Capriles campaign optimistic with 48 hours to go — but can it win?

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CARACAS, Venezuela — The national headquarters of Henrique Capriles on Friday morning buzzed with optimism, with less than 48 hours to go before polls open in a race that many have judged hopeless for the opposition.Venezuela Flag Icon

In the wake of a rally in downtown Caracas last Sunday that brought hundreds of thousands of supporters to rally behind Capriles (without having to bus in massive numbers of supporters from across the country, as the chavista candidate Nicolás Maduro did in a similar rally on Thursday), and in the wake of a widely ridiculed comment by Maduro that a little bird told him that the spirit of Hugo Chávez blessed his campaign, Capriles campaign advisers are optimistic that their candidate has the momentum going into Sunday’s election, especially as voters realize the extent of Venezuela’s rapidly tumbling economy in recent months.

But Maduro, who is hoping to win a full term in his own right after the 14-year rule of his predecessor, Chávez, has everything else — the implicit support of the structure of the entire government, the armed forces, the state-owned oil company, plenty of resources, and significantly stronger media presence.

Though election law prohibits the publication of polls in the week prior to the election, polls are rumored to show Capriles closing a gap with Maduro — one such poll allegedly shows Maduro with a narrowing 55% to 45% lead, and Capriles’s internal polls show a massive swing as well. But whittling down Maduro’s lead and winning the election are two different things.

Leopoldo López, the former mayor of Chacao (one of five municipalities, and generally the ritziest, within Caracas) from 2000 to 2008, is one of the rising stars of the opposition. Chávez’s government barred López from running for office until 2014, a move that brought the censure of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In 2009, he founded Voluntad Popular, a centrist party that’s a member of the broad opposition coalition, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable).

‘I’m excited about change, I’m excited about the real possibility of winning, I’m excited about Venezuela opening a new cycle,’ Lopez said on Friday morning at Capriles headquarters. ‘The worries? What the government could do to put a stain on what will happen. This is not a regular election. This is not Bush-Clinton, this is not Candidate A versus Candidate B. This is a race against a state. I doubt there are other democracies where there are [such] clear differences in terms of the abuse of power. In this case, this is PDVSA, the state oil company, and the other powers of the state, against the people. But we have great faith the people will make the difference.’

The executive director of the MUD, Ramón Guillermo Aveledo (pictured above, with Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma and other top MUD officials at his right, rejected outlandish charges made in recent days at a press conference earlier today at Capriles headquarters as well.

Here’s the arithmetic.

In the presidential election just six months ago, Capriles won 6,591,304 votes to 8,191,132 votes for Chávez, on a turnout of 80.48% (i.e., 15.176 million voters). The gap is 1,599,828.

Assuming that Capriles will start Sunday with at least the same base as in October 2012 (6.591 million voters), and I see no reason why that should not be as fair an assumption as any, his campaign must figure out:

  • how to get around 19.5% of Chávez’s base six months ago to abstain from voting this time around;
  • how to get around 9.75% of Chávez’s base six months ago to switch from Chávez to Capriles; or
  • some combination of the two above (in addition to turning out as many new voters as the campaign can among the so-called ‘NiNis,’ those who are neither enthusiastic about either chavismo or the opposition).

There’s a theory that when Chávez’s name isn’t on the ballot (i.e., when there’s a parliamentary election or a referendum), voter turnout drops precipitously. So the 2007 referendum, in which Chávez failed to win new executive powers (his only electoral loss in 14 years) saw 55.89% turnout, and the 2009 referendum to eliminate term limits for national deputies, the president, governors and mayors saw just 70.33%. Turnout in the 2010 parliamentary election was just 66.45%.

That means turnout could well fall off in 2013, but Venezuela’s never had a presidential election without Chávez before, so it’s difficult to know how much stock to put in that theory, especially when Chávez so forcefully made clear that Maduro was his preferred successor and the sympathy vote that comes just five weeks after Chávez’s death.

But let’s say Capriles splits the baby — 9.75% of Chávez’s base fails to turn out for Maduro, and 5% of the softest chavistas turn to Capriles.  That’s a tall order, especially when Maduro has had ample funds to spend on his campaign, and will have national guard units meticulously ensuring (or threatening, if you want to be less charitable) that public employees and those enrolled in the government’s social welfare misiones have voted.

The four largest states and the Distrito Capital together comprise about 45.6% of the total voting base in October 2012.  Taken together, Capriles ran about 6% behind Chávez, not the wider national gap of 10.76%.  So that’s probably a reasonably easy pool of low-hanging fruit, especially when you consider that opposition governors have won elections in each of the four states in the past two elections.

Campaign advisers say that coordination between regional and national party efforts are much improved since October — even between the presidential campaign and the opposition parties in Miranda state, where Capriles himself is governor.  But greater coordination can’t mask the fact that sweeping the four states would require a political masterstroke.

Zulia, the most populous, and oil-rich, state on Venezuela’s northwest coast, was controlled regionally from 2000 to 2012 by Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT, A New Era), the party of Manuel Rosales and Pablo Pérez, both former governors. UNT, which is based almost exclusively in Zulia, has a very strong regional party machine, and Capriles should be able to tap it more efficiently this time around. Though Rosales’s wife, Eveling Trejo de Rosales, is a popular mayor of Maricaibo, Venezuela’s second city, a chavista and former governor, Francisco Arias Cárdenas defeated Pérez in the December 2012 regional elections, so the PSUV controls Zuila for the first time in 12 years, and his popularity may well blunt any institutional UNT support.

Miranda, the second-most populous state that includes parts of metropolitan Caracas, including some of its most pro-Capriles neighborhoods (such as Chacao), is of course where Capriles has served as governor since defeating chavista heavyweight Diosdado Cabello in the 2008 gubernatorial election. Though Capriles lost the state in the 2012 race by less than 6,900 votes (0.44%), he held off a strong challenge by Maduro’s predecessor as vice president, Elías Jaua, in December 2012 by a 4% margin. All of the campaign staff members that I talked to were pretty confident that Capriles would win the state in 2013 — it’s a prerequisite if he’s going to have any chance at winning the election Sunday, and Capriles will also need to win his home state if he wants a third shot at the presidency at some later date.

Carabobo, the third-most populous state, and an industrial coastal state, was the toughest of the four states for Capriles last year, and its opposition governor, Henrique Salas Feo, lost his reelection bid in December 2012.

Lara, the fourth-most populous state, is a clear bellwether state, Capriles lost by just around 3.5% in the 2012 race against Chávez, and its popular governor, Henri Falcón, was reelected in December 2012 by the widest margin of any candidate. An ex-chavista with a populist touch, he’s been very active on behalf of Capriles since the 2013 campaign began, and so there’s some chance that even if Capriles loses the race, he could still win Lara. That would be good news for both Capriles and Falcón, who could well emerge as a future opposition leader.

If Capriles fails to win any of the four big states, and his margin of defeat is more than it was in 2012 against Chávez, it will be a disaster Sunday.

But if Capriles narrows the margin to single digits, picks up Lara and Miranda, and remains a forceful voice in national politics, the MUD could have a very good shot at picking up more seats in Venezuela’s Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly) in elections in December 2015.

Photo credit to Kevin Lees — Caracas, Venezuela, April 2013.

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