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Beneath Chávez's victory

This op-ed by Jennifer McCoy was published by the Financial Times.

Most English-language commentary has attributed Hugo Chávez's surprising 11-point victory in Venezuela's presidential election on October 7 to oil-fueled public spending and "ventajismo" (incumbent use of state machinery to create an unlevel playing field and impressive mobilization), with some voters induced by fear of losing promised benefits to vote for the president. While all these factors contributed to the outcome, the analyses miss one additional factor explaining Chávez's political longevity.

That factor is the intangible element of those voters who identify with a leader they feel for the first time has given them voice and dignity, emboldened them with his powerful message of inclusion and identity, and inspired hope and faith in his promises not only to make their lives better but to make them leaders in the world. These supporters fear being erased, becoming invisible, should their leader and movement lose power. In political science terms: in addition to a utilitarian vote, there is an affective vote.

Some believe these voters are manipulated or coerced by the president. But not all who voted for Chávez lack criticisms or are incapable of objective analysis.

Chavista base leaders told us they are very concerned about "rentiership" and the extreme dependency on oil (now accounting for 95 per cent of exports) that has deepened under Chávez.

They chafe at the intolerance of internal criticism and debate. Indeed, Chávez's naming last week of candidates for governor, some of them locally unpopular, in a new "dedazo" without consultation, may harm the government's chances in regional elections on December 16. These base leaders also criticize the lack of debate during the presidential campaign about drugs and corruption, viewed as a serious problem by chavistas and non-chavistas alike.

Amazingly, Chávez's supporters do not blame him personally for the serious deficits of his government, blaming instead inept or corrupt ministers who keep the president in the dark. Chávez himself admits he has not overseen closely enough the details of his government during this past year of his illness. But this self-criticism simply reflects the consequences of an over-concentration of power in one person and the evisceration of independent institutions and accountability mechanisms in Venezuela.

Voters on both sides in poor neighborhoods waiting patiently in line to cast their ballot spoke of their willingness to accept the victory of either candidate and their ability to live and work together. Young voters in particular showed a maturity beyond the political elite as they expressed a desire for leaders to cooperate to solve the country's serious problems and to end the vitriol and divisiveness.

Venezuela is at a crossroads. While Chávez's victory promises more of the same – a deepening of the revolution, a strategy of confrontation and polarization, and economic dependence on a single commodity in a state-dominated economy – the strategy may not be sustainable for four reasons.

First is the continued uncertainty about the president's health and whether he will decide to institutionalize his movement and nurture new leadership.

Second is the fragile economy, with a weakened private sector now "set on idle" in the face of a shortage of dollars and an overvalued exchange rate, forced to turn into retail importers rather than productive exporters.

Third is the new leadership emerging in the opposition – a new generation and a new message of unity and reconciliation, eschewing a return to the past. Enrique Capriles Rodonski showed true leadership in his speech three days after the election, when he rejected the unfounded rumors of fraud, called on his supporters to end their period of mourning, and lifted them up to continue "the road forward", starting with the next round of elections in December. His immediate recognition of Chávez' victory undercut the government's messages of a recalcitrant opposition unwilling to recognize the will of the majority, and opened the door to a phonecall from Chávez in which the president referred to his opponent for the first time by his given name rather than an epithet.

Fourth, and most important in my view, is the still-elusive mutual understanding that could lead to a new social consensus based on respect and tolerance for "the other". Social elites still have blinders when discussing the popular sector, unable to recognize the basic human drive for dignity and respect, beyond material concerns. Government leaders still believe they can only accomplish the change they promise by displacing and denigrating the prior social and political elite.

Chávez is a revolutionary leader, in the sense of one who makes a break with the past, destroying old institutions to allow for future change. After 14 years, the question remains whether the same individual can be the one to construct and sustain a new social and political order. The vote on October 7 provides the opportunity, and the necessity, for Venezuela's government to reach out to those who favor dialogue and moderation to include them in the discussion of the future. The differences are not irreconcilable.

Jennifer McCoy is author of International Mediation in Venezuela and led a study mission during the 2012 elections. She is a political science professor at Georgia State University and Americas Program director at The Carter Center.

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