Venezuela's upcoming presidential election

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In my co-edited book The Revolution in Venezuela: social and political change under Chávez, Margarita López-Maya and Luis E. Lander contributed an insightful article on the 2006 Venezuelan elections. The essay is worth revisiting because its analysis identifies the same crucial dynamics that underlie the current campaigns vying to win the Venezuelan presidency on October 7.

López-Maya and Lander concluded that there were three principal reasons that Chávez so thoroughly defeated his opponent Manuel Rosales in 2006: the President won with 62 per cent while the opposition only received 36 per cent of the vote. First, throughout the election campaign Chávez used two parallel discourses against his opponent: one emphasizing confrontation and the second focused on peace, love and unity. The former was necessary in order to rally his grassroots activists while the latter was crucial to maintain the support of moderates. Chávez's deployment of these discourses demonstrated his political pragmatism: despite his well-documented theatrics he has never employed tactics that would ultimately undermine his electability. Second, the opposition was unable to escape the stigma of its past actions: while Rosales proposed reasonably progressive policies, the majority of the population did not believe him. Before Chávez took power in 1999, the opposition parties' policies had led to a 115.2 per cent inflation rate by 1997 with a 55.6 per cent poverty rate, and an extreme poverty rate of 25.5 per cent by 1998. The experience that the statistics exemplified shadowed the election. Third and most importantly, Chávez won in 2006 because of the positive impact of his government's social policies on the Venezuelan population: unemployment had dropped to 9.9 per cent, poverty fell to 33.9 per cent and extreme poverty dramatically descended to 10.6 per cent.

The government's principal policies were its social missions; for example the Mercal mission, the Bolivarian schools and the Barrio Adentro mission. The Mercal mission offered the impoverished population basic foods, such as rice, beans and milk, at 40 per cent of the price offered in commercial food chains. The Bolivarian schools, named after Latin America's most famous liberator Simon Bolivar, gave children a free, full school day, with two meals and two snacks, free uniforms and books for their classes, thus significantly expanding student enrolment numbers. The Barrio Adentro mission offered free 24-hour health services in poor urban slums, which include primary medical attention, provision of medications, house calls, as well as free eye operations. The successes of the social missions provided Chávez with his best implicit argument: life is better under the leadership of the Bolivarian government.

In 2012, we once again see the same pattern: first, the President emphasizes two simultaneous discourses -- one confrontational and the other inclusive. Next, the opposition still cannot escape its history: the opposition candidate Capriles' assurances that he will respect the 1999 Constitution brought in by the chavistas, that he will not suspend any of the government's social programs, and that he will instead remove their inefficiencies, have fallen on generally skeptical ears. Finally, the government's policies, especially in terms of various forms of redistribution enacted by participatory democratic forms of decision-making, have proven effective in empowering the citizenry while reducing destitution. Along with the missions noted above, another example of redistribution -- as recently observed by one of Venezuela's most perceptive analysts Steve Ellner -- is the Housing mission which has reportedly built 200,000 homes for the poor while including them in formulating and implementing the project. Once again the same practical commitment to social development makes the incumbent invulnerable.

In his article Ellner also mentioned that a popular saying among Chavez's followers in regards to the coming election was "You pay back love with love." Unlike President Obama who is also facing re-election, Chavez understood that a population that has been substantially lifted out of unemployment and poverty will not forget its benefactor. Barring extra-legal activity from either side, the President will again decisively beat the opposition on October 7.

Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.

Photo: World Development Movement/Flickr

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