What's Next for Venezuela?

PHOTO: The 58-year-old former military officer Chavez won his fourth consecutive presidential bid Sunday and shows no signs of ballot fatigue.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez got himself reelected to a third term on Sunday, after defeating opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by a comfortable 10 percent of the vote.

Chávez gained 55 percent of the vote. He has promised to deepen Venezuela's socialist revolution and further the nationalization of key industries.

Despite losing the election, Capriles secured more votes than any of Chávez's previous contenders, with 45 percent support. When he conceaded defeat on Sunday, Capriles warned Chávez that the country is divided in two camps with very different visions of how Venezuela should be run. He asked Chávez to "work for the unity of all Venezuelans."

So what's next for this deeply polarized country? Will democracy erode in Venezuela?

I spoke with a blogger, a professor and a political analyst to get their take on the election result and what it means for the residents of this oil rich nation.

The Blogger

David Smilde is a research fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. He's also running a blog on Venezuelan politics, which is sponsored by this non-profit group.

"The results didn't surprise me at all," Smilde said of Chávez 's victory. Smilde mentioned that in a survey conducted recently by pollster Datanalisis, Chávez obtained a 58 percent job approval rating, so it was natural for his vote tally on Sunday to be within the same range.

"I think the result tells us that the Venezuelan people as a whole, or at least a small majority of them, feel that things have gotten better with Chávez , and that Chávez has done them right," said Smilde, who toured voting centers in rich and poor areas of Caracas on Sunday.

"But there's some fraying around the edges of his [political] project," Smilde added. He mentioned that opposition supporters where much more willing to talk to him about their voting preferences on Sunday, while government supporters seemed to be more reserved and subdued.

"People have a sense that things should've gotten better than where they're at right now," Smilde said, referring to problems like high crime rates and rampant inflation in Venezuela.

Will Chávez push for a socialist state even though he won the election by a smaller margin than in previous contests?

"It's up in the air," said Smilde, who mentioned that during Sunday's acceptance speech Chávez did not talk about controversial projects he has backed in the past, like the implementation of government-financed socialist communes.

Smilde added that Chávez has undergone three cancer operations since last year and may be at a stage of his life where he is contemplating his legacy. He posed the following question:

"Will Chávez try to consolidate what he has done and reconcile Venezuelans, or is he going to turn around and within a couple weeks start the [controversial] push for the communal state?"

The Analyst

Manuel Malaver writes a political column in the Venezuelan news portal, Informe 21. A day before the election he told me that Capriles had a moderate chance of defeating Chávez .

"I was surprised by the result," Malaver said on Monday, adding that he still did not have enough information at hand to explain how Chávez won by a ten percent margin.

Malaver did not believe that this victory margin, which is smaller than the one obtained in previous elections, would deter Chávez from pushing for radical reforms. "He's a very pugnacious fellow, he's too much of a [political] fanatic," Malaver said. "When he feels politically strong again, he will once again make a push" for socialist reforms, Malaver claimed.

Malaver drew parallels between the Chávez government, and Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which stayed in power for 70 consecutive years by winning numerous elections in which the playing field was heavily tilted in its own favor.

He argues that the Venezuelan opposition is in a Catch-22 scenario. It cannot reject election results because that would make it look like an undemocratic group. But by recognizing the election results, it has helped to provide legitimacy to a government with authoritarian tendencies. "This is the worst of both worlds," Malaver said.

The Pollster Luis Vicente León runs Datanalisis, one of the most well-known polling firms in Venezuela. A survey conducted by his firm in late September correctly predicted that Chávez would win by a 10 percent margin.

"There is an opportunity here for Chávez 's [socialist] revolution to entrench itself," León said. "But on the other hand the opposition also grew greatly in this election."

León said that during this upcoming term, Chávez may try to implement constitutional changes that would safeguard his socialist revolution. A law that calls for elections to take place if the president must retire from office could be modified for example, so that the Vice-President gets to serve out the entirety of Chávez 's term, if Chávez dies in office or must retire due to his health condition.

"Chávez will attempt to increase [government] control over private industry, over the military and over [public] institutions," like state governments, León claimed.

Would the 45 percent of the vote obtained by Capriles deter Chávez from pursuing radical reforms? And instead encourage him to take on a more conciliatory approach to politics?

Luis Vicente León doesn't think so.

"Why would Chávez auto-regulate himself?" León said, explaining that the Venezuelan president still controls the country's congress, as well as the judiciary branch. According to León, the big challenge for Venezuela's opposition in the following months, will be to stay united, and to be organized enough to resist Chávez 's efforts to deepen his revolution.

Elections in December, in which Venezuelans will pick state governors, will be a key testing ground for the opposition.

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