By winning 54 percent of the national vote, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez declared the election a "perfect victory." Ironically, not only was it imperfect but it amounts to an ideological defeat. Judging the election purely on numerical terms is misleading.
Through complete dominance of the instruments of state power, including media, oil money and electoral bodies, Mr. Chavez still failed to win convincingly. Any claim to an absolute majority is simply due to overwhelmingly disproportionate advantages. Considering the circumstances, a "perfect victory" for Chavez should tally at least 65 percent.
Although the vote was free, it was far from fair. On a transparent and equitable level playing field, a different electoral outcome was very possible. Despite competing on a shoestring budget, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles earnestly garnered almost 45 percent of the popular vote. Considering the enormous disparities, Capriles virtually contested with tied hands. Yet he can legitimately claim to represent nearly half of Venezuelans. In itself, this marks a form of victory.
On the other hand, Chavez largely secured support by showering constituents with material rewards. In essence, he bought votes through unfettered access to state coffers.
In his victory speech, Mr. Chavez promised to be a better president. First and foremost, he is obliged to all Venezuelans to restore civility to the political process and cease his divisive rhetoric. One of his most significant achievements as president has been exacerbating and fueling discord for personal gain.
During the recent campaign, Chavez's reckless threats of civil war in case of defeat served as a reminder. Ineffective outreach to opposition, continued fear-mongering and failure to veer from his zero-sum approach to politics will inevitably contribute to an exponential growth in the existing polarization.
Furthermore, survival of a system based on a single personality contributes to lingering uncertainty. With no clear heir apparent, the succession issue continuously looms large and was fully exposed by Chavez's recent bout with cancer. A brief glimpse into potential future turmoil was provided when Chavez went to Cuba for treatment and his inner circle was at war.
Far from being discouraged, the opposition should be galvanized by its campaign performance. It witnessed unprecedented unity. It provides a real alternative with a credible vision and energetic leader. Despite enormous obstacles, Capriles led a highly disciplined grassroots campaign. He clearly deconstructed Chavez and convincingly exposed his weaknesses and contradictions. He effectively connected with ordinary people, particularly youth. He motivated many of the politically apathetic and cynical to participate and vote.
Overall, the recent election process provides solid foundations for a new beginning. For the first time since 1998, a real opposition is emerging in Venezuela.