BOGOTA -- Two months after losing the presidency to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s newly united opposition was hoping that regional elections would prove that it could still put up a fight.
Instead, the red tide of Chavismo swept away all but three opposition governors Sunday and showed that it could pack a punch even when its ailing leader was not actively campaigning.
Sunday’s vote was a stunning defeat for the opposition and is likely to lead to a shakeup in the coalition. But it also cleared the political battlefield, leaving Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles as one of the few likely options to take on an eventual Chávez successor.
Capriles won Miranda — which includes part of greater Caracas — with 52 percent of the vote in a race that pitted him against former Vice President Elías Jaua, who had been handpicked by Chávez to defeat the opposition poster boy.
“Capriles’ victory in Miranda clearly positions him as the only viable opposition candidate in the very likely event that Chávez’s health issues force him to step down and call new elections,” wrote the U.S.-based Eurasia Group consulting firm. “This is very positive for the opposition in that it will facilitate the process of selecting a unified candidate in what will likely be a very short turnaround before new elections are held.”
Chávez traveled to Cuba last week to undergo his fourth surgery in 18 months to treat an undisclosed form of cancer. On Tuesday, the government said Chávez was in stable condition after devloping a resperatory infection as result of the “complicated” surgery. They also said he required “absolute rest in coming days.” If he is unable to begin his new six-year term on Jan. 10, or if he steps down within the first four years of his administration, new elections would have to be held within 30 days
The illness comes as Venezuela urgently needs to make economic adjustments, including a devaluation, said Risa Grais-Targow, a Latin America analyst with Eurasia. And the ruling party would be well served to hold elections before those unpopular reforms are rolled out, “In terms of the economic incentives and the necessary devaluation, I think they need to hold the election as soon as possible,” she said. “And now with the momentum of the regional elections, they have even more motivation to do so.”
Before traveling to Cuba, Chávez asked the nation to support Vice President Nicolás Maduro if new elections are called.
John Magdaleno, the director of the Caracas-based Polity consulting firm, agrees that Capriles is the most visible opposition candidate at the moment, but he said that might change as the opposition coalition takes heat for Sunday’s defeat.
In the 2008 regional race, the opposition won six state houses and picked up a seventh when Lara Gov. Henry Falcón split with the PSUV.
Many were expecting the coalition to hold onto at least five or six states in this election, he said.
The loss “will spark a debate in the short term about the efficiency of the opposition,” he said. “And there are going to be questions about how decisions are being made at the helm of the coalition.”
Those questions might lead to a new primary, or other changes, that could threaten Capriles’ position.
“There are opposition leaders who might not agree [with a Capriles’ candidacy] and try to support an alternative,” Magdaleno said. “I think it’s premature to say he’s the presidential candidate.”
After years of infighting that played into Chávez’s hands, the main opposition parties joined forces to hold their first-ever joint presidential primary in February, which Capriles won. But after he lost the Oct. 7 race to Chávez by 11 percentage points, some expected the coalition to break apart.
That already seemed to be happening on Tuesday, as two former presidential contenders, former United Nations Representative Diego Arria and Sen. María Corina Machado called the race a debacle.
“This was a monumental defeat,” Arria said in web broadcast. “If the same people who have been committing these errors remain managing our activities and politics we’re going to see the same results.”
Along with Capriles, the only remaining opposition governors are Liborio Guarulla in Amazonas state and Falcón in Lara. Falcón’s ability to draw support from both sides of the political spectrum might also make him a contender, analysts have said.
The PSUV’s showing also puts it on solid ground for a presidential run. Of the 8.8 million votes tallied, the ruling party won 54 percent of them, and the opposition coalition won 42 percent, according to preliminary results released by the National Electoral Council. Third-party and independent candidates won 4 percent.
In a news conference Monday, Julio Borges, the national coordinator for Capriles’ First Justice Party, said the government had abused its power and wasted public funds to win the races.
“One might believe that the government brutally won all the governorships,” he said. “But I see it differently: I don’t think the government won them; they snatched them away…It’s another example of the abuse of power that, in my opinion, will end very soon.”
But voter apathy also played a role. The CNE said only 54 percent of eligible voters turned out, compared to 65 percent in regional elections in 2008 and 80 percent in the presidential race.
Borges said that if the same people who had voted for Capriles two months ago had voted on Sunday, the opposition would have won 18 governors’ posts.
“If you throw in the towel you lose, if you quit fighting you lose, if you get frustrated you lose and if you get depressed you lose,” he said. “We need to fight more than ever right now.”
For government supporters, the lessons were very different. The PSUV has struggled against the perception that it would suffer without their charismatic leader stumping for his candidates. This was the first election in 14 years where Chávez was not actively campaigning. And while the party captured opposition strongholds it didn’t lose a single one of the 15 governorships it was defending.
Jesse Chacón, the former interior minister and the head of the GIS XXI polling firm, said Sunday’s vote was proof that the president’s socialist reforms were popular and enduring.
“In the future, when the president is no longer here,” he told Venevisión television, “Chavismo will still exist.”