Should Capriles automatically get a second shot at Venezuela’s presidency?


Venezuela’s now-acting president Nicolás Maduro is tending to affairs of state today, including a funeral for the late president Hugo Chávez on Friday, and making sure that his longtime Venezuelan predecessor’s death doesn’t result in any turbulence.Venezuela Flag Icon

But as Francisco Toro, of the always-insightful Caracas Chronicles writes today in The New York Times, politics has not stopped simply because the 14-year leader has died:

And now, Chávez’s hand-picked successor is telling the man’s grieving followers that we — those who disagree with him — are responsible for the illness that took his life.

Within hours of the president’s death being announced, gangs of motorcycle-riding Chávez supporters burned down an encampment where opposition-minded students had been demanding that the government tell the truth about his condition. Rumors of riots circulated feverishly on Twitter throughout Tuesday evening, still unverified.

Maduro, for now at least, seems to have firmly grasped control of the government, including the immediate support of the Venezuelan military, and the parallel power structures of Chávez’s governing Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela).

Foreign minister Elías Jaua (former vice president), who announced that Maduro was taking over as acting president, seems to be on board the Maduro bandwagon, and Cuba has long thought to have favored Maduro as Chávez’s successor (incidentally, one of the most fascinating aspects of the past three months and the months ahead is the role that Cuba plays in Venezuelan governance).

There’s a chance that Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly, could attempt to win the presidential nomination, but that seems unlikely, at least today. Time will tell.

Under the Venezuelan constitution, Maduro must call an election within 30 days of Chávez’s death but, as Diego Moya-Ocampos noted last month in Americas Quarterly, it’s not clear whether Maduro must call the election to be held within 30 days or whether Maduro must make the announcement within 30 days.

In one instance, Venezuela faces a presidential election on or before April 5.  In another instance, Venezuela faces an election anytime over the course of 2013, conceivably, so long as it is announced before April 5.  My first instinct is that Maduro will want to schedule the election as quickly as possible — to take advantage of lingering sympathy for Chávez and the legacy of his ‘Bolivarian’ project, to subdue intraparty rivals such as Cabello and to avoid giving the opposition a chance to develop support over a long campaign, especially at a time when so many problems are so visible: Venezuela’s economy remains in shaky condition, shortages and outages are commonplace and the country’s violent crime remains, as ever, some of the worst in the Western hemisphere.

Chávez’s former opponent, Henrique Capriles (pictured above), is assumed to become the candidate who will challenge Maduro in the upcoming presidential election to determine Chávez’s successor — he was the candidate of the unified opposition umbrella group, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), in the October 2012 presidential election.

There are a lot of strong reasons to make that assumption:

  • Capriles waged a very strong campaign against Chávez for the presidency in 2012, and his 11-point loss was a much narrower margin of any of Chávez’s previous election efforts.
  • At age 40, his relative youth and vitality gave his campaign the appearance of the future of Venezuela, in contrast to the immediate past that the chavistas personify (especially Maduro, a one-time bus driver and labor activist who helped found the PSUV alongside Chávez) or the more-distant past of a corrupt and unresponsive conservative aristocracy that governed Venezuela for decades before Chávez.
  • Capriles is the governor of Miranda state, the second-largest state in Venezuela, and he was reelected in December 2012 with just 52% of the vote, despite a strong challenge from Jaua and all the resources that Chávez could muster to oust his former presidential rival.
  • Given that the next presidential election is likely to be held very soon (if not within 30 days, very shortly thereafter), Capriles would appear to be the only opposition candidate with the national campaign structure and recognition who could legitimately mount a credible campaign.

So it’s probably true that Capriles will in fact represent the opposition in the upcoming presidential race.

Capriles has said nothing about contesting the election yet — he made a statement yesterday expressing his sympathy to Chávez’s family and supporters, calling on all citizens to unite in showing their love and support for Venezuela.

But, despite the overwhelming consensus, would Capriles actually be the best option?

