Members of Venezuela’s opposition electoral bloc, the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD), voted in a February 12 nationwide primary election to run presidential-hopeful Henrique Capriles Radonski in the October 7 national election against socialist President Hugo Chavez.
With the historically divided opposition united under a single candidate, the October election is likely to be Chavez’s toughest yet. Radonski, a social democrat who favors scaling back Venezuela's socialist economy in favor of private enterprise and smaller government, is positioning himself as an alternative to Chavez. He hopes to unite Venezuela’s diverse and socially and economically divided electorate, which he claims Chavez with his 13 years in office has been unable to do. Speaking before a crowd of supporters in Caracas after the primary election, Radonski said his campaign represents “hope” and “progress” for all Venezuelans.
“I am going to work with all my energy and strength to win the confidence of all Venezuelans,” Radonski said. “We want inclusion, without exclusion.”
The primary results showed that Radonski, a governor of the tiny northern state of Miranda, commands a strong following among opposition voters. Radonski trounced his top-contender, Pablo Perez, with 62% of the vote over Perez’s 30%. Total voter participation in the Sunday primary was 16%, with nearly three million of Venezuela’s 17.8 million registered voters turning out to 3,707 polling centers and 7,691 voting booths across the country, according to the Venezuelan National Electoral Council.
Based on the primary results, it is unclear how popular Radonski is among poor voters, a traditionally pro-Chavez electoral bloc that Radonski is actively courting. Critics pointed out that the primary election was most active in states where the opposition has a stronghold, including Carabobo, Miranda, Tachira, Zulia, and Falcon. Didalco Bolivar, a former governor of the northern state of Aragua, said that of the nearly three million who voted on Sunday, two thirds lived in opposition-controlled states.
"If you add these votes together we're talking about 1.87 million votes," Bolivar said. "What does this tell you? That the primaries were in the states where the opposition governs. The rest of the country didn't have significant participation."
But Leopoldo Lopez, national campaign coordinator under Radonski, said Radonski made a strong showing in poor communities and that this could translate into larger wins in the October national election. Lopez is a former presidential contender from the opposition who was barred by the Chavez government from holding elected office due to a past corruption scandal. He dropped out of the primary race in January to seek a post in Radonski’s campaign.
“Those are the people who voted yesterday,” Lopez said, referring to poor Venezuelans in both rural and urban sectors.
“We will win, with the majority of Venezuelans coming from all backgrounds. We will not distinguish. We will not make the campaign a class conflict. The reality is that we will make a majority with the poorest classes in Venezuela,” Lopez continued.
Perhaps Radonski’s most powerful attacking lines in the campaign will be on the issues of national security and the economy. Venezuela’s crime rate is the third highest in Latin America and inflation, though lower than 1980s and 1990s levels, is still high, hovering at 27%. Both crime and inflation directly impact Chavez’s political base of both poor and middle-class Venezuelans and could erode support for the socialist president.
Chavez also faces an image crisis as a result of his recent bout with cancer, which left him hospitalized in Cuba for nearly a month last year and caused him to miss Venezuela’s massive and highly-publicized 200 year anniversary celebration of its independence from Spain. In recent weeks, however, Chavez has taken to the airwaves, making hours-long speeches in order to quell concerns about his health. Nonetheless, Chavez will have to convince Venezuelans in October that he is not only able to combat the country’s crime and inflation problem, but that he is also physically able to lead the country for a new six-year term.
Despite these challenges, Chavez still commands the support of a majority of Venezuelans, with recent polls showing Chavez with a 52% approval rating, and Chavez’s electoral coalition, United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PVSU), holds a majority in the national congress. Many Venezuelans still consider Chavez to be a charismatic national hero who stood up to U.S. imperialism and unfair neoliberal policies that oppressed the poor. Chavez is a former rebel who led two failed coup d’état attempts in 1992 against conservative President Carlos Andres Perez, who was later impeached for corruption in 1998. Chavez won presidential elections in 1999, 2000, and 2006 and survived a failed U.S.-sponsored coup d’état attempt in 2002. As in previous elections, Chavez will draw heavily on his charisma and gift for public speaking, which the more subdued Radonski will have a difficult time matching.
Radonski is running on a platform for change in Venezuela, arguing that socialist policies have not worked for the majority of Venezuelans. Radonski’s campaign for change includes liberal reforms to Venezuela’s socialized economy and the repeal of many socialist programs instituted by Chavez. Radonski has specifically opposed free education, health care, and nationalized industry, saying that such programs need "revision" and only serve to "bribe" the population. Since 1999, Chavez has overseen the creation of new government social programs, including government-subsidized restaurants, foodstuffs, health care, and education. Chavez has also used oil revenues to fund infrastructure improvements, such as rail cars in poor communities, and redistributed unused land held by large, privately owned rural estates, known as latifundios, to peasants for farming. Socialist programs like these, while unpopular with center-left candidates like Radonski and members of Venezuela’s rich, land-holding elite, have empowered millions of poor and previously disenfranchised Venezuelans.
Radonski, a self-proclaimed social democrat in the style of former Brazilian President Lula da Silva, has said that, if elected, he will "apply in Venezuela the Brazilian model" of poverty reduction coupled with market-driven economic growth. As he reaches out to poor voters, Radonski is likely to take a tack from newly elected conservative Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who centered his 2011 campaign on Guatemala’s crime problem, promising to take a mano duro approach to eliminate widespread violence. Many Venezuelan swing states have some of the highest murder rates in the country, including the northern states of Aragua, Carabobo, and Sucre. Radonski’s own state of Miranda, however, has the seventh-highest murder rate among Venezuela’s 23 states, creating a possible credibility problem for Radonski and his record on fighting crime.
Radonski earned a master’s degree in New York and comes from a rich and privileged background, which could also hurt his reception with poor voters in the national election. Many poor Venezuelans are likely to question whether Radonski really identifies with them and their concerns, contrary to Chavez, who comes from a poor background and has a record of instituting policies to help the poor. According to George Ciccariello-Maher, an assistant professor of Latin American studies at Drexel University, Radonski’s campaign is not about helping the poor and is more about helping the middle and upper classes. If elected, Radonski has said he would seek to re-privatize nationalized institutions, stop the redistribution of land from latifundios, and eliminate currency and price controls that have shielded many poor Venezuelans from crushing inflation, Ciccariello-Maher warned.
“[Radonski] will really need to convince the poor that their lives haven't gotten better and that they should opt for this course of change,” said Ciccariello-Maher, noting that Venezuela during the 1980s and 1990s under conservative neoliberal administrations had an inflation rate that averaged a whopping 60 percent. “[Radonski’s campaign] is not one that favors the poor. It is one that promises a return to neoliberal policies of the past," he said.
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