In less than two weeks – and in just over a month after the passing of Hugo Chávez – Venezuela will hold its presidential elections to decide who will be the new leader of the Bolivarian Republic.
If recent poll numbers and expert opinions are correct, acting President Nicolás Maduro will easily win the presidency over challenger Henrique Capriles and continue to lead the country down the path of Chavismo. The most recent polls suggest that Maduro has a 14-point lead over Capriles as the campaign ramps up ahead of the April 14 vote.
“It’s Maduro’s election to lose,” said Chris Sabatini, the senior policy director at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, a nonprofit think tank in New York City. “It is getting close, but on Election Day we’re not looking at a contest between Maduro and Capriles. We’re looking at a contest between the uncertainly in the country and the legacy of Chavismo.”
While Maduro appears guaranteed to win the presidency, what happens afterward – especially during the municipal elections in July – will be a better indication of the future of the Chavismo movement and Venezuela. The legacy and myth of Hugo Chávez is still fresh in the minds of many Venezuelans, giving Maduro and the rest of the Chavistas a steady bump in the polls.
But once that sheen wears off and the cracks in the administration begin to show, the opposition could gain some footing, experts said.
“The local elections will be a better indication of the feelings in Venezuela,” Sabatini said. “The honeymoon period after Chávez’s death should be over and people will judge the government by what they do and not by the legacy of Chávez.”
Capriles has already latched on to the country’s soaring crime rate and the cronyism among the Chavistas. While the Venezuelan electorate is still rapt under the spell of the late Chávez, the opposition is hoping that the fervor will die down in the upcoming months when a number of key posts around there country will be up in the air.
Besides his wide appeal across Venezuela, Chávez was also able to bridge the ideological differences in his own party. Experts argue that Maduro won’t be able to do this and there could soon be a splintering within the Chavismo movement.
“Everybody expects the Chavistas to win,” said Adam Isacson, a senior researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America. “How unified they are, however, is the million-dollar question. My guess is not very much.”
Isacson said that the Chavistas can be divided into three groups: the center left group, the radical left fronted by Maduro and the military left led by the head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. There was worry in the lead-up to Chávez’s death and abruptly following it of discord between Maduro and Cabello, but these concerns appear to have been brushed aside as of now.
The hope of the Venezuelan opposition is that they can play off the supposed friction among the Chavistas. But that may be tempered by the fact that the opposition itself is fractured and, besides Capriles, has no clear leader. Capriles, however, is running for the presidency for the second time and if he loses it would be a political catastrophe.
“He’s a formidable opponent, but he could lose twice at a run for the presidency,” Sabatini said. “That’s the kiss of death.”
Capriles will still retain his post as governor of the powerful state of Miranda and his rhetoric and youth still draw support from many anti-Chavistas.
“It will be interesting to see if Capriles will be able to survive as a viable political personality,” said Larry Birns, the director of the Council of Hemispheric Affairs. "Capriles has no reliable game plan for the future."
The upcoming municipal elections may give a better outlook for the future of Venezuela, but in the snap presidential elections experts seem to unanimously agree that it appears that Maduro and the Chavistas will retain control of both the presidency and a number of key posts in Venezuela for the next few years.
“Chavismo is one of the most powerful political movements in the Americas today,” Birns said. “At the end of the day, things look pretty good for Maduro and Chavismo.”