The defeat of Argentina's left in Sunday's presidential election should send a clear message to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro: go hard, or go home.
Maduro needs to smash corruption and incompetence within his own government, fix what economic problems he can, and actually commit to deepening the Bolivarian revolution. Key to this is reconnecting with the grassroots movements and popular masses. If he doesn't, then Chavismo will follow Kirchnerismo into electoral defeat by the end of the decade. If the Venezuelan opposition doesn't take power in the December 6 elections, they'll likely stand a good chance at a recall referendum in 2016, or take the presidency in 2019. Put simply, time is no longer on the PSUV's side, and Argentina's recent elections should be a biting warning.
The Argentine Comparison
Politically, Argentina's electorate is what a cynic would call “polarised,” and an optimist would call “impassioned.” This is a country where centrists get chewed up and spat out. The left wins when it shows ambition, and the right wins on the back of arrogance. Argentina is also a country facing serious economic problems, including persistently high inflation.
To any Venezuela observer, the above description should sound immediately recognisable. Indeed, while there are many major differences between Argentina and Venezuela, over the past year the two countries have both been sitting at the same crossroads. Both have seen major social gains under left-wing governments that have held power for well over a decade. Both Chavismo and Kirchnerismo rode to power on the backs or dire economic crises caused by neoliberalism. Both movements have long been under siege by an increasingly hardline right-wing. Now, Kirchnerismo has lost power.
On Sunday, Argentina's leftist presidential candidate Daniel Scioli was soundly defeated by the right-wing millionaire and opposition leader Mauricio Macri.
Macri's victory has already been welcomed in the international business press as a death blow to Argentina's social democracy, and a return to neoliberalism. Make no mistake: Macri is no progressive on any front. He has described homosexuality as a “disease,” believes women should relish being cat-called and once joked African descendants don't show up in photos without flash.
Against this charmer, Scioli worked hard to position himself as a moderate candidate. While vowing to continue Kirchner-era social investment, he sought to be a unifying figure, toning down the leftist rhetoric of incumbent President Cristina Fernandez and promising no surprises. Despite running a fairly close campaign, it's now clear Scioli's platform was poor match with Argentina's current political landscape.
Like Venezuela and Argentina, Maduro and Scioli are two very different figures, but there are some useful comparisons to be made. Both leaders have been criticised by supporters for being less ambitious than their predecessors, whether that be Nestor Kirchner or Hugo Chavez. Unlike Scioli, Maduro is no centrist, though he has struggled to make serious headway in deepening the revolution in the face of a surging campaign of destabilisation. Although the Maduro administration has worked hard to reinvigorate some social programs (like the Housing Mission), it has disappointingly turned down numerous opportunities to ease some of Venezuela's serious macro-economic problems. The reason is likely that Maduro doesn't want to rock the boat, or do anything that might seem extreme. Sooner or later, this strategy will fail Maduro, just as it failed Scioli. This is unquestionable.
The real questions now are: can Maduro deepen the revolution before time runs out, and can Kirchnerismo remain a potent political force after Sunday's loss?
These are the two questions that will determine the future of Chavismo.