With nearly all of the votes counted, incumbent Hugo Chávez appears to have an unassailable lead in Venezuela’s presidential election and has been recognized as the victor by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. Significantly, this was a comfortable, but not a thumping win for Chávez. Preliminary reports give him about 54.5% of the vote compared to Capriles 46.8%. Eighty percent of the electorate turned out to vote. In 2006 Chávez won with a 25% margin.
As Capriles noted in his accession speech, nearly half the country voted for an alternate model to advancing Venezuela and that it behooved Chávez to take this into account as he took office for another term. Whether he will take up his opponents advice is another question. Arguably he should. Many of Capriles promises during the campaign revolved around continuing social policies launched by Chávez, suggesting that after over a decade of political rancour the elements of some middle ground might be emerging in key policy sectors. More to the point, an ongoing battle with cancer has made Chávez very aware of his own mortality, not to mention the challenges of ensuring that his socialist transformation continues if he should pass away. Does Chávez have it in him to again reinvent himself in a way that will create a new political reality in Venezuela that creates a more sustainable, inclusive debate? Elections for state governors in December may force this on him, and congressional elections in 2015 may push towards a greater balance of power by election an opposition-run congress.
Some balance in Venezuelan politics is needed. There are real concerns about corruption and crime, both of which Chávez has promised to address. But, if, as many critics suggest, his highly centralized style of governance is a key factor behind surging corruption and criminality rates, can Venezuelans really expect much change, particularly since it would perforce require devolving more power to ministries, agencies, states, and municipalities that are not wholly in his camp? There is also the question of paying for existing and new social policies. To date the cash cow has been state-oil company PDVSA. The problem here is that there is serious doubt about the company’s ability to maintain production and, as the Amuay refinery fire highlights, the ability to maintain production safely and complete the necessary maintenance.
For the moment the critical point for democracy watchers is that the vote in Venezuela was run properly and despite numerous concerns about pro-Chávez shenanigans with public broadcasters and personalistic pork-barrelling, a real and serious electoral contest took place.