Election preview: Venezuela

Venezuela goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president, following the death last month of Hugo Chávez. There are seven candidates, but for all practical purposes it’s a straight contest between acting president Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s chosen successor, and opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chávez just six months ago.

Chávez’s opponents liked to think of him as a dictator whose rule had no democratic validity, but the reality is rather different. He first won the presidency in 1998 with 56.2% of the vote, more than 16% ahead of his nearest rival, and was decisively re-elected three times, recording 59.7% in 2000, 62.9% in 2006 and 55.1% last year.

Each re-election probably owed something to Chávez’s control of the government-owned media in what became an increasingly personalised and authoritarian-flavored state. But as numerous examples demonstrate, serious popular discontent will show through despite such obstacles. There is little reason to doubt that his victories reflected genuine public approval.

However, the picture of Chávez as a popular hero who enjoyed overwhelming support also needs to be qualified. A referendum in 2007 to amend the constitution to consolidate presidential power was narrowly defeated (although a more modest measure, abolishing term limits, was approved in 2009). And in the most recent legislative election, in 2010, Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela managed only a bare plurality, 48.3%, although it won a substantial majority of seats.

It looks as if Venezuelans supported Chávez personally but were less than fully convinced about his program. The question for Sunday is how much of Chávez’s personal support will flow through to Maduro.

With Chávez himself no longer on the ballot paper, many may decide that this would be a good time for a change. Capriles is working hard to capitalise on that feeling. On the other hand, sympathy for Chávez will be strong; recently deceased leaders are often worth a large bonus for those who can associate themselves closely with them.

Most opinion polls have shown Maduro with a clear lead. However a recent poll from Datamática puts Capriles seven points ahead, while one last week from DatinCorp showed a virtual dead heat, with Maduro just one point in front. While Maduro must certainly be the favorite, it’s no foregone conclusion.

Moreover, it’s a general rule that the more the distinction between party and state has been blurred, the less reliable opinion polling becomes. Many Chávez opponents may have qualms about expressing that opposition to a stranger at their door armed with a clipboard.

The election is a simple first-past-the-post nationwide ballot, so it shouldn’t take long for reliable results to come in. Expect something by about lunchtime Monday, eastern Australian time.

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