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Opinion and Analysis: Opposition | Participation | Politics

The 14 April Venezuelan Presidential Election Campaign: Start of a New Era

Although the results of the presidential elections in a few weeks are quite predictable, we are going through a fragile, vulnerable period, with a future that is less predictable. These elections, because of their place in history- the start of the era of the Bolivarian revolution without Chavez – have some special characteristics and factors. The significance of these factors, of these weaknesses, opportunities, relationships of power, and so on, goes beyond the voting on 14 April.

In the Bolivarian revolution camp:

Unity and leadership: Both the government and the Bolivarian revolution need a collective leadership now. At the national level, interim president Nicolas Maduro has been clear of the importance of this, and for the first time in many years attended the national meeting of the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV). He addressed the meeting, and obtained the party’s support for his candidature on 14 April. 14 parties in total have supported Maduro’s candidature, two more than supported Chavez last October.

Facing elections, at a national level, forces within the PSUV are united and working well together. However, it is likely that afterwards there will be some factional or sectarian behaviour as different tendencies claim to be the inheritors of Chavez’s legacy.

At a regional level, in Merida for example, it’s 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.

Likewise, 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. In Merida, the GPP has been inactive since before last October, and now regional leaders have chosen three PSUV leaders to convoke its meetings and head up its electoral campaign for Maduro.

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, it is more convenient for them. They aren’t 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, and we have seen this in practice, as various ministers and leaders like Jaua, Rodriguez, Villegas, and so on, make important public announcements.

Consolidation of Maduro:“I swear to you Chavez that my vote is for Maduro” – goes the new slogan (it rhymes in Spanish). Over the last few months people have warmed massively to Maduro and have realised just how wise Chavez was in foreseeing this exact situation, and indicating who his preferred candidate was. His selection of Maduro meant the revolution did not have to spend time and energy arguing over its candidate- energy that is often useful in other contexts, but not when there is so little time before the election. Chavez lent Maduro his full support, but also chose a man who was 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. He drove a bus to register as a candidate- capitalising on his working class and union origins. He’s getting better at public speaking, and the fact that he is less charismatic and extroverted than Chavez is a good thing, because it means the focus can stay on the people who say they are Chavez now, rather than on this new personality.

Although campaigning officially begins on Tuesday, Maduro’s characteristic, bold moustache has been drawn on the heart-flag used in last October’s campaign, painted on walls, and drawn proudly on people’s faces in Facebook photos. Maduro has been consolidated as a leader, but one without any pretentions of trying to replace the role that Chavez had.

Sympathy not a major support factor: Surprisingly, and despite the mainstream media trying to claim so, the sympathy factor following Chavez’s passing has not been a very significant contributor to Maduro’s support. According to the latest Datanalisis poll conducted on 23 March, the voting intention for Maduro is 53.1% and for Capriles, 35.6%; a small increase from their last poll conducted ten days previously. Then, the private, opposition supporting poll company found that Maduro’s support was 49.2%, compared to Capriles’34.8%. In the Datanalisis poll conducted before Chavez passed away, Maduro had 46.4% support, and Capriles 34.3%. The results show the 16% or so of undecided respondents moving more towards Maduro.

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 at around 18% higher than Capriles.

Electoral outcome aims: It would be politically useful for Maduro to obtain more votes than Chavez got in October. Such a target seems possible, if not likely. There is a much stronger feeling now than there was in October that this election is key, and that we “could lose everything” if we lose this election. Many activists who are usually frustrated with the PSUV and the constant election campaigning, people who usually prefer to continue their work in movements, collectives, and other revolutionary organising, are feeling the need, this time, to get involved in the election campaign. Participation in the PSUV youth in Merida has also grown.

This means that it is somewhat possible to at least pass the nine million vote mark (if not reach the aim of ten million), and send a strong message internationally that the revolution isn’t over without Chavez. It is not dispirited, lost, or confused, but rather more focused and determined. Such a victory would also boost Chavista motivation post elections, when one of our hardest periods yet will begin.

The ‘We’re all Chavez’ dynamic:  There was a slightly new dynamic at a march here in Merida a few weeks ago. While it was the usual PSUV leaders and bureaucrats who gave speeches, the end of march rally was chaired by a media activist, and all sorts of people who had been marching 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 in society, and it especially teaches that to the poor and to people in third world countries. But it’s time for all of us to fight.

Opportunities: 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.

