In spite of what the polls say and the voting urns told us - Hugo Chavez has indeed won another term, which will keep him in power until 2019 - it is also true that the true triumph in Venezuela’s election yesterday lay elsewhere: in the support for the young Henrique Capriles Radonski, the unity of the country's opposition, and - in the long run - Venezuela’s democracy itself.
Several things came together to earn Capriles impressive results (around six million Venezuelans voted for him). First , his youth and energy, along with his enormous talent for campaigning. He was also aided by his razor-sharp political intuition, which he demonstrated by moving from the right to the center and even towards the center-left, calling together all of the opposition groups.
At 38, the former governor of the state of Miranda started the presidential campaign undefeated, having never lost a single election. And he managed to unite the plethora of parties and movements that make up the Venezuelan opposition, from the left, center and right, consolidating everyone into a strong opposition to Chavez, capable of governing Venezuela.
Capriles was also helped by the increasing popular discontent about a government that has shown more than a couple of cracks. Outside of Caracas, power outages are frequent, the infrastructure is deteriorating across the whole country, and in spite of Chavez's indisputable popularity, his nearly 14 years in power have led an increasing number of Venezuelans to feel disillusioned about their country.
The price of oil has been Chavez’s main ally. He has used the petrodollars to increase the salaries for public employees and to improve social programs at the same time that he neglected investments and a balanced public budget. As a result, the state debt has shot up, reaching 60 percent of the GDP.
But in terms of education, health coverage and access to housing, Chavez has decidedly helped the poor. That is the key to his popularity. In fact, he was able to stand for office yet another time thanks to the incredible success he had at the voting urns in 2006, when he was elected with 63 percent of the vote. That margin allowed him to nationalize a significant portion of the economy, close the country’s most popular private TV station and weaken the power of state and local governments.
A changed man
While he was at it, Chavez was also able to win the referendum he led in 2009 to modify the constitution and allow a president to stand for reelection again and again and again. On more than one occasion, Chavez has said that he would like to govern until 2031, adding that the results of his management of the country will bear fruit in the decade 2020-2030.
But unlike Capriles, he didn’t come to this election never having been defeated. Two years ago, the President put a radical new constitution up for referendum, and it was defeated at the polls. This electoral reversal of fortune demonstrated that Chavez, too, could be defeated, inspiring opposition groups to unite against him, and showing that the colorful Venezuelan leader is not the caricature-dictator that some see him as, but a leader who does respect the power of the vote.
In addition to this first sign of electoral weakness for the Venezuelan regime, there was also the unexpected blow last year, when people found out that Chavez had cancer. After three surgeries and treatments that made his face swell and prevented him from campaigning with as much energy as in earlier years, the image the Chavez projected was far from that of an invincible leader.
Ironically, then, Chavez’s electoral victory by a narrow margin sends a clear signal to his government. The opposition is united, barely more than half the population support Chavez, and it will be necessary to negotiate and try to create a government for all Venezuelans. No more messianic dreams, Hugo Chavez. The moment has come to accept that politics is the art of the possible.