The results of Venezuela's presidential elections in a few weeks may well predictable, with polls showing socialist candidate Nicolas Maduro well ahead of his right-wing opponent. But we are going through a fragile, vulnerable period, with a future that is less predictable.
These elections, as the start of the era of the Bolivarian revolution without its historic leader Hugo Chavez, have special characteristics and factors that go beyond the vote.
Unity and leadership
Both the government and the Bolivarian revolution need a collective leadership now. At the national level, Maduro, as interim president, has been clear of the importance of this.
For the first time in many years, Maduro attended and addressed the national meeting of the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV). He obtained the party’s support for his candidature on 14 April. All up, 14 parties have supported Maduro’s candidature, two more than supported Chavez's successful presidential bid last year.
At a national level, forces within the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV, the mass party founded in 2007 in response to a call by Chavez) are united and working well together. However, it is likely that after the elections, there will be factional or sectarian behaviour as different tendencies claim to be the inheritors of Chavez’s legacy.
At a regional level, for example in Merida, it is a different story. Newly elected PSUV governor Alexis Ramirez not only excluded all pro-Chavez groups apart from the PSUV from the regional electoral campaign committee, but also only chose people from his own tendency within the PSUV.
Unfortunately the Great Patriotic Pole (GPP), which was meant to be a space of collaboration between around 30,000 registered movements and collectives, has become just another electoral platform.
The vultures of the international private media would like there to be just one person at the head of the Bolivarian revolution. It is easier to demonise it that way. They are not used to talking about (and don’t want to talk about) collective leadership or mass people’s protagonism.
However, although Maduro is the candidate, he is aware of the importance of a different kind of leadership now. This has been shown by various ministers and leaders making important public announcements.
Consolidation of Maduro
Over the past few months, people have warmed massively to Maduro. They have realised just how wise Chavez was indicating who his preferred candidate should his health prevent him from continuing as president.
Chavez's selection of Maduro meant the revolution did not have to spend time and energy arguing over its candidate. In supporting Maduro, Chavez chose a man almost perfect for the job.
Maduro is strong, committed, knowledgeable, a hard worker, humble, and somewhat reserved. The people trust in his loyalty to Chavez’s legacy and to the Socialist Program 2013-2019 — the program for the next phase of the revolution drafted by Chavez last year, and discussed and amended in thousands of mass meetings across the country.
Maduro drove a bus to register as a candidate — capitalising on his working class and union origins. He is also getting better at public speaking, although less charismatic and extroverted than Chavez.
Maduro has been consolidated as a leader, but one without any pretentions of trying to replace the central role played by Chavez.
Surprisingly, and despite the mainstream media trying to claim so, the sympathy factor after Chavez’s death on March 5 has not been a very significant contributor to Maduro’s support.
A March 23 Datanalisis poll found 53.1% intended to vote for Maduro and 35.6% for his opponent Henrique Capriles, 35.6%. In the Datanalisis poll conducted before Chavez died, Maduro had 46.4% support, and Capriles 34.3%.
Sympathy and strong emotions have only increased Maduro’s support slightly, but will probably play a bigger role in terms of overall voter turnout.
However, it is support for the Bolivarian revolution, rather than emotions, that is keeping voting intention for Maduro signficantly higher than Capriles.
It would be politically useful for Maduro to obtain more votes than Chavez got in October (almost 8.2 million). Such a target seems possible, if not likely.
There is a much stronger feeling now in October that this election is key, and that we “could lose everything” if the revolution loses this vote. Many activists who often frustrated with the PSUV and constant election campaigning are feeling the need, this time, to get involved in the campaign.
This means that it might be possible to at least pass the nine million vote mark (if not reach the aim of 10 million), and send a strong message internationally that the revolution is not over without Chavez.
'We are all Chavez'
There was a slightly new dynamic at a march in Merida a few weeks ago. While it was the usual PSUV leaders and bureaucrats who gave speeches, the rally featured all sorts of participants simply made their way to stand up on the stage.