Type of electoral campaign: 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, because unlike last October when there were three official months allowed for campaigning, this time there are only ten days.

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- too much is spent on campaigns, but nothing compared to what would be spent comparatively speaking in the US, for example. The comrade’s argument reflects though, an accumulated frustration felt by the more revolutionary left with electoralism.

Here in Merida city, some collectives have got together, for the first time in years, to coordinate campaign efforts. The meetings have been small (around 25 people representing 11 groups), and disappointing, but are also just the beginning. Collectives discussed contingency places for if the opposition tries to pull something, and individual collectives have decided to hold cinema-forums and debates in their communities and spaces of influence.

In the opposition camp:

Disunity: Unlike in October, this time round the opposition is running on just one ticket; as the MUD, on the ballot paper. It paints a picture of unity, but the reality is quite different. There are power struggles within the MUD, especially between the older, traditional AD and Copei parties, and the newer First Justice and Popular Will ones. One opposition substitute, Ricardo Sanchez, yesterday denounced that the latter parties were encouraging violence in order to gain influence. Further, it seems pretty clear that the MUD’s nomination of Capriles- publically announcing it 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.

Deluded or disillusioned: According to polls, around 20% of respondents believe that Capriles will win. Last October elections, even more believed he would win. Despite constantly losing elections providing evidence to the contrary, this sector tends to believe whatever Capriles and the private local media say.

On the other hand, there is a larger proportion, this time, of opposition supporters who realise it is a lost battle. They would 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 and the solid belief he’ll win.

Strengths and weaknesses: 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 first campaign rally he spoke at he held here in Merida. It mobilised the same number of people as a Chavista rally a few blocks away that didn’t have the benefit of Maduro speaking.

The opposition’s main strength is its national hold on the media, and the basically unconditional support given it by international private media. This time round it also has the economic situation in its favour. While things are mostly fine and normal, the opposition has exploited the recent devaluation of the bolivar in its discourse, and referred to the new government exchange system as a “second devaluation”. The opposition is also using the line “include all Venezuelans” or “Venezuela for everyone”, arguing that opposition supporters often feel excluded from institutions and public life. Clearly the opposition’s real interests have nothing to do with inclusiveness, but the slogan resonates with some people who are sick of the “polarisation” as portrayed to them in national and international media.

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. Largely, his campaigning and speeches have been clumsy, and at times absurd. 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.

Using dirty tactics: Because the opposition is not going to win, they have been depending more on casting doubt on the electoral system, on insults, and on small pockets of violence, than campaign promises, proposals, or arguments.

Last Friday opposition youth and students clashed violently with police and presented the CNE officials with a list of demands for a “transparent and fair” election. Media and their spokespeople have also being using that rhetoric, as has the US government.

Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan diplomat, wrote in the Huffington Post that the CNE is “no more than a tool of the regime [sic: Venezuelan government] to maintain its power”, and Capriles has argued that the CNE isn’t independent, and its directors are biased towards the Bolivarian revolution. The campaign against the CNE makes little sense, given the opposition used the CNE to run its own primaries last year, and also recognised last December and last October’s election results. It’s also a pretty lousy way to motivate people to vote.

The night Chavez died and we all went to the plaza, I remember talking with some comrades about contingency plans in case of opposition violence that night, or later nights. I remember we felt vulnerable, and we predicted that at the very least the next day there would be panic buying in fear of scarcity provoked by the opposition, and possible disturbances.

In reality though, the mood was calm and respectful the next day, there was more buying than usual, but it wasn’t panicked. Since then, some products such as milk, yellow cheese, and flour are still a bit hard to get, but the opposition hasn’t reacted how we thought then that they would. Last week over a period of just 5 days there were 8 small incidences of armed or violent confrontations by the opposition here in Merida city, but they haven’t been at all on the scale we imagined, and that we’ve experienced in the past.

With the sale of Globovision apparently set for after the elections, it feels like the opposition is practically giving up. That would be useful, in that if they did that we could focus more energy on the revolution’s problems, yet it seems unlikely.

Possible reasons behind their tactics, and aims for the elections and beyond:  Apart from feeling defeated, it is possible that the opposition’s tactics aren’t as stupid as they seem. It is likely 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. Some feel they are heading towards a recall election, and Ricardo Sanchez denounced yesterday that they were planning to not recognise the election results. Such a move though would have more impact in the international media than it would among Venezuelans, who know their electoral system well and participate massively in it because they trust it.

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.