With only two weeks to go until yet another election in Venezuela, the campaign for the highest office in the land is becoming heated and very personal. Miranda State Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski has abandoned his deferential tone of 2012 to pound acting-President Nicolás Maduro with withering attacks both professional and personal. For Maduro's part, he has been desperately attempting to channel the spirit of Hugo Chávez.
[Maduro's] style is off-putting and he is seen as too scripted, like he is reading cue cards and getting instructions (which feeds into the narrative that the Cuban government controls him — something which appears to be at least somewhat true).
- Joel Hirst
While this is the first election in 15 years that does not feature the now-deceased president, you wouldn't know it to look around. Maduro talks almost exclusively about Chávez. His plan of government is the same one that Chávez ran on in 2012; on campaign stops he stands in front of huge posters of Chávez as he holds up pictures of Chávez; his hand gestures and speaking style are carefully coached to mimic the bombastic former president; and his campaign song features prominently a recording of Chávez' voice and the chorus goes "Chávez forever; Maduro President" (in Spanish it rhymes and is in fact quite catchy).
Only one major problem, Maduro is not Chávez.
Unfortunately for the un-inspiring Cuban-trained Marxist and former bus driver, the Venezuelan people are starting to realize this. According to a recent article in the Nuevo Herald citing internal polls and surveys, Maduro's campaign is suffering from a series of missteps.
First, they are overusing the image of Chávez which the voters correctly construe as attempts at manipulation. Maduro is seen as disingenuous, with many respondents believing he lied to the Venezuelan people about President Chávez's condition. His now-infamous botching of the funeral (reportedly causing Presidents Cristina Kirchner and Dilma Roussef to leave early) caused wide consternation.
His style is off-putting and he is seen as too scripted, like he is reading cue cards and getting instructions (which feeds into the narrative that the Cuban government controls him — something which appears to be at least somewhat true).
All of this has led to a collapse in his polling by nine percent and to negatives that now exceed his positives. Even pro-government news sites only put him at 53 percent, with Miranda Governor Capriles climbing rapidly in the polls. According to the Herald, the difference is now only 7 percent.
This has led National Assembly deputies Stalin González y Freddy Guevara to denounce an aggressive campaign aimed at promoting opposition abstention at the polls (mostly through voter intimidation). If true, this is an odd move for the Maduro campaign, since in Venezuela abstention historically favors the opposition. In the constitutional referendum of 2007, the only vote that Chávez ever lost, abstention was at 44 percent compared to high turnout rates in the seventies in other votes.
If rumors of consternation in the Maduro camp are true, they are caught in a trap of their own design. After having used their endless unfair elections to legitimize the dismantling of their representative democracy and revoking all the corresponding natural rights and civil protections, they now have no other option but to push forward with their unpopular candidate. They are using all the same tricks that Chávez used for more than a decade; abuse of state resources, blanketing propaganda, threats and TV airtime takeovers. But this time, they are backfiring.
After having emptied their treasury for the 2012 elections, they have little money to hand out. In fact, Maduro has had to devalue the currency twice in 100 days to simply pay the bills, which has caused an increase in inflation and shortages. And the television airtime seems to be playing against Maduro; the more the Venezuelan people see him on TV, the less they like him.
To be sure, it is still an uphill battle for Venezuela's beleaguered opposition. The entire apparatus of a coercive state have been deployed against them. However, history has on different occasions shown that elections are not as easily controlled as the Maduro regime would wish. They have watched in Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, Serbia, Russia, Iran and Peru as elections marked a turning point for those regimes. Will Venezuela be next?
Joel D. Hirst is a Principal at Cordoba Group International and author of "El Teniente de San Porfirio," a novel on Socialist Venezuela by Grito Sagrado Press. On Twitter: www.twitter.com/joelhirst