Prospects for Venezuela’s 2012 Presidential Elections

Recent polls indicate that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and the leading opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonsky, are nearly tied for the October 2012 presidential elections. According to José Antonio Gil Yépes, president of public opinion research firm Datanálisis, President Chávez currently holds 37.8 percent of the vote and Capriles 35.5 percent. Gil Yépes analyzed the results of the latest polls and evaluated the different political and electoral scenarios for both the opposition and the government at a discussion held at the Inter-American Dialogue on September 28.

According to Gil Yépes, Chávez has been able to win past elections by distributing resources, which allows him to secure the “neither/nor” votes (people who neither support the government nor the opposition). “The Venezuelan people do not believe the ideological talk. There is a democratic conviction and whenever [Chávez] ‘nationalizes’ corporations or takes radical measures, his popularity tends to decline,” the speaker pointed out.

Although the opposition has fewer resources than the government, they have nonetheless strengthened their leadership. They announced that they will hold primary elections to select a candidate in February 2012. The four main contenders are likely to be: the governor of Miranda State, Henrique Capriles Randonsky, who now has 35.5 percent support among the electorate; the governor of Zulia State, Pablo Pérez (12.4 percent); current congresswoman and former president of the NGO Sumate, María Corina Machado (7.1 percent); and the former mayor of the Chacao municipality, Leopoldo López (4.5 percent), whose numbers have risen since the Inter-American Court of Human Rights mandated that the government allow him to run.

According to Gil Yépes, the best scenario for Chávez is to distribute resources again by increasing funding to social programs or misiones. He should also moderate his actions and speech. For him to gain a competitive advantage, the opposition must remain disorganized, as it has in the past.

The best scenario for the opposition is to organize itself to involve businessmen, students, the Church, and the media in an “enlarged and pluralist” opposition, rather than a block of parties as it has been in the past. “If you want to know what is going to happen with the Venezuelan elections, the only thing you need to do is look to the level of organization of the opposition, which you can see every day in the paper,” Gil Yépes argued. The radicalization of Chávez’s message would also benefit the opposition.

When asked what would happen if Chávez were unable to run due to illness, Gil Yépes held that we could see the decline of the his movement. He noted that so far Chávez has been unable to institutionalize his socialist model, and despite the emergence of other chavista leaders such as Elías Jaua with 17.8 percent popularity, Vielma Mora (6.7 percent), and Diosdado Cabello (4.3 percent) the party has remained monolithic. If he fails to institutionalize the model, and to strengthen other leaders to replace him, Chávez’s socialist movement could crumble and lose the election.

However, Gil Yépes also questioned the capability of the opposition to remain united if Chávez is not the presidential candidate.

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