Henrique Capriles’s last hopes of winning a recount in the April 2013 presidential election slipped away earlier this month when the chavista-controlled judicial system dismissed his complaints over the election.
No one thought that, four months later, the opposition candidate had much of a chance of unseating Nicolás Maduro, no matter whether he actually won more votes. But the decision two weeks ago of Venezuela’s top constitutional court not only dismissed Capriles’s complaint but fined Capriles around $1,700 for insulting the integrity of the court, and it suggested that Venezuelan prosecutors file a case against Capriles, who is also the governor of Miranda, for offending the institutions of the state.
No one thinks that the April 14 vote was incredibly fair — Maduro’s ruling chavista party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela) has co-mingled party and government for so long that it’s impossible to separate the two. Chavismo remains both the dominant party and ruling ideology in Venezuela, even after Chávez’s death in March. The Maduro campaign wielded a huge advantage in its access to state-controlled media and funds, and that followed a massive spending spree last year in the leadup to Chávez’s own reelection in October 2012. But there’s credible evidence that the vote was not incredibly free either, with reports of voter intimidation and manipulation by chavistas and by police and army officials.
Officials in Venezuela’s electoral commission (the CNE) point to a June audit that ‘confirmed’ Maduro’s 1.49% margin of victory. But the CNE won’t release the logs of voter signatures and fingerprints that correspond to the voting machines, which might otherwise reveal how fraudulent the voting actually was. Neither Capriles nor the broad opposition group, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, the Democratic Unity Roundtable), believe the result is legitimate.
Meanwhile, the chavistas are engaged in a slow-motion, cold civil war, and the Venezuelan economy is struggling with a combination of low growth, import dependency, depressed oil output, dysfunctional currency markets, and hyperinflation unseen since the 1980s.
So what happens next — and how does the opposition think about the future?
With respect to the result itself, Capriles pledged to take his case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations. Though he met former Peruvian president Alan García and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos earlier this summer, Capriles received a cold shoulder last month on a trip to Chile from both president Sebastián Piñera, and former president Michelle Bachelet, who is the frontrunner to win Chile’s upcoming presidential election in November. Under pressure from Caracas, neither Piñera nor Bachelet were willing to meet Capriles publicly. Many other countries in South America, such as Brazil, openly support chavismo either out of solidarity or to protect economic ties to the continent’s top oil producer — former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva even endorsed Maduro during the campaign.
But even with the full support of the regional or international community, Capriles was always unlikely to force change on Venezuela from without — Venezuela’s slide away from the rule of law and liberal democracy is a Venezuelan problem with uniquely Venezuelan roots (including many of the classic troubles of a petrostate economy), and it will require a Venezuelan solution.
Despite the election result, Venezuelans are clearly turning to the opposition and particularly Capriles as part of that solution. An IVAD poll at the end of July showed that if Venezuelans could vote again, they would prefer Capriles to Maduro by a margin of 45.1% to 39.7%, which probably understates the level of Capriles’s support.
Capriles’s full-throated, aggressive campaign was more reminiscent of a young Chávez than the rambling, empty and often downright goofy campaign that Maduro ran, and the fact that Capriles nearly won the election (or possibly did win the election) just weeks after Chávez’s death stunned just about everyone, including many of Capriles’s supporters. Capriles is by far the most important opposition figure to emerge in the chavismo era, and the MUD’s success can be attributed to its unity and discipline over the past five years.
The next immediate electoral hurdle are local elections on December 8, parliamentary elections in September 2015 for the 165-member Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), where PSUV and their allies hold 100 seats to just 65 seats for the MUD, and the next presidential election in 2019. The opposition, however, could instigate a recall campaign against Maduro halfway through his term in early 2016, and it could conceivably instigate a recall campaign immediately against the entire National Assembly.
But even if Capriles were content to just go back to Miranda state anytime soon and serve out his term in Venezuela’s second-most populous state, Maduro’s aggressive stance is already escalating what is likely to grow into a wider political crisis. In addition to the potential prosecution against Capriles, the government has issued an arrest warrant for Oscar López, a senior Capriles aide. Since the April election, opposition lawmakers have been shouted down, silenced and even beaten by chavistas in the National Assembly, while the assembly’s president Diosdado Cabello looked on with amusement. Just last week, Cabello, who is nearly as powerful as Maduro, stood by as a pro-Maduro deputy used anti-gay slurs to attack Capriles on the floor of the National Assembly.
Maduro has also announced a major campaign to reduce corruption, indicating that he will seek an ‘Enabling Law’ to allow him to enact anti-graft measures by decree, an extraordinary power that Chávez used just four times in his 13-year tenure as president. Maduro could therefore use the Enabling Law to further harass Capriles and the opposition, despite the fact that chavismo is rife with corruption in its own right.
All of which will require a strategic and aggressive pushback from the opposition.
In a bit of tough love following the supreme court’s decision, Venezuelan commentator Francisco Toro argued with good reason that the MUD and Capriles have fallen into a ‘Normal Politics trap,’ whereby Venezuela’s opposition is trying, in vain, to use all of the tools of normal politics to unseat an authoritarian regime:
Unless we get serious about mastering the only kind of politics that matter in Venezuela these days, MUD risks turning into the Maginot Line of civil society’s defenses against authoritarianism. The longer it insists on gearing up for a battle on terrain that the other side can just by-pass, the closer the day comes when its ability to rally opposition supporters first fractures and then collapses.
It’s not so easy to know what that would entail — in the aftermath of the April election, Capriles cancelled large-scale rallies when it became clear that Maduro’s forces would try to use the demonstrations as a means of instigating a violent response. When the Venezuelan military briefly removed Chávez from power in April 2002, a more hapless opposition’s attempt to install Pedro Carmona as president was so inept that the military swiftly returned Chávez. It’s just not so clear that Capriles should endorse the same extralegal, anti-democratic tactics as the regime he has fought so hard to replace, when there are real risks in pursuing that strategy, especially at a time when Capriles’s legitimacy with the Venezuelan electorate is running so high. For all the disdain Chávez showed for democratic norms in office, he came to power in a free election — any successor to chavismo will have to do the same.
I would not be surprised if Maduro’s end comes sooner than 2019 — or even a 2016 recall referendum. Maybe it will come at the hands of Cabello or otherwise from within the increasingly fractured chavismo ranks. It doesn’t even seem out of the question that the military would push Maduro out of power if his government cannot fix a rapidly worsening economy. The key for Capriles and the democratic opposition is to remain a credible alternative if and when Venezuela’s government crumbles, no matter the catalyst.