Doubts surface in media about Capriles in Venezuelan presidential race

Journalist Rafael Poleo, not exactly a fan of Hugo Chávez, wrote a column earlier this week, “No camina,” arguing that the opposition campaign of charming, energetic, 39-year old governor of Miranda state, Henrique Capriles, “isn’t walking.” (In English, maybe the best equivalent is that Capriles’s campaign has no legs).

Poleo essentially wrote that Capriles is a weak candidate with the wrong strategy, setting off a week of hand-wringing over the Capriles campaign in the Venezuelan press.

When Capriles won the nomination of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), the umbrella opposition group united against Chávez, there was hope that Capriles, tied at the time in polls against Chávez, might be able to succeed where a decades-worth of opposition candidate failed in defeating a cancer-stricken Chávez — or a Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) without Chávez, chavismo without Chávez.

But that was in February — it’s now June, and the Capriles campaign, while not necessarily uncompetitive with Chávez, hasn’t exactly soared in the polls.  And notwithstanding what Dan Rather may or may not report about how terminal Chávez’s cancer may be, the Venezuelan president needs to hold on to life for just four more months in order to secure another presidential term for the PSUV.

As Francisco Toro explains at the awesome Caracas Chronicles blog: it’s the economy, stupid.  As with any incumbent, Chávez and the PSUV can manipulate the highly state-run economy — and government spending — in ways that Capriles cannot.  Toro points, in particular, to public spending that’s risen 28% against the first quarter of 2011, public sector construction that’s risen 56.6% since the first quarter of 2011, and GDP growth in excess of 5%:

In these circumstances, even a non-Chávez PSUV candidate would have a decent chance against HCR this year. In a petrostate like ours in the middle of an economic and consumption boom, the advantages of incumbency loom large. Very large. Most people just aren’t that interested in politics, most don’t follow politics closely. For them, if their pocketbooks are ok, the guy in power must be doing something right, and that’s that.

Personally, I think that Capriles’s campaign has the right strategy. Within the very narrow confines of what a challenger is able to do when running against a petro-empowered autocracy, I can’t really find fault with Capriles at all. There are two issues that potential swing voters are especially sensitive to – jobs and crime – and he’s hitting both hard. Admittedly, I also find the notion that Rafael Poleo might be right about something a kind of ontological impossibility, so the whole notion that his candidacy “no camina” can probably be dismissed out of hand.

But I also think we should be clear: the basic drivers of what we’re going to see on October 7th have to do with factors both far bigger (the macro-economy) and far smaller (the reproduction rate of certain genetically damaged cells) than anything within Henrique Capriles’s power to change.

For his own part, Capriles claims his campaign is running ‘head to head’ with Chávez.
It’s still a long way to October, though, and Capriles remains in better shape than any presidential challenger to Chávez at any time in the past decade.  Chávez’s health is as uncertain as ever and he has no PSUV-based successor groomed in the event of his death, which could throw the race into turmoil.  Capriles benefits from an unusually united opposition in the meanwhile, and he’s by no means a lost cause.
But no one ever said defeating even a cancer-stricken Chávez would be easy.