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Opinion and Analysis: Opposition

The Electoral Strategy of the Venezuelan Opposition Comes Back to Haunt Them

Venezuela’s opposition spent virtually all of 2012 campaigning for political office. First, there were the opposition primary elections in February, then the presidential elections in October, and finally the regional elections for state governors in December. By Venezuelan standards, this was an unusually long time for a political campaign. But despite spending the whole year on the road trying to drum up support, Venezuela’s opposition ended up worse off than when they started, in part because of their own campaign tactics.

Their most important candidate, of course, was presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, and they wasted no time in launching a massive election campaign in support of him. Starting in March, Capriles travelled to every state in the country, bolting through countless communities in a mad dash to visit as many towns and cities as possible before the October election, the media covering each visit with countless photos and videos of the young, energetic candidate draped in the blue, red and yellow of the Venezuelan flag. It was a campaign reminiscent of Carlos Andrés Pérez’s 1973 campaign, “el hombre que camina” (the walking man), which preceded Venezuela’s first oil boom, and a period of relative prosperity. And this wasn’t a coincidence.

The Capriles campaign also promised to bring prosperity to Venezuela. With campaign slogans like “progress”, “future” and “there is a way”, Capriles made endless promises on the campaign trail. He would provide “quality jobs” and “better housing” to all Venezuelans, increase salaries and public works, improve health and education, increase support to farmers, eliminate crime, increase state efficiency, and much more. From March to October, “el flaco” (the thin guy) as his supporters call him, visited community after community, making promise after promise, and more than a few Venezuelans got swept up in the excitement, imagining how their lives might change if only “el flaco” could come through on his promises.

But Capriles not only made his supporters believe he would come through on his promises, he also made them believe he would win. Despite numerous polls showing that Hugo Chavez held a significant advantage—more than 10 points in most respected polls—the Capriles campaign and the opposition media ignored them. They published their own polls showing the candidates were neck and neck, or even predicting Capriles as the winner. The opposition echo chamber ran with it:

“Capriles is going to win massively,” said opposition mayor Antonio Ledezma. “The real poll is in the streets, in all the towns that Capriles is passing through.”

“At this stage of the campaign we can be fairly certain that Henrique Capriles Radonsky is going to win the elections,” wrote opposition pundit Teodoro Petkoff in the opposition daily TalCual.

“We could win the elections by more than a million votes,” assured Capriles on CNN.

And an increasing number of Venezuelans were convinced that Capriles’ rise to the presidency was a sure thing. The social media was ablaze with the slogans and logos of the Capriles campaign. The facebook accounts and smart phones of Venezuela’s middle class lit up with Capriles publicity.  #HayUnCamino (there is a way) became the most popular twitter hashtag in the country, and the comments sections of Venezuelan news sites seemed full of Capriles supporters, proudly announcing “Capriles Presidente!”

It’s clear what the electoral strategy was. By promising the moon, Capriles hoped to generate enough enthusiasm to carry him to the presidency. And though he lost the election, the strategy was fairly effective. Capriles managed to garner more votes for the opposition than in any other electoral contest in the Chavez era: 6.6 million votes to Chavez’s 8.2 million, more than a million more votes than the opposition’s peak in 2010.

But after spending a year making promises, his failure to deliver was a devastating blow. Capriles supporters had convinced themselves they would win. The opposition media, the candidates, the pundits had all assured them that victory was inevitable, that Caprlies would be president, and that Venezuela would enter a period of prosperity, the country’s problems resolved. When this didn’t happen, it was hard to believe. Hundreds of supporters cried in the streets, while others assured they were leaving the country. Even young children wept when their parents explained to them the unbelievable outcome.

But this was the inevitable result of the opposition electoral strategy. Sensible analysts knew Capriles could not win long before he set out on his six-month trek around the country. Respected polls had given Chavez a significant advantage since late 2011, one that would be virtually impossible to overcome, yet Capriles continued to whip up false hope with empty promises and impossible predictions, with the private media dutifully playing along in a non-stop media campaign. They were playing with the emotions of millions of Venezuelans, and it would prove costly.

