What do Venezuela's regional election results say about the opposition's future?

Immediately before Venezuela's regional elections, Chávez announced his cancer was back, possibly dampening the opposition's showing as his charisma carried over to other PSUV candidates.

 David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.

Here is a summary of [yesterday's regional election] results in Venezuela.

Opposition

  • Hold: Miranda, Lara, Amazonas
  • Gain: None

PSUV

  • Hold: Anzoategui, Apure, Aragua, Barinas, Bolívar, Cojedes, Delta Amacuro, Falcón, Guárico, Mérida, Portuguesa, Sucre, Trujillo, Vargas, Yaracuy
  • Gain: Carabobo, Monagas, Nueva Esparta, Táchira, Zulia.

Taken as a referendum on Chávez’s legacy and the carryover of his charisma to other candidates, this result provides clear reason for celebration for the Chávez coalition. It is, of course, a brutal result for the opposition which lost opposition strongholds such as Zulia, Carabobo, and Táchira – the last two by large margins – and gained none. However, it was not a fatal result insofar as Henrique Capriles squeaked out a win in Miranda.

Taken as a primary, the vote provided some clarity for the opposition. Capriles won on a night that most other opposition candidates lost, including his most viable rival, Pablo Pérez. The only other opposition candidates to win are “dissidents” who were pro-Chávez only a couple of years ago. Thus there is little chance that they could be viable national leaders within the opposition coalition.

The elections show that Chávez’s charisma can indeed carry-over to other politicians in his coalition, at least in the short term. It is important to remember how compressed this time frame has been. In the week immediately preceding the elections, Chávez announced the recurrence of his cancer, designated a successor, and underwent surgery. This wave of attention and emotion clearly had a significant impact on the elections.

It is likely that if, in the coming month or two, Chávez were incapacitated and had to step aside this same transfer of charisma could deliver the presidency to Nicolás Maduro. However, if Chávez’s health crisis were to extend and he did not step aside for another three or four or six months, the situation could be quite different. The government has a number of issues it needs to confront in 2013, most importantly the economy, and doing so will surely spend some of its political capital. So while their performance in [yesterday]’s elections certainly makes the PSUV the odds on favorite if new presidential elections were to be called, there are a lot of intervening variables that keep the future less than certain.

One last note. Chávez’s designation of Nicolás Maduro as successor has been rightly seen as a big plus for the civilian over the military wing of the Chávez coalition. However, it should be pointed out that tonight four of the five states that flipped to the PSUV had former military officers as candidates: Arias Cardenas in Zulia, Francisco Ameliach in Carabobo, Jose Vielma Mora in Táchira, and Carlos Mata Figueroa in Nueva Esparta. And five of the states the PSUV held were won by former or current military officers as candidates: Ramón Carrizalez in Apure, Henry Rangel Silva in Trujillo, Jorge García Carneiro in Vargas, Wilmar Castro in Portuguesa, and Francisco Rangel Gómez in Bolívar.

–  David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.

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