Capriles, with the most unified and attractive opposition campaign in the 13-year chavista rule, still lost by double digits against a president who was dying of cancer and, by the way, it’s not hard to be seen as ‘energetic’ when your opponent disappears for weeks at a time for medical treatment.  Throughout the campaign, Capriles remained subject to criticism that he was too aloof, too elitist, too young, too inexperienced, and that his campaign no camina — it ‘wasn’t walking.’

Indeed, a recent poll gave Maduro an even wider lead — 50% to 36% — in a potential matchup against Capriles.

None of that should necessarily disqualify Capriles from a second chance at the presidency, especially in light of all of the factors that the highly charismatic Chávez stacked up in his own favor — from use of government resources to media interference — that made an otherwise free election something less than a fair election.

But it should force the opposition to pause for a moment to consider an alternative: Henri Falcón, the governor of Lara state (pictured below).


A former chavista himself, Falcón is the governor of Lara state, Venezuela’s fourth-most populous.

Unlike Capriles, who grew up in a wealthy family and studied law in his youth, Falcón, who is a decade older, served in Venezuela’s military forces as a young man.  He joined forces with Chávez in 1999 and, as a chavista candidate, won election as mayor of Barquisimeto, Venezuela’s third-largest city, in 2000 and 2004.

In 2007, Falcón switched parties from the PSUV to the independent, but still pro-Chávez Patria Para Todos (PPT, Fatherland for All), and as the government-backed candidate in the 2008 regional elections, succeeded Luis Reyes Reyes as the governor of Lara with 73% of the vote, more than any other gubernatorial candidate in the 2008 elections.

As governor, the already independent-minded Falcón moved even further from Chávez, opposing, for example, his 2009 constitutional referendum to eliminate term limits.  But he remained for a long time just as distant from the center-right opposition — in the 2010 state legislative elections, the PSUV won in large part because of a split opposition vote between the MUD and the PPT.

By 2012, however, Falcón backed Capriles for president in the MUD’s primaries, giving Capriles a boost and putting a target on himself from the chavistas.  Falcón, like Capriles, faced a stiff challenge in the December 2012 election from the PSUV’s Reyes Reyes, having returned to Lara after a stint as the deputy leader of Venezuela’s national assembly.  Like Capriles, however, he managed to stave off Reyes Reyes with 54% of the vote to win reelection.

In fact, the reelection of Capriles and Falcón were bright spots in an otherwise dreary result in the December elections, which resulted mostly in bad news for Venezuela’s opposition — Pablo Pérez, the governor of Zulia, Venezuela’s most populous state, lost his reelection bid for his Zulia-based Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT, a New Era), giving the chavistas control of Zulia’s state government for the first time since 2000.  Pérez was Capriles’s main challenger for the MUD’s 2012 presidential nomination.

Meanwhile, Pedro Pablo Fernández, an opposition legislator in Venezuela, recently had some very nice things to say about Falcón — “es extraordinario, con mucho carácter, incluso siendo chavista tuvo una actitud de mucho respeto” (i.e., that Falcón is extraordinary, has a lot of character, and even when he was a chavista, he commanded much respect).

But the biggest knock on Falcón remains that he’s not well-recognized outside of his home state, despite the fact that Lara is somewhat of a microcosm of the entire country, as Gustavo Hernandez Acevedo wrote for Caracas Chronicles in late 2012.

Nonetheless, in a high-stakes electoral showdown between Maduro and Falcón, he’d be certain to gain a lot of recognition very fast.

For his part, Falcón recently said it would be suicide for the opposition to nominate a candidate other than Capriles, and the two joined forces to protest the government’s position on the January 10 inauguration that came and went with Chávez still in Cuba.

So if Falcón runs, it would likely have to be with Capriles’s blessing and with Capriles’s willing help.

Falcón would likely advance the same platform as Capriles — a business-friendly centrist government of the kind that Brazil has fashioned over the past decade, including a commitment to retain many of the misiones that Chávez initiated to lift millions of Venezuelans out of poverty and to provide the poorest citizens access to health care, literacy and other education.

None of this is to endorse Falcón over Capriles as the opposition candidate (or vice versa) — it’s merely to pause to consider whether Falcón would make a better alternative before Venezuela turns fully to campaign season.

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