently, “It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves [PSUV] to only the electoral and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle.” Instead of opening up Venezuela’s political system, Chávez’s absence might put an end to Venezuela’s democratic trappings altogether.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.