Venezuelan opposition candidate Capriles may pose future threat to Chavez

October 8, 2012

His loss in Sunday’s presidential election was resounding, but in conceding defeat before tearful followers, Henrique Capriles hinted at an active political future that may yet pose a challenge to President Hugo Chavez’s self-proclaimed socialist revolution.

“There are more than 6 million people who are looking for a better future, and I want to tell those more than 6 million Venezuelans to count on me,” Capriles said late Sunday, in reference to the votes he received. “I am at your service.”

Capriles’s supporters were crestfallen after Chavez garnered about 55 percent of the vote to about 44 percent for an opposition determined to end 14 years of populist rule in one of the world’s biggest oil exporters. Capriles conceded in a subdued, emotional address, while throngs of red-shirted “Chavistas” rejoiced as El Comandante gave yet another rousing victory speech from the presidential palace’s “people’s balcony.”

Capriles did not provide details, but the managers of his campaign on Monday said the opposition would actively engage the government in December’s elections for governorships.

And there are lingering doubts about Chavez’s health, although he has declared himself free of cancer. The president, 58, has said he has undergone three operations since June 2011 to remove a tumor, raising questions about whether he will be able to complete the six-year term that begins next year.

If he were to die in the first four years of that term, Venezuela would have to call new elections — potentially giving Capriles another chance.

“Capriles would have strong possibilities to be elected in that case,” said Margarita Lopez Maya, a Caracas analyst and writer who had once supported the president. “There is not a charismatic leader who could replace Chavez within Chavismo.”

Lopez Maya believes that it would be “a grave error for Capriles to think that this was a defeat.”

She said the unification of disparate Chavez foes, some of them from the right and others disaffected leftists who believe the president is an autocrat, has matured and prepared the opposition for future political battles. “It’s a strengthening that has been very significant,” she said.

Lopez Maya and other analysts see positive signs for the opposition in comparing Sunday’s vote with past elections.

The 6.4 million votes Capriles received represented 2.1 million more than went for opposition candidate Manuel Rosales in the 2006 presidential contest. Chavez won that election by 26 percentage points, demolishing Rosales’s political career.

This time, the margin was far closer. Chavez also increased his vote count compared with 2006, by about 700,000 ballots. But the number of people who voted Sunday was 3 million higher than in 2006, when fewer than 12 million went to the polls.

“What’s changed since those years is not Chavez but the opposition,” said Luis Vicente Leon, whose Caracas polling company, Datanalisis, correctly predicted Sunday’s margin of victory for Chavez.

Unlike all the other candidates who have run against Chavez since 1998, Capriles solidified his position as the leader of the opposition by running a focused, well-organized campaign in which he visited most of Venezuela’s towns and cities and generated the kind of support the opposition had never seen before, Leon said.

“Capriles generated emotion that you saw in the streets, that you saw in the rallies,” Leon said. “That didn’t lead to a win, but it’s something to capitalize on for the future.”

For the government, the win means Chavez will deepen what he has called 21st-century socialism — a mix of state interventions in the economy, including expropriations of private companies, and an activist foreign policy that seeks to use alliances with countries such as Cuba and Iran to counter U.S. objectives.

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Diosdado Cabello, who fought alongside Chavez in a failed 1992 army rebellion and is now president of the National Assembly, noted that Chavez had bettered Capriles by more than 1.5 million votes.

“That’s not just anything,” he said. “We are very happy that the revolution is going to continue for another six years.”

In a polarized country in which the government and its opponents represent two completely different economic and social models, disagreements over Chavez’s plans are likely to lead to pitched political battles.

Indeed, Capriles stressed that the president needed to take into account that Sunday’s vote showed that a sizable percentage of Venezuelans remain opposed to his model.

“I would expect that a project that’s 14 years old understands that almost half of the country is not in agreement with the option that today has remained in power,” Capriles said. “From those in power, I ask for respect, consideration and recognition of nearly half of the country.”

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