by Julia Buxton
Venezuela is in danger of heading down a strategic cul de sac
It has not been a smooth transition to a post-Chavez political landscape in Venezuela. After 14 years of a highly centralized presidency, it was inevitable that there would be a power vacuum, particularly given that Hugo Chavez was the founder and leader of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, as well as chief ideologue of the Bolivarian Revolution.
But the weak performance of Chavez's designated successor Nicolas Maduro in snap elections after Chavez's death from cancer in March has made it difficult for the party to steer the transition process. The legitimacy of the new Chavista leadership is being challenged not only by the Democratic Unity Movement opposition alliance, but also from within the PSUV, where Chavez's death and Maduro's near defeat in April's election have generated unprecedented internal debate.
Maduro haemorrhaged more than 615,000 of the votes cast for Chavez only five months earlier in the October 2012 presidential election. This was the consequence of a misguided campaign by Maduro, whose presidential bid was over-reliant on the image of Chavez and too confident in the assumption there would be a pro-Chavez sympathy vote.
Maduro did ultimately triumph with a wafer thin 1.5 per cent majority, but the notion that he represents a 'safe pair of hands' able to lead the revolutionary process in Chavez's absence has been shattered. Without a rapid consolidation of his diminished authority within the PSUV, leadership contenders passed over by Chavez, such as Diosdado Cabello of the military faction, will be looked to as defenders of Chavez's legacy. More broadly the aura of invincibility surrounding the Chavistas' hold on executive power since 1998 has collapsed, with the opposition alliance seeking to capitalize on a disoriented PSUV government.
In contrast to Maduro, the performance of the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski was spectacular. He picked up more than 700,000 votes after a crushing 11 per cent defeat to Chavez in October. Capriles's near victory can be attributed to a number of positive factors, most specifically enhanced unity within the unruly alliance.
But having made so much electoral progress, Capriles now runs the risk of taking the opposition down a strategic cul de sac.
The opposition has refused to recognize the results of April's election and the legitimacy of the Maduro presidency by default. Their immediate rejection of the election-night announcement of Maduro's victory triggered a bout of violence across the country. Nine people were killed, including two children, at progovernment rallies. Hundreds were injured in the post-election street protests condoned by opposition officials, including Capriles.
The opposition's recourse to street-level confrontation is reminiscent of their tactics during the early period of the Chavez presidency, and which included a boycott of election processes, a coup attempt in April 2002, an attempt to paralyze the national oil company PDVSA in 2002-3 through strike action, and a recall referendum against Chavez in 2004. None of these initiatives was successful in removing Chavez. On the contrary, they boosted the late president's support base among the poor while leaving the opposition languishing on the political sidelines.
The Democratic Unity Movement's primary complaint about the April election is that there are inconsistencies between the number of voters and actual votes cast and that opposition supporters and election witnesses were intimidated by pro-Chavez gangs.
Claims of electoral fraud have resonance internationally: the US has yet to recognize Maduro's victory. But the opposition is challenging a highly reliable and fully automated voting system that has two inbuilt checks.
First, the identity of the voter is registered biometrically through fingerprint technology before voting. This is then confirmed and matched with a fingerprint record in ink when the voter emerges from the polling booth.
The second check is the paper receipt issued by the touchscreen machines. This confirms the electronic selection made by the voter. After being checked by the voter as an accurate record of their preference, the paper receipt is deposited in a ballot box.
The National Election Council has thus been able to audit both identity and votes by comparing electronic and biometric data with the paper and ink trail. To date, these have been found to match.
The opposition has produced startlingly little recorded evidence of intimidation and their claims go against the reports of international election observers.
Venezuela is a profoundly divided country and the voice of half of the population is marginalized within the PSUV-dominated state. But overcoming polarization and engaging the PSUV to recognize anti-Chavista sentiment requires the opposition alliance to negotiate within the institutional framework.
Reverting to a strategy of delegitimizing the government runs the risk of heightened violence. It will serve to harden PSUV antipathy toward legitimate opposition and it will boost a flailing Maduro by forcing Chavistas to be loyal to their new president through adversity not confidence.
Julia Buxton is Head of International Relations and Security Studies in the Department of Peace
Studies at the University of Bradford
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