Not only did the opposition lose the presidential elections in October, but when they needed their supporters to come out and vote for state governors in the December regional elections they were nowhere to be found. Nearly half of those who voted for Capriles in October decided to stay home in December’s elections, and the opposition lost in all but three states, losing the governor races in 5 states that they had previously controlled.

“Now people don’t want to come out and vote. It’s amazing, they’re afraid, but we aren’t going to achieve anything by staying home,” said one opposition voter to the BBC on election day.

“They must be more interested in travelling and not in exercising their vote,” said another. “Last time this place was full, and now there’s nobody.”

Opposition news sources claimed the abstention was due to the proximity of the holidays, and that people were travelling and shopping. But while this is likely part of the reason, as abstention was also high among pro-Chavez voters, it is also the case that many opposition supporters are devastated, depressed, angry, and apathetic.

“I’m not voting ever again. We’ll never win,” one opposition supporter told me on election day.

“It’s not worth it. They always win,” said another.

It doesn’t help that opposition media and candidates have long carried out a campaign to discredit Venezuela’s electoral council (CNE), claiming it is controlled by Chavez, and that the electoral results are fraudulent, despite the fool-proof audit mechanisms that would make any fraud extremely difficult to carry out. Cries of a corrupt CNE began to be heard again in recent months, as the opposition supporters attempted to come to terms with the October defeat. Many have convinced themselves that the vote counting is manipulated and see no point in voting—just another example of opposition distortions that have now come home to roost.

A more honest campaign would likely not have had such a devastating emotional impact. Had the opposition tried to build a solid political platform based on concrete policy changes and more realistic goals they perhaps would not have built up as much enthusiasm, but their defeat would also not have been so crushing. And had opposition voices been honest about the polls, and not created the false perception that victory was imminent, perhaps their supporters would not have been so demoralized and dejected upon confronting the reality. Indeed, the truth is that in October the opposition came closer than ever to victory, something that should have been encouraging to their supporters, and could have translated into major gains in the December elections. Instead, it turned into a major defeat.

“I’m not scolding anyone, but when you give up, get frustrated, and get depressed, you lose,” said opposition leader Julio Borges, recognizing the level of cynicism among opposition sectors.

But there is more to the opposition’s dishonesty than a simple electoral strategy. There is a deeper historical reason that makes it extremely difficult for them to run an honest campaign: the Venezuela people simply do not support their agenda. Throughout recent history, the Venezuelan people have repeatedly shown that they do not support the neoliberal agenda that the opposition represents, and that they prefer a government that prioritizes social spending and interventionist policies. Indeed, even Capriles recognized this during his campaign, promising that he would not dismantle the social programs of the Chavez government, and that he would model himself after Brazil’s Lula. His campaigned outright denied that he would follow the neoliberal policy agenda laid out in the opposition coalition’s political program, even though he had signed onto it earlier in the year.

This fundamental contradiction between what they represent and what the Venezuelan population supports forces the opposition to hide their real ideological positions and their actual political intentions. Instead of discussing concrete policies and reforms that they would enact if elected, the opposition focuses instead on criticizing the government’s inability to solve various problems, promising to resolve them if elected, but without explaining how. Of course, it matters little if they actually can resolve these problems, because once in power the opposition-aligned private media will cease reporting about the problems, and shore up support for the new administration by portraying it in a positive light, much like they did during the 1989 massacre that followed neoliberal reforms, or the massacre of protestors perpetrated by the opposition-led regime during the 2002 coup.

As we enter 2013, it is not clear how all of this will affect the opposition in the coming months if Hugo Chavez cannot continue as president and new elections must be called. One possibility is that they will see their chance to finally win an election and will come out massively to vote. But it is also possible that the devastation, depression, and apathy that resulted from this year’s defeats will carry on into 2013 and affect the opposition’s ability to mobilize its supporters. It is not a good sign that Capriles, their most probable candidate in any future elections, was barely able to win his re-election in Miranda last week, despite having spent the entire year in the limelight. But one thing is certain: in order to make up for the 10 points that they trailed Chavez in October, Venezuela’s opposition would need a massive turnout. After the devastating defeats of 2012, that may be their biggest weakness.