Had Hugo Chavez not passed away in 2013, the former Venezuelan president and revolutionary socialist would have turned 61 on July 28. However, though Chavez is gone, his indelible imprint on Venezuela’s political landscape endures.
On December 6, Venezuelans will go to the polls for the 20th time since Chavez was first elected president in 1998. Between then and now, a process of pro-poor transformation has significantly cut poverty and empowered the poor majority.
It has also confronted serious obstacles blocking further advances and threatening the survival of the “Bolivarian revolution”, as the process pushed by Chavez is known.
The December election for the National Assembly is shaping up to be another critical battle between forces that for 15 years either supported or opposed Chavez.
For the Chavista forces, victory is vital to defending and deepening the revolution.
For the opposition, success would represent an important step towards removing Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro — either via a recall referendum next year or through use of a parliamentary majority to impeach him.
In most countries, incumbents have to deal with a prevailing anti-political mood reflected in greater voter volatility and more rapid changeovers in government. Even relatively quiet Australia has seen four different governments within the last decade.
Moreover, if any government had to confront some of the important challenges the Maduro government is facing - such as spiralling inflation, shortages of staple goods and high crime rates – you could safely bet on them losing their parliamentary majority.
Yet, a June poll carried out by independent, Caracas-based polling firm Hinterlaces found 62% of Venezuelans would prefer trusting the existing government to correct their errors and resolve these problems.
Only 33% said they would prefer to hand over government to the opposition and have them seek to resolve the country’s difficulties.
Old two-party system
It is too early to tell exactly what will happen on December 6, but Chavismo has undoubtedly become an enduring element of Venezuela’s political landscape.
Chavez’s 1998 election marked the end of a two-party system that had remained in place for decades.
Throughout most of the second half of the 20th century, two political parties dominated: the Christian democratic COPEI and the social democratic party Democratic Action (AD).
To ensure their control over the electoral system, the two parties signed a pact whereby no matter who won future elections, both parties would essentially carry out the same governmental program. They would even consider including members of the opposing party in cabinet.
The result was Venezuela’s poor majority were excluded from any power for the next 40 years.
Cracks in this electoral facade began to appear after the 1989 popular uprising known as the Caracazo against a package of savage anti-poor measures. Many point to this uprising as the starting point of the Bolivarian revolution.
However, it was Chavez’s decision to run for president that brought the entire edifice tumbling down.
Chavez gained national recognition due to his role in a failed 1992 military rebellion against the corrupt political elite. Released from prison in 1994, he began organising a mass movement rooted in the poor majority.
He started the 1998 presidential campaign as an outsider and, with the backing of a hastily cobbled together party, he registered a year out from the elections.
By election day, Chavez was leading in the polls. Both COPEI and AD had withdrawn their candidates. With the old two-party system deeply unpopular, they decided to back another outsider candidate in a bid to defeat Chavez.
Since then, neither of the two old parties has mustered enough strength to run their own presidential candidates. Instead, they back candidates viewed as most likely to pose a serious challenge to Chavez.
Together, they won less than 10% of the seats in the last National Assembly elections and have hardly rated a mention in more recent polls regarding voters’ party preferences.
In most countries, it would be almost impossible to imagine a scenario where, almost overnight, a new party won the presidency and relegated the traditional parties to the category of “other” in the votes tally.
Even in Greece, with the remarkable rise of SYRIZA — where the radical left party has risen since 2012 from outsider to governing party — the traditional right-wing New Democracy party remains the largest opposition party and maintains significant support.
However, that is exactly what has happened in Venezuela. Elections are now largely polarised between pro-Chavez parties — particularly the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) launched by Chavez in 2007 — and an array of opposition parties mostly formed post-1998 and grouped together in the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).
Some say the old two-party system has just been replaced by a new one centered on the PSUV and MUD. But this ignores two other key changes in Venezuela’s political landscape.
The first is the dramatic shift to the left in politics overall.
Poll after poll has shown that after nearly two decades of Chavista government pushing policies seeking to advance the interests of the poor and working people over the old oligarchic elite, most Venezuelans favour socialism over capitalism.
This shift is also reflected in support for policies that are generally viewed as left-of-centre, such as state ownership of the oil industry, greater community control over local affairs, and free public education and healthcare.
This is undoubtedly the result of the policies implemented by Chavez and his constant political dialogue with Venezuelan people over the benefits of socialism.
As such, the country’s political “centre” bears little in common with the policies espoused by centre parties in other countries.
The best example of this shift is found in the Venezuelan opposition. Based on the interests of the old elite, it has nonetheless recognised the need to re-brand itself to appeal to the majority.
Leaving aside the actual policies of the opposition, none of their candidates are willing to openly run on the kind of pro-austerity and pro-neoliberal platforms that are common across Europe or the US.
Instead, their emphasis is on pledging to continue many of the Chavez-era policies they previously opposed, while focusing on the need to do away with “corruption” and “bureaucracy”. These are the same issues that critical sectors within Chavismo have been raising.
In the 2012 presidential elections, one of the main slogans of the MUD candidate Henrique Capriles was “vote to the left and from below”. The slogan was a reference to the candidate’s position on the ballot paper, but it was a clear attempt to present Capriles as some kind of leftist.
When Capriles ran against Maduro in 2013, he tried to avoid attacking the recently deceased Chavez and even adopted some of Chavez’s campaigning style and discourse. At the same time, the opposition sought to draw a distinction between Chavez and Maduro through the slogan “Maduro is not Chavez”.
Right-wing politicians have even adapted the way they look. Few leading opposition figures parade about in suits. Instead, Capriles frequently turns up to press conferences unshaven and wearing a baseball cap and tracksuit top with the Venezuelan flag emblazoned on it.
Under Chavez, politics shifted so far to the left that even looking or sounding like an old-style politician, let alone espousing their policies or running on their party ticket, is enough to lose support.
New political force
The final, and most important, change in the Venezuelan political landscape has been the emergence of Chavismo as an organised political force.
Despite predictions that the Bolivarian revolution would collapse without Chavez, two years after his death Chavismo is still the most important force in the country.
Proof of this is that no other party comes close to being able to match the level of support the PSUV maintains. It is precisely this reality that keeps the bitterly divided opposition parties united. They recognise the only hope they have of winning elections is by running together.
The explanation for this ongoing support is that Chavismo was never simply one man’s project based on one man - as important a figure as Chavez was. Rather, Chavez served as a catalyst for Venezuela’s excluded poor majority to directly intervene into politics.
Chavez’s election represented a spilling over of peoples’ social struggle into a political arena previously restricted to Venezuela’s elite.
The opposition has repeatedly tried to overthrow Chavez — via coups and economic sabotage as well as at the ballot box. But this political force, rooted in Venezuela’s poor majority, mobilised within the state and on the street to defend the Bolivarian revolution and advance its aims.
Chavez’s death in 2013 was a big blow to this project. It may very well suffer future setbacks as well, including the loss of governmental power.
However, there is little evidence to indicate that Venezuela’s poor majority is planning to retreat from the political arena or wind down their revolutionary struggle.
No matter what political force is in government, they will have to contend with a politicised and organised poor who do not want to go back to the Venezuela of yesteryear.