Chávez Faces Strong Challenge in Venezuelan Elections

Venezuelan Elections
By Diego Moya-Ocampos

Venezuela heads to the polls on 7 October with Hugo Chávez, battling cancer, seeking to extend his rule until 2019. The increased prospects of victory for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, grave concerns over Chávez health and post electoral scenarios and fraud claims, coupled with weak political institutions, raise fears over the country’s stability.

President Chávez, long notorious in the West for his leftist economic policies and international posture, is aiming to extend his 13-year rule until 2019. He faces a more credible opposition challenge this time round, but also a threat from his own health. Chávez was diagnosed with cancer in June 2011, but after months of rumours and government assurances, the only certainty is that he is still in poor health and that his health could potentially deteriorate after the election.

The opposition challenge is led by Henrique Capriles, the former governor of Miranda state who has never lost an election. The most recent polls have increased uncertainty over the results of the upcoming 7 October presidential election by showing mixed results, making it difficult to give a reliable assessment based solely on their data. According to a poll by Consultores 21 released on 27 September, Capriles is leading in voters' preferences with 46,5 per cent against Chávez' 45,7 per cent. Another poll, which was released on the same day by Hinterlaces, gave Chávez the lead with 50 per cent of voters' preferences against Capriles with 34 per cent, with 14 per cent deciding not to answer. A poll by Datanalisis released on 25 September suggested that Chávez had 49,9 per cent of the voters' preferences against Capriles with 39 per cent, while the undecided vote was estimated at 11,6 per cent. The difference in results between the polls reflects the difficulties of accurately forecasting the 7 October election. The wide variation between the two poll results could reflect methodological flaws derived from the sectors of the population surveyed, or the locations in which the surveys were conducted. The high number of people who refused to answer in the Hinterlaces poll (14 per cent) and the number of still-undecided voters in the Datanalisis poll (11.6 per cent), could also reflect the political dynamics where sometimes interviewees are afraid to reveal their voting intentions as they fear retaliation by the government should the information be made public. This is often found among civil servants, those who have government contracts, or have, in some way, benefited from cash transfer programmes provided by the Chávez administration. Interestingly, if the number of those who refused to answer in the Hinterlaces poll and those undecided in the Datanalisis poll are added to the vote preferences for Capriles, the results are quite similar to those shown by Consultores 21. If that is the case, an assessment could made that both candidates are indeed running neck and neck. This possible "hidden vote" coming from undecided voters or those refusing to say who they would vote for could be key to defining the election results.

As such, securing the large, undecided vote is key for Capriles, implying that he needs to broaden his appeal beyond the capital, Caracas, and Miranda state. It is worth noting that the opposition won more than 51 per cent of the votes in the September 2010 parliamentary elections, although the constituency boundaries meant that this translated into only 40 per cent of the seats in the current National Assembly.

For Chávez, in turn, the big electoral challenge is to mobilise his formidable support base at a time when his illness limited his ability to campaign and motivate his supporters.

In the event that Chávez becomes properly incapacitated after the election, the country’s weak political institutions will be gravely tested and acute instability is possible. Democratic institutions weakened by years of Chávez’ dominance and preference for “revolutionary institutions” may prove unable to cope either with Chávez’ incapacitation or indeed an opposition victory. It seems the military is the only institution capable of ensuring that the electoral authority and other institutions recognise an opposition victory. The military would also be crucial to ensuring stability in the event that Chávez cannot continue. However, the armed forces remain complex, politicised and heterogeneous, making their behaviour and effectiveness in the event of a crisis difficult to predict.

The 2012 presidential election is far from settled with both candidates running neck and neck, and there are two perfectly credible major scenarios;

Capriles wins: This requires a sufficiently fair electoral process, something that is still not clear. The aftermath would be unpredictable, however, as the military would probably be required to ensure political transition. A Capriles government would presumably seek to turn back many of Chávez’ economic policies, but this would only be a gradual process given the challenges and opposition this would face.

Chávez wins: This is still the most likely scenario, as he is running the show and controls all state institutions, but his subsequent health will then be critical. This leads to two sub-scenarios:

Chávez wins and regains his health: If one takes the official announcements at face value, then Chávez is well-placed to recover his vigour and extend his rule. If he is in reasonable health, he will be able to mount a powerful campaign and draw on the enduring support there is for him among much of the population. Pending any new health-related developments, it would mean less in terms of political instability, but Chávez’ idiosyncratic rule and mismanagement of the economy store up formidable problems for Venezuela in the longer run.

Chávez wins but is incapacitated after the election: This scenario would test the unity of Chávez’supporters and force a succession battle. Capriles would have been defeated but the opposition unity may not be fragmented but rather stronger and ready to re-run for elections against a divided Chavismo. Again, the military would be a key actor in quelling instability and guiding the course of political transition. This remains the most likely outcome, given the apparent poor on going recovery of Chávez’ heal.


Diego Moya-Ocampos is a Senior Analyst covering the political, security, and business environment of a number of countries in Latin America for IHS Global Insight and IHS Jane’s. He holds an MSc in Environmental Policy and Regulation from the London School of Economics (LSE), a Postgraduate Degree in Administrative Law and a Bachelor of Law (LLB) from Venezuelan universities. 


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of IHS or any of its employees, associated companies, affiliates or any of its clients.


5 October 2012