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The Venezuelan Earthquake

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A political earthquake took place in Venezuela last night. Chavismo--the political movement created by Hugo Chávez, the leftist president of Venezuela from 1999 until his passing in March 2013--suffered an unprecedented electoral setback last night. Chávez's designated successor, Nicolás Maduro, was declared the official winner with a miniscule advantage of less than 1.7 points over his rival, Henrique Capriles.

Just five weeks ago, Chavismo appeared as the most invincible force in the world. After 14 years in office, Chávez won reelection in October 2012, beating Capriles by 11 points. In December, Chavista governors prevailed in all states except two, in some cases with margins of victory above 20 points. Then Chávez died in March this year, producing an outpour of grief and sympathy across the country not seen in Latin America since the melodramatic death of Evita Perón in Argentina in the middle of the 20th century. At the time of his death, Chávez's approval rating reached almost 80 percent.

How then did Chavismo suffer this huge electoral setback less than two months after its apogee? Political scientists will offer the usual answers. Some will repeat the proverbial, it was the economy, stupid, and they will be right. Venezuela's economy experienced a serious turn for the worse between October and April, and this hurt the incumbent party. Others will say, it was the campaign, stupid, and they too will be right. Maduro ran an inept campaign in which he offered no new answers to the many problems left behind by Chávez, whereas Capriles managed to reinvent his message and bolster his numbers this second time around.

There is plenty of truth to both hypotheses, but it is also important not to miss the real lesson. The electoral earthquake in Venezuela is the predictable outcome of the type of regime that Chávez left behind. Chávez and his close allies spent 14 years building not so much the "socialism of the 21st century", but a regime predicated on vintage-style cult of personality.

Personalist regimes are magnificently capable of surviving in bad times, yet they become susceptible as soon as the central personality disappears. Venezuela proved to be just one more example. The Chávez administration was fraught with huge governance problems--the highest inflation in the world, the highest murder rate for middle income countries in the world, one of the most collapsed oil sectors of any modern petrostate, and the worse scarcity of consumer goods of any country with such a huge import bill. But Chávez told Venezuelans to love him despite his problems and to blame others for these ills. It was never his fault that things were bad, and it was only he who could prevent crooks--at home and abroad--from doing worse damage. This worked electorally over and over again.

And then Chávez died. Maduro understood the catastrophe at hand, from the start. Politically, the death of a leader is nearly lethal for any personalist regime. And Maduro made an understandable, though in retrospect, erroneous decision. Rather than attempt to portray himself as a new leader--capable of generating a "new and improved" version of chavismo--he tried to campaign as if the dead leader had never left the country. During the brief electoral campaign of less than 2 months, Maduro mentioned Chávez more than 6,600 times. He said Chávez communicated to him in the form of a visiting bird. He organized an event in which a check, attached to helium-filled balloons, was "sent to" Chávez in the skies. He even proclaimed that Chávez, from the heavens, must have had something to do with the selection of a Latin American pope.

The approach was hopeless from the start. As absurd as it is to expect a regime based on personality to remain popular once the central person is gone, it is even more absurd for Maduro, no relation to Chávez, to declare himself "the son of Chávez." Perhaps Maduro wanted Venezuelans to believe that they were living in some kind of monarchy and biblical moment, in part because he understood well that only monarchical rules of succession or biblical miracles can save regimes that are so dependent on a cult of personality.

The political lesson from Venezuela is clear. It matters less whether regimes are left or right, populist or pluralist, liberal or participatory, pro-American or anti-Imperialist. For regime continuity to be guaranteed, the key issue is whether the regime is institution-based rather than personalized. Elsewhere in Latin America and the world, there continue to exist regimes more inclined to cultivate love for the leader than love for institutions. Chávez was the champion of this formula. And thus, more so than Maduro's mistakes, or Capriles's cleverness, Chávez is responsible for Sunday night's earthquake.

But in the end, it doesn't matter what caused the earthquake. What matters now is how to rebuild the country. Maduro is being declared the winner, and thus, the man in charge of reconstruction. But he is emerging from this election far weaker rather than the "official loser," Capriles. This seems to be the wrong way to start the reconstruction effort.