People are taking the “We are Chavez” slogan seriously, although their interpretation of what it means varies.
For some, it is mostly emotional and symbolic: Chavez lives on. But for many it means the need for each person to take more initiative, responsibility, and to work harder.
There’s a healthy confidence and boldness in the slogan; capitalist society teaches us to devalue our own potential to change things and be active protagonists. But it’s time for all of us to fight.
This emerging new dynamic means however that this period and the current electoral campaign are key opportunities for the grassroots and the revolutionary left to work together, increase their profile, and strengthen their political influence relative to the centre-left and bureaucratic elements.
After a period of grieving, groups of all kinds are now holding general meetings and discussing the electoral campaign and the new political situation. Many of these meetings begin with a symbolic minute of clapping for Chavez (rather than a minute of silence).
Then, it is down to business.
At one of these meetings, someone said: “For 14 years now we’ve campaigned in election after election, in bourgeois style campaigns with a carnival of postering and content-less slogans, of parties seeking votes without deepening consciousness, and spending too much money”.
The comment isn’t entirely true, but the comrade’s argument reflects an accumulated frustration felt by the more revolutionary left with electoralism.
Unlike in October, this time round the opposition is running on just one ticket; as the Roundtable for Democratic Unity (MUD). It paints a picture of unity, but the reality is different.
There are power struggles within the MUD, especially between the older parties that dominated the pre-Chavez era, and the newer ones such as Justice First and Popular Will.
One opposition leader, Ricardo Sanchez, recently denounced the newer parties for violence to gain influence.
It also seems pretty clear that the MUD’s nomination of Capriles — publically announced in a way that pressured him to accept — was a set up. Capriles will lose this election, for the second time in a row, which could be a political setback for him within the opposition.
Polls show about 20% of respondents believe that Capriles will win. This is down from the October elections.
This time, there is a larger proportion of opposition supporters who realise it is a lost battle. They have seen the millions of people queuing to farewell Chavez’s remains. It is likely that this time around this sector of the opposition will be less motivated to vote, despite maintaining their support for Capriles.
On the other hand, Maduro supporters have to be weary of the same phenomenon for the opposite reason — triumphalism leading to a lesser sense of urgency to campaign and vote.
The opposition’s mobilisation power is very weak, its student protests are small, and Capriles didn’t even have a mobilisation when he registered as candidate.
The opposition’s main strength is its national hold on the media, and the unconditional support given it by international media. This time round it also has the economic situation in its favour.
Things are mostly normal, but the opposition has exploited the recent devaluation of the bolivar and referred to the new government exchange system as a “second devaluation”. (The devaluation lowers many Venezuelans spending power due to the economy's reliance on imports, although the government has introduced a range of measures to compensate.)
Capriles has also made the mistake of mocking Maduro’s bus driver background, a pretty silly thing to do if he hoped to get any support from the majority poorer or working classes. His comments about the government lying about the date of Chavez’s passing, instead of creating distrust in the government, only made him seem insensitive and desperate.
Because the opposition is not going to win, it has is increasingly casting doubt on the electoral system, using insults and resorting to small pockets of violence.
The opposition is casting doubts on the independence of the National Electoral Council (CNE). This campaign makes little sense, given the opposition used the CNE to run its own primaries last year, and also recognised last year's national election results.
Apart from feeling defeated, it is possible the opposition’s tactics aren’t as stupid as they seem. It is likely that with a series of small scale violent actions and trying different lines of criticism, they are testing the revolution without Chavez, rehearsing in a sense, and considering their options in a context where they can’t seem to win elections.
The opposition’s tactics aim to discredit the revolution and the government, which is one way of getting overseas (imperialist) financial support. The US and the opposition, and most people actually, also want to know how strong the revolution is now without Chavez.
Post elections, the opposition will no doubt work on encouraging divisions within Chavismo, and the international private media will be by their side.
[This article is abridged from Venezuela Analysis.]