Venezuelan Elections: An Emboldened Opposition Challenges One of Latin America's Most Skilled Politicians

09/17/2012 05:35 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2012

There is no doubt that the Oct. 7 presidential vote will be Hugo Chávez's most difficult election to date. The man who has dominated Venezuela's politics for over a decade -- and has often expressed his will to rule for at least one more -- is suffering from voter fatigue and an uncertain health outlook after being diagnosed with cancer in mid-2011. He also faces and emboldened opposition and a contender who has managed to create a compelling campaign and policy platform. Indeed, the electoral outcome is so uncertain at present that Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate, could find himself in the presidential seat in Miraflores by early next year. But betting on such an outcome is risky, for despite all his administration's failures, Chávez remains one of Venezuela's and Latin America's most astute political leaders in modern history, and he will do everything he can to win the upcoming vote.

A learning process

The Chávez years have been a rollercoaster ride for the opposition. Riddled with competing interests and a lack of political vision, the opposition reached a low point in 2005, when it boycotted the legislative vote, effectively granting Chávez complete control of Congress and of all organs of state. However, a gradual process of consolidation around an opposition alliance, called the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), has led to a change of fortune, with the opposition regaining significant voter support in the past few elections. Another key development has been the appearance of a new generation of political leaders, including Capriles, which has broken the link with the country's discredited traditional parties. Indeed, Capriles was only 27 when Chávez was elected for his first presidential term in 1998; too young to have been involved in the demagoguery and corruption that plagued Venezuela's traditional parties in the 1990s and which Chávez has used with great effect to discredit his previous opponents.

At the same time, despite his relatively young age, Capriles has gradually built up a record as a skilled public administrator in the past 13 years -- first as a legislator, then as mayor of Baruta (a municipality of the capital, Caracas) and until June 2012 as the governor of the state of Miranda (one of the most populous in the country). This has provided him with a solid base of support and political capital. Capriles has also distinguished himself from past opposition candidates by building a policy platform that is more in tune with the social and economic concerns of lower-income Venezuelans, which make up the majority of the electorate. One of his main campaign messages has been to reassure voters of the continuity of Chávez's social programs, promising improvements in terms of efficiency and management rather than a radical overhaul of social policy. This has been a particularly sour point for the president, who is unaccustomed to having opposition candidates appealing to his traditional support bases.

As part of its campaign strategy, the Capriles camp has also tried to focus on sending a conciliatory message to a very politically polarized society. This contrasts with the divisive rhetoric of both Chávez and some of the more radical elements in the opposition. This tactic proved successful at the MUD's first-ever primary elections in February this year where Capriles won by a very wide margin, while the more extreme candidates obtained an insignificant share of the three million votes casted. Now Capriles is trying hard to extend his message among disenchanted and "chavista-light" voters who are tired of and uneasy with Chávez's campaigning style, which is heavily reliant on the fear factor and on discrediting his opponents.

Still an uphill battle

Indeed, it is this segment of independent voters -- composed of around 5-15 percent of the electorate -- who will tip the balance in favor of one of the two candidates. Difficulties in discerning the preferences of independent voters have produced widely different results even in Venezuela's more-reliable opinion polls, adding to the sense of electoral uncertainty that has been building up in the past few weeks. This has been compounded by doubts over the intentions of other key voters, particularly public-sector workers who might fear some reprisal from the government for openly supporting the opposition. Although the Capriles camp claims that this hidden vote will lead it to victory, the one constant outcome of most polls is, in fact, that Chávez will win on Oct. 7.

However surprising it might seem to some that Chávez is still leading in the polls after 14 years in power, it would be very unwise to underestimate his electoral chances. Yes, Capriles has put together a remarkable campaign, but no, this does not guarantee him victory, for Chávez has had at his disposal almost unlimited fiscal resources, uninterrupted access to national media and the support of a well-structured and loyal political base. Moreover, Chávez has an extraordinary ability to connect with Venezuelans, to the extent that he is able to disassociate himself from some of his administration's biggest shortcomings (which would have augured the decline of any other administration). As it stands now, he still holds the upper hand.