Transition Politics in Venezuela: Will the next government be able to govern Venezuela effectively?
March 14, 2013
As expected, newly appointed interim president Nicolás Maduro will face off against Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles in Venezuela’s special presidential election to replace Hugo Chávez. With the election set for April 14—slightly outside of the 30-day window called for by the Venezuelan constitution when it was announced April 9—both candidates are already in campaign mode. Maduro was sworn in following the president’s funeral. Neither candidate has wasted time in launching harsh attacks against the other. With a month to go, many questions have been raised about how events will play out between now, Election Day, and beyond.
Q1: Which candidate holds the advantage as campaigning gets under way?
A1: Maduro holds a clear lead over Capriles at the moment, with few expecting that will change before Election Day. Sympathy for Chávez is expected to propel Maduro to victory. As Chávez’s handpicked successor, Maduro will tap into the deep loyalty many Venezuelans feel for Chávez. Maduro has deftly played his hand as well, proclaiming that “he is not Chávez, but I am his son” while presenting his candidacy. He has also pledged to continue the popular social programs begun under Chávez, allaying any fears he might scale them back in the face of a growing budget deficit.
Capriles, for his part, has quickly pushed to change the conversation. Whereas Maduro talks about Chávez and inheriting his mantle, Capriles has focused on the day-to-day issues that have been afflicting Venezuelans. This ranges from rising crime rates, especially in the capital of Caracas, to rampant inflation (over 20 percent) and shortages of food staples. He has likewise promised to maintain the popular social programs Chávez initiated, trying to dispel rumors that he will end them once elected.
Q2: What governability issues would a Maduro presidency confront?
A2: While Maduro would likely enjoy a short honeymoon period with Chávez’s supporters, longer-term issues are likely to begin to peck away at his support. Chávez was able to avoid the frustration many Venezuelans felt with rampant crime or crumbling public housing, with many blaming those surrounding the former president as corrupt or inept but never Chávez himself. Maduro will not likely enjoy the same luxury. If he is unable to make inroads into improving Venezuela’s stagnant economy or improving citizen security, his coalition and Chávez supporters might quickly sour on his presidency.
At the same time, it’s unlikely Maduro will wield the same level of influence Chávez enjoyed. Under Chávez, most decisions began and ended with the president himself. Ministers had little power, and those that did were quickly shuffled to other positions to ensure Chávez would not face any internal challenges. Maduro would likely find it difficult to maintain these policies and may find it necessary to increase “hyperbolic rhetoric” and devolve power to other actors if he hopes to maintain unity among the various factions that comprise the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
Q3: How would a Capriles presidency address governability issues?
A3: If elected president, Capriles would confront a government still firmly controlled by Chavistas. The PSUV controls 98 out of 165 seats in the unicameral National Assembly. Venezuela’s Supreme Court is largely seen as sympathetic to the PSUV. December’s gubernatorial elections saw the PSUV win 20 out of 23 races. Even local governments are largely in the hands of PSUV-loyalists, owing to Chávez’s post-2008 election actions when he stripped many local opposition victors of their powers and funds. Given this reality, any actions taken by Capriles would likely be met with stiff resistance by the PSUV. This makes prospects for Capriles’s ability to follow through on campaign pledges dim at best.
Q4: What are the wild cards as Venezuela transitions to a new president?
A4: One of the main unknowns of the transition period is what role the Venezuelan military will play. Diosdado Cabello, currently the head of the National Assembly who served in the military and participated in the 1992 coup attempt with Chávez, might make a play for the presidency given his support within the military if Maduro becomes vulnerable. That has not happened yet. Cabello quickly pledged his support for Maduro and swore him in as the “caretaker” president. Another leader of the PSUV, Rafael Ramírez, current president of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, is also reported to be among the possibilities.
How the military might handle an opposition victory remains another question mark. Former minister of defense Henry Rangel Silva raised eyebrows in 2010 when he stated that the Venezuelan military was “wedded” to Chávez’s socialist revolution. Maduro also claimed the allegiance of the military after being sworn in, despite the illegality of the military showing any political favoritism. Uncertainty remains over how the pro-Chavista block of the military will respond if Capriles is able to muster enough support to win the April 14 election—would the military respect the results of the election?
Conclusion: Whatever the election’s outcome, Venezuela’s polarization will likely remain and even worsen. While Chávez may be gone, officials from his government will remain influential actors in Venezuelan politics. No matter the victor, Venezuela will confront a myriad of economic, social and security challenges that signal that the toughest times are not behind Venezuelans, but ahead.
Carl Meacham is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Michael Graybeal, program coordinator with the Americas Program at CSIS, provided research assistance.
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