Understanding the Venezuelan Presidential Election Outcome

Why was the presidential election result so close, and why did some government supporters switch to supporting Capriles? As the opposition causes violence around the country, calling "fraud", what was it that worked with Capriles' campaign, and that didn't with Maduro's?


Things are chaotic here, as we recover from the surprise, disappointment, and a bit of hurt from the election results, but also go out in the street to express our support for those results, and to defend the national electoral system, one of the best and most secure voting systems in the world in a country which just loves to vote. We move quickly from sad last night to concerned and determined today, as the caceroles sound around the neighbourhoods and the opposition hangs outside the National Electoral Council (CNE) here in Merida, hundreds of them walking around with rocks and glass bottles in their hands, itching to have something to react to.

Still, as the pan clanging sounds around my neighbourhood and people shout “out! Out!” [referring to the government], making it just a little hard to think, it is important to understand yesterday’s results, as that helps us to understand the situation we’re in now, and plan somewhat for the future.

With the vote count updated this morning; 99.17% of votes counted, we see that 14,961,701 people voted this time, down just 214,552 from October’s presidential elections. That makes it clear that around 630-705,000 voters switched sides from voting for Chavez to voting for Capriles. The Chavista vote went down from 8,191,132 votes last October to 7,559,349 yesterday, and Capriles’ vote went up from 6,591,304 votes last year to 7,296,876 yesterday. Maduro beat Capriles then by 1.77% of the vote- close, although other elections around the world have been much closer.

The question though that many are wondering, is why did those voters switch to Capriles, rather than abstain? And secondly, how did the difference between the two sides narrow so much in the last week, given polls leading up to the election were predicting a 10-18% lead for Maduro?

It’s not common for voting trends to change so quickly, especially in the short amount of time that we had for this election. The election was called for 5 weeks after Chavez died, and there were only 10 days officially allowed for campaigning, though Capriles started his speaking tour of the country straight away. However,  this wasn’t a common election. It was brought about by Chavez’s passing. It started with us watching millions of people queuing to say goodbye to him, and frankly, we felt confident. We had won in October and in the December state elections, and we saw the outpouring of love for Chavez. The sense of who we had lost was so profound, it was hard to imagine people nonchalantly voting for his adversary in just over a month’s time.  Yet over the last week, I felt the mood change. It seemed we started to get just a bit tired, after a month’s of campaigning and mourning, and that Capriles’ supporters became incredibly confident.

The campaign stakes became continuing the beautiful, dignified, and very problematic revolution after Chavez, verses a tempting “change” after 14 years of Chavismo. Those who switched over, who chose “change”, were tempted by the *end to all problems*  that Capriles promised. They believed you can just vote away all the problems that have continued or arisen over the last 14 years. They were short sighted and affected by the sabotage, by the fairly intense food shortages over the last month, the more frequent blackouts, and other problems that the private media conjured up.

The choice, this idea of voting for a revolution, for the dignity of the poor, and of the third world, was a lovely thing to get to vote on. Most of us understood it wasn’t about Maduro, about individual candidates, but about revolution v capitalism and imperialism. Yet that sort of campaign is not easy in a world where capitalism is still hegemonic. That sort of campaign requires, I think, a higher ideological strength of most Venezuelans.

The narrow victory draws our attention to some of the failures and challenges of the revolution. Although Venezuelan political consciousness, discussion, knowledge of history, interest in the media and so on is so much higher than in other countries without a revolution, the government has still focused too much on slogans, on key words like “imperialism” and socialism, and not enough on broad participation in debate and deepening political understanding. That was reflected in Maduro’s campaign, which focused on Chavez’s memory, on continuing basic government social achievements such as the missions, but which de-emphasised just what Chavez stood for; his ideas, the battle for humanity, for economic justice, etc.

Further, the government hasn’t in the past, and didn’t during this campaign, explain the economic situation. It did not explain the devaluation well (nor consult the people on such a big economic decision, which might not have been a bad idea). We’ve gone 4 to 5 months without toothpaste in the shops, and we don’t know why. Further, the government either hasn’t done anything about the situation (found the hoarders, come down on Colgate for it, redistribute the hoarded toothpaste) or hasn’t told us what it has done.

When people lack a high political consciousness, it’s easy for them to become a little tired of no oil, or toothpaste, or margarine. Or the price of beer doubling in a month. Or the occasional black out. The government’s communication with the people needs to improve drastically. Further, in 14 years a lot has been addressed- we all know the list of inspiring achievements, but some problems such as bureaucracy, crime, and corruption persist, and it seems some people hope someone else will solve them.

