Venezuelans have not heard from President Chavez since December, and the government is the only party with knowledge of when elections might be held.
• Iñaki Sagarzazu is a contributor of WOLA’s blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.
Every day that passes we seem closer to the calling of new presidential elections. Here I take advantage of the recent release of polling data from Hinterlaces’ February Monitor Pais to provide an overview of possible future electoral scenarios.
According to this poll the government’s candidate—Vice President Nicolas Maduro— received 50 percent of respondents’ support; the former candidate for the opposition coalition—Miranda’s governor Henrique Capriles—received 36 percent of the vote, leaving 14 percent of respondents up in the air.
If we take Hinterlaces’ numbers and place them in a polarized scenario, where the remaining 14 percent either does not vote or is split proportionally, then we would have 58 percent support for the government’s candidate and 42 percent for the opposition candidate. This would mean that Maduro would get a percentage of votes higher than what President Chavez obtained in the 2012 elections. However, if we consider the bias that Hinterlaces had in the last election (around 3 percentage points in favor of the government, which can be found here) then we see that Hinterlaces’ scenario is a repetition of the 2012 election where they estimated that the government candidate would have received 54 percent of the vote and the opposition 45 percent. You can see the numbers in the table [in the original blog post, here].
This means that almost five months after the October presidential elections both voting blocs remain relatively similar. This is not particularly shocking given that there have been no big or surprising events that might have destabilized perceptions since October 2012.
However, there are lessons here for each side.
For the government it should be welcome news that despite the absence of President Chávez from the political stage, their candidate remains at a good starting point. However, it also shows that the recent attacks on the opposition have not diminished support for the opposition. For the government it is a problem that the opposition’s hard base of support seems to have reached 45 percent.
For the opposition it should be welcome news that the two electoral defeats – and the “corruption cases” presented against Primero Justicia in the National Assembly – have not put a dent in their support. As a result they are in a much better starting position than they were for the 2012 presidential elections. On the other hand, they are still a minority and 10 points below the government’s candidate; in a quick election with a high degree of emotion it would be hard to turn that around.
Based on this initial scenario the political actors should consider the following strategies.
The government controls the deck of cards as they are the only ones with the knowledge of when elections will be held. The current role for government officials is limited to keeping emotions high in their ranks to avoid losing supporters to disenchantment. It is important to highlight that time is both in favor of and against Maduro. Taking some time will help him to solidify his leadership and make him look presidential works in his favor; however, it also makes him a target for disgruntled voters. This is important because while Chávez was able to avoid negative evaluations by deflecting them towards his governing team, Maduro is actually part of that governing team and therefore not impervious to criticism. As a result, a prolonged stay in power could generate negative evaluations.
The opposition basically finds itself awaiting the call for new elections. Given the short time frame this means they need to be proactive instead of reactive. The opposition’s candidate (whether they decide that it should be Capriles or they name a new one) needs to become fully invested in an officially non-existent campaign.
It might give the wrong impression to launch a full-on campaign while the president is still hospitalized. The opposition’s goals are, on the one hand to keep the support of its voters, while on the other, to try and discourage wavering government supporters (i.e. those who either do not trust Maduro or in the efficacy of the government without Chavez at the helm) from supporting the Maduro. In order to do this the opposition must control its radicals because this group of politicians only scares potentially moderate opposition supporters, and pushes them into supporting the government. If we look at Anthony Downs’ median voter theorem we can see that the space that needs to be conquered is the center, not the extremes. In this sense the opposition’s campaign strategy for the 2012 presidential elections was effective. Its failures came in not generating sufficient doubts among wavering government supporters.