Chavez is Gone, but Chavismo is Here to Stay

By Federico Fuentes

Despite all the opposition’s attempts to overthrow Chavez, this political force is rooted in Venezuela’s poor majority, mobilized within the state and on the street to defend the Bolivarian revolution and advance its revolutionary aims.

Had Hugo Chavez not passed away in 2013, the former Venezuelan president would have turned 61 on July 28. However, even though Chavez is gone, his indelible imprint on Venezuela’s political landscape endures.

On December 6 Venezuelans will go to the polls for the 20th time since Chavez was first elected president in 1998. The December election for the National Assembly is shaping up to be another critical battle between forces that for 15 years either supported or opposed Chavez.

For the Chavista forces, victory is vital to defending and deepening their “Bolivarian revolution”.

For the opposition, success would represent an important step towards removing Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro, either via a recall referendum in 2016 or through the possible use of parliament to impeach him.

In most countries, incumbents have to deal with a prevailing anti-political mood reflected in greater voter volatility and more rapid changeovers in government. Even relatively quiet Australia has seen four different governments within the last decade.

Moreover, if any government had to confront some of the important challenges the Maduro government is facing – such as spiraling inflation, shortages of staple goods and high crime rates – one would almost certainly wager on them losing their parliamentary majority.

Yet, a June poll carried out by independent, Caracas-based polling firm Hinterlaces revealed that 62% of Venezuelans would prefer to trust the current government to correct their errors and resolve some of these problems.

Only 33% said they would prefer to hand over government to the opposition and have them deal with the country’s difficulties.

While it is too early to tell exactly what will happen on December 6, Chavismo has undoubtedly become an enduring element of Venezuela’s political landscape.

Demise of old two-party system

Chavez’s election to power marked the definitive end of a two-party system that for decades had seemed impervious to change.

Throughout most of the second half of the twentieth century, two main political parties dominated Venezuela’s political system: the Christian democratic COPEI and the social democratic party Democratic Action (AD).

To ensure their control over the electoral system, the two parties signed a pact whereby no matter who won future elections, both parties would essentially carry out the same governmental program and consider including members of the opposing party in cabinet.

Excluded from any real power for the next forty years was Venezuela’s poor majority.

Cracks in this electoral façade began to appear in the early nineties following the 1989 popular uprising known as the Caracazo, an event many point to as the starting point of the Bolivarian revolution.

However, it was Chavez’s decision to run for president that brought the entire edifice tumbling down.

Chavez, who gained national recognition due to his role in a failed 1992 military rebellion, began the campaign as a rank outsider and with the backing of a hastily cobbled together party he registered a year out from the elections.

Yet by election day, Chavez was leading in the polls and both COPEI and AD had withdrawn their candidates. They decided instead to come behind another outsider candidate in a last stop bid to defeat Chavez.

Since then, neither of the two old parties has mustered enough strength to run their own presidential candidates, preferring instead to back candidates they viewed as most likely to pose a serious challenge to Chavez.

Together they won less than 10% of the seats in the last National Assembly elections and have hardly rated a mention in more recent polls regarding voters’ party preferences.

In most countries, it would be almost impossible to imagine a scenario where almost overnight a new party won the presidency and relegated the traditional parties to the category of “other” in the votes tally.

Even in Greece, with the remarkable rise of Syriza, the traditional right-wing New Democracy party continues to be the largest opposition party and maintains an important level of support.

However, this is exactly what has happened in Venezuela, where elections are now largely polarized between pro-Chavez parties, particularly the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) that was formed in 2007, and an array of mostly post-1998 opposition parties grouped together in the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).

Leftward shift

While some say that the old two-party system has been replaced by a new one centered on the PSUV and MUD, this ignores two other important changes that have occurred in Venezuela’s political landscape.

The first is the dramatic shift to the left of the overall political spectrum.

Poll after poll has shown that after nearly two decades of Chavista government, the majority of Venezuelans favor socialism over capitalism.

This shift is also reflected in support for policies that are generally viewed as left-of-center such as state ownership of the oil industry, greater community control over local affairs, and free public education and healthcare.

This is undoubtedly the result of both the policies implemented by Chavez and his constant political dialogue with the people regarding the benefits of socialism.

As such, the country’s political “center” bears little in common with the policies espoused by center parties in other countries.

The best example of this is shift is the Venezuelan opposition, which has recognized the need to rebrand itself in order to appeal to the majority.

Leaving aside the actual policies of the opposition, none of their candidates are willing to openly run on the kind of pro-austerity and pro-neoliberalism platforms that are common across Europe or the US.

Instead, their emphasis is on pledging to continue many of the Chavez-era policies they previously opposed, while doing away with “corruption” and “bureaucracy”, precisely the issues that critical sectors within Chavismo have been raising.

In the 2012 presidential elections, one of the main slogans of the MUD candidate Henrique Capriles was “vote to the left and from below”.  While the slogan was a reference to the candidates’ position on the ballot paper, it was a clear attempt to present Capriles as some kind of leftist candidate.

When Capriles ran against Maduro in 2013, he tried to avoid attacking Chavez and even adopted some of Chavez’s campaigning style and discourse. At the same time, the opposition sought to draw a distinction between Chavez and Maduro through the slogan “Maduro is not Chavez”.

Right-wing politicians have even adapted the way they look.

Few of the leading opposition figures parade around in suits. Capriles instead regularly turns up to press conferences unshaven and wearing a baseball cap and tracksuit top with the Venezuelan flag emblazoned on it.

Under Chavez, politics shifted so far to the left that even looking or sounding like an old-style politician, let alone espousing their policies or running on their party ticket, is enough to lose you support.

New political actor

The final, and most important, change in the Venezuelan political landscape has been the emergence of Chavismo as an organized political force.

Despite predictions that the Bolivarian revolution would collapse without Chavez, two years after his death Chavismo is still the most important political force in the country.

Proof of this is that no other party alone comes close to being able to match the level of support the PSUV maintains. It is precisely this reality that keeps the bitterly divided opposition united, as they recognize the only hope they have of winning elections is by running together.

The explanation for this ongoing support is that Chavismo was never simply a project based on one man, as important as Chavez was.

Rather, Chavez served as a catalyst for Venezuela’s excluded poor majority to directly intervene into the political arena.

Chavez’s election represented a spilling over of peoples’ social struggle onto a political arena previously restricted to Venezuela’s elite.

Despite all the opposition’s attempts to overthrow Chavez, this political force is rooted in Venezuela’s poor majority, mobilized within the state and on the street to defend the Bolivarian revolution and advance its revolutionary aims.

Chavez’s death in 2013 was obviously an important blow to this political project, and it may very well suffer future setbacks as well, including the loss of governmental power.

However there is little evidence to indicate that Venezuela’s poor majority is planning to retreat from the political arena or wind down their Bolivarian revolution.

No matter who is in government, they will have to contend with a politicized and organized poor who do not want to go back to the Venezuela of yesteryear.