Hugo Chavez’s death has catapulted both sides of Venezuela’s political divide into a snap election that neither wanted. Chavistas hoped their historic leader would overcome his battle with cancer, however must now vote to choose his replacement. Meanwhile, the opposition has been battered by two heavy electoral defeats in under sixth months and do not likely relish being subjected to a third. For the country as a whole the election marks uncharted political waters, because whoever wins, for the first time in fourteen years Venezuela’s president will not be Hugo Chavez.
Yet perhaps surprisingly, the election campaign has received criticisms by some as lacking proper content and debate. These voices argue that rather than principled discussion of concrete issues, the election is being fought out over insults, populist discourse, and negative campaigning.
As author David Smilde has noted, pro-government political scientist Nicmer Evans, electoral NGO the Venezuelan Electoral Observatory, and pro-opposition pollster Luis Vicente Leon have all issued criticisms recently to this effect. As such, Smilde argues that “The campaign for the April 14 presidential election is shaping up to be largely issue free as [government candidate] Nicolas Maduro, with a comfortable lead, focuses on his connection to the figure of Chávez and [opposition candidate] Henrique Capriles focuses on trying to make clear that “Maduro is not Chávez”.
There is certainly some truth to this. Maduro has put a great deal of effort into reminding voters that he is Chavez’s man in this election, promising the continuity of Chavez’s policies. His platform is Chavez’s “Socialist Plan of the Nation 2013-2019”, and Maduro even describes himself as “Chavez’s son”. He has also injected a spiritual element into his campaign, declaring that while praying in Chavez’s hometown recently he felt Chavez’s presence blessing his candidacy.
The campaign has also been marked by the intensity of accusations and insults that the candidates have slung at each other. Maduro has called his conservative opponent “Prince of the Bourgeoisie”, “capricious”, and even employed comments that were regarded as homophobic, calling Capriles a “little princess” while declaring “I have my woman, I like women”. He also accused the opposition of “seeking violence” before campaigning began, calling them the “heirs of Hitler”.
Meanwhile Capriles has launched his own barrage of insults at Maduro, calling him a “bird brain”, “great fool”, “liar”, and accusing Maduro of lying over Chavez’s death and “using the president’s body to run a political campaign”. Further, he recently called Maduro “Satan” and the government “evil”. Some sectors of the opposition camp have also attacked Maduro’s working-class background and former occupation as a bus driver as making him “unsuitable” for the presidential job.
Maduro has faced internal criticisms that his campaign lacks content, including that national celebrities who are not considered particularly revolutionary have been welcomed to his campaign. On this issue, pro-government analyst Nicmer Evans wrote an open letter to Maduro in which he called for “attention in discourse to key issues, such as the positioning of the communal economy, the construction of the communal state, the role of the private sector in the development of the country,” etc. Venezuelan foreign minister Elias Jaua responded to Evan’s letter by suggesting that the election campaign was not the time for such criticisms, saying on twitter, “There is an enemy in front of us. I suggest you dedicate your pen to confronting it”. Evans responded by arguing that “criticisms should not have a timetable”.
Capriles’ campaign could likewise be read as ditching content for politicking and populism. Perhaps considering that victory on 14 April is impossible, the opposition has instead opted for a campaign to discredit Maduro, the government and the electoral system as much as possible ahead of the vote. A Capriles campaign leaflet by the Voluntad Popular party urges people to vote against “lies and abuse”. These two words are mentioned eleven times in the leaflet’s attacks on the government, while positive words such as “democracy” and “progress” do not feature once. Furthermore, not one policy or proposal is mentioned. No vision of governance is put forth.
Capriles’ campaign has also mixed in a dose of spirituality, with Capriles praying to the Virgin of the Valley and other religious figures for electoral victory and “peace” in Venezuela. Further, as part of his attempt to detach Maduro’s link with Chavez and muddy the waters between the two political forces, Capriles has begun to use the language of Chavismo, calling his campaign the “Simon Bolivar Command” (after the hero of Venezuela’s 19th century independence struggle) and declaring that Venezuelans are all “sons of Bolivar”.
So a negative, bitter, and content-free campaign then? Not exactly. While the above characteristics are present, there has been discussion of the issues affecting Venezuelans today, and the choice facing voters is clear. Maduro’s campaign has put emphasis on the Socialist Plan of the Nation, with Maduro reading out the different “historical objectives” to be achieved in the coming period at campaign rallies. The interim president has also focused on issues such as improving governmental efficiency, and maintaining and expanding social programs. Combating crime has been another central theme to Maduro’s campaign, launching anti-crime initiatives while declaring himself to be the “president of security”. Meanwhile, mainly through criticisms of the government, Capriles has also drawn attention to issues such as crime, shortages, corruption, bureaucracy and international policy, promising to distance relations with Cuba and end solidarity-based oil deals.
The approach taken to the election by both sides must be understood in the context in which the campaign is being fought. Firstly, in a campaign lasting only a few weeks there isn’t much time to enter meaningful debate on the issues. Secondly, the campaign is inevitably connected to the emotion of Chavez’s loss, who was loved by his supporters and provoked strong ire among his opponents. Thirdly, Chavismo and the opposition have just spent a year defining and debating their positions over several national elections. Most voters already know what the major issues are and where the respective sides stand. Finally, it should be remembered that refusing to openly debate with each other while launching insults and accusations across the political divide are common features of electoral clashes between Chavismo and the opposition, and hardly unique to this one.
Further, the overly aggressive tone of this campaign has been shaped by the peculiar situation in which the campaign is being fought, as well as by both sides’ immediate political objectives. For the government, the task is to maintain the link with the now legendary status of Chavez and to keep the levels of support enjoyed when Chavez headed the Bolivarian process. This mission involves maintaining the unity of pro-revolution groups, reminding supporters of Chavez’s endorsement of Maduro’s candidacy, and rebuffing any attempts by the opposition to move onto Chavismo’s discursive territory.
Meanwhile, the opposition’s task is less one of trying to win the election, and more one of mobilising its support base and trying to discredit the government as much as possible now that Chavez has gone. This is an election where few voters are likely to switch sides since last October, and so the level of turnout for each side’s existing support will be a key determinant of the result. Therefore the two political forces are jostling to mobilise and maintain their support bases, as well as to define the political terrain of a post-Chavez Venezuela.
In this sense, more important than the current tone of the snap election campaign is what will come after. The government will maintain Chavismo’s discourse and policies, while attempting to tackle problems such as violent crime and bureaucracy which if allowed to continue could undermine the revolution’s support in the coming period. The radical wing of the Bolivarian process will also likely raise demands relating to the movement’s long term political goals: the construction of socialism and participatory democracy. Meanwhile, in the absence of an immediate chance of winning power, the opposition’s strategy will continue being to attack and discredit the revolution as much as possible, testing its resilience in Chavez’s absence. For this reason, the strength of a Maduro victory on 14 April will be important for the coming period. The opposition may not be content to wait six more years for the chance of gaining power again. Forcing a recall referendum, as was tried with Chavez in 2004, could be a possible strategy for the opposition if the Maduro government is perceived as weak or lacking support, as hinted at by Capriles recently.
Therefore the “big issues” will likely emerge in various forms after voting day, when Venezuela enters a new political phase which may offer uncertainty and new opportunities in equal measure.