Further, there is the idea of Chavismo without Chavez. According to a GISXXI poll conducted a few weeks before the elections, 20% of Chavez supporters believed there is no Chavismo without Chavez. While that is positive, in that 80% understand that its up to us to take responsibility and continue the revolution, that’s 20% of the Chavista support base who saw Chavismo as being about a specific leader, only, and would therefore be vulnerable to swinging their vote. In Merida, the rally for Maduro was about the same size (perhaps 10 blocks or so long) as when Chavez spoke here before the October elections. It gave me hope that most people understood that “we’re all Chavez” means that we keep fighting. I think it’s the Chavez voters who don’t attend such rallies, and some of the bureaucrats, who would likely have switched sides. That means we can be clearer now about our real support base.

Maduro’s campaign itself had its challenges and weaknesses. Unlike Capriles, who had already run in February (in primaries), and in October, then in December to win as governor of Miranda, Maduro had never campaigned before. He had little time to learn how to do it, and to consolidate himself as a possible leader in people’s eyes.

It has been a general strategy of the Chavez government to tone down its radical and ideological discourse in the lead-up to elections, and Maduro did the same thing. However in light of Capriles basically promising an improved version of the social aspects of the revolution, this time that might have meant that some people found it hard to see the difference. Of course the difference is huge, but I think Maduro failed to define what revolution without Chavez is. Rather than spending 40 minutes at the Merida rally talking about the bird that talked to him and spirituality, he should have talked about the meat of this revolution, its humanity, its solidarity – things the opposition doesn’t understand and doesn’t fight for.

On the other hand, this time round, from the side of the grassroots, this campaign was much more creative. Around Merida, clever, beautiful, and moving murals popped up everywhere. The PSUV youth painted huge banners and stopped the traffic in different points around the city. People worked really really hard.

The opposition however, had the advantage that it had been campaigning well before Chavez died. Capriles, the Venezuelan (and international) private media, opposition groups like Javu, began trying to delegitimise the government, trying to create distrust of it- accusing it of lying about Chavez’s health and so on, since he became sick again at the end of last year. We can see the accumulated affects of that campaign now, as opposition supporters actually believe that fraud was committed in yesterday’s elections, despite them achieving their largest vote ever.

Once the elections were called and Capriles registered as a candidate, he went on the offensive. After initially screwing up and insenstiveily doubting the timing of Chavez’s death, he then ignored Chavez altogether (a good tactical decision for him) and attacked Maduro and the government again and again.

While he insulted and lied about every aspect and person in the government he could, at the same time his advisers seem to have given him acting classes, as he began to impersonate Chavez in every which way. In his speeches, he talked liked Chavez, he told anecdotes like Chavez, he tried to sound sincere, as Chavez had been, and he promised to do the same things the revolution was already doing, such as build 200,000 houses a year, and increase the minimum wage.

Capriles attacked the Supreme Court, then when elections began, the CNE too, as though they are one and the same thing as the government. He was aggressive about it, and promoted the idea that “we shouldn’t accept this anymore”. At the same time, he blamed the food shortages on the government, and I guess those who voted for him didn’t wander why most of the food shortages began during the election campaign.

All of this was massively backed up by private media (online, television, newspapers) here and overseas, which not only added to Capriles’ legitimacy, but gave his supporters confidence.

“They’re [the CNE and the government] burning the electoral boxes, the ones with our votes it in,” one opposition student told me today as they protested outside the CNE.

“The government will fall, the government has fallen, we’re not scared,” they chanted, as they walked around with their rocks and glass bottles in their hands, eager to have someone react so they could throw them somewhere. But the police were few today, and peaceful, and the Chavistas near the protest reacted a few times but largely were disciplined and held back.

It’s ironic that the extremely high turnout at the voting centres yesterday illustrates Venezuelans’ deep political interest and also their trust in their electoral system, yet half of those Venezuelans believe Capriles when he suggests that the CNE is biased or rigs the votes.

Capriles waged a dirty campaign, but for his aims, it was well done.  I remember one night a few days ago overhearing someone talking to their girlfriend. “Don’t worry, from Sunday things will be different,” he assured her.  That time, it felt like the opposition’s delusional belief election after election that finally they’ll win, had changed. It had become a committed confidence, it had become a cause.

Although we technically won last night, even Maduro has recognised that we also lost. Among other things, we wanted to send a message to the world that this revolution goes on, yet the results show some doubt. However, it is more complicated than that. We should recognise the problems and challenges, but also feel some comfort that this time, 7 million people largely voted for the revolution of the poor to continue. And they did that, despite most media being against us, despite the distortions and lies, despite the minor, but real, economic hardships, despite 14 years of marching and voting again and again, despite the bureaucracy in the government. As oane comrade of mine said, “Chavez got us used to victories that were marvellously planned and masterfully lead by him. This time it was up to us to do it alone, and we won”. We can only learn from here.