By Joshua Holland
Posted on December 4, 2006
It looks like Evan beat me to the punch here (I'm apartment hunting and have a bad internet connection), but let me add a couple of points.
Two weeks ago, the Washington Post was managing expectations leading up to yesterday's presidential elections in Venezuela. "Setbacks" for Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the WaPo's Juan Forero told us, were emboldening the opposition. While Chávez led most polls by at least 15-20 points, "there [were] signs the government is anxious about a strong showing by the opposition." The implication was that a win by, say, ten percentage points would have represented a rebuke of Chávez' policies.
It was a variation on a familiar theme about What Elections In Latin America Really Mean, and it goes like this: everything in Latin American politics is a reflection on Hugo Chávez' style. There are no issues that move voters from Mexico to Brazil except for Chávez' populism and ideological clashes with the United States. Whenever a candidate to the left of Pinochet loses -- anywhere -- it's because the people have renounced Hugo's divisive brand of neo-socialism. At the same time, any win for a candidate on the left only resulted because he or she distanced him or herself from Chávez. So, while an American president who takes 51 percent of the vote has a mandate -- elections matter, we're told -- a Chávez victory in anything less than a landslide is actually a defeat for his Bolivarian revolution. Ho hum.
Anyway, it looks like Chávez beat the spread; with 78 percent of the votes counted, electoral authorities announced last night that Chávez had won 61.3 percent of the vote to 38.4 percent for his opponent Manuel Rosales. That's slightly higher than Chávez last win, but within the same 60 percent range that he's gotten in 1998, 2000 and 2004.
Rosales, who ran a tough campaign and got in some good shots on Chávez where he was weakest -- on Venezuela's high level of violent crime and on the charge that Hugo is too concerned with foreign policy -- conceded to Chávez without charging fraud, an unusual move for the Venezuelan opposition (this election was watched by hundreds of independent monitors from the U.S., Latin America and Europe).
There are isolated reports of opposition gangs attacking celebrating Chavistas, but overall the opposition looks as if its handling its loss reasonably well. That's important, as some observers warned (scroll down to November 21 entry) that a coup might immediately follow a Chávez win. Crucial to the plans that were allegedly hatched by some members of the opposition -- with Washington's backing -- would be the emergence of widespread allegations of fraud, leading to massive street protests culminating in an "Orange Revolution" scenario. But with Chávez' margin of victory over 20 points, the losing candidate stopping short of declaring fraud and election monitors reporting few significant problems, that dog is unlikely to hunt.
As in previous elections, yesterday's vote will leave Chávez in a stronger position, and he's promised to redouble his efforts to redistribute Venezuela's impressive wealth. We'll hear a lot about why the opposition lost -- they weren't organized, or they came together too late or the government spent tons of money on Chávez' campaign. The truth is that Chávez won because the Venezuelan people are more hopeful than they've been in past elections, the economy is booming, the private sector is adding jobs at a breakneck rate, poverty has fallen dramatically and the opposition' promises apparently were not credible for six out of ten Venezuelan voters.
In the coming weeks, we'll likely hear quite a bit about Chávez' talk of changing the Venezuelan Constitution to allow him to seek re-election in 2013. It's just talk so far, and a change would require a national referendum on a new Constitution. I oppose it in principle -- 15 years is plenty of time in office for any one individual -- but if it were to come about with the consent of the majority of the Venezuelan people in a free and fair vote, well, that's just democracy.
Joshua Holland is a staff writer at Alternet and a regular contributor to The Gadflyer.