The overwhelming victory of Chávez’s party, the PSUV, in yesterday’s elections for state governors is another indication that the widespread prognostications of gloom and doom ahead for both chavismo and for Venezuela may once again be off the mark. The PSUV won 20 of 23 states, increasing their total from 15 to 20 governorships. They were able to do this without Chávez being able to campaign, which is interesting not only because he is an important political figure and campaigner, but also because by a law which predated Chávez, most TV stations are required to carry the president’s speeches (these broadcasts are called cadenas). Since the government TV stations have only about 6 percent of the television audience, this was an important factor that helped in the October 7 presidential elections – without the cadenas the media would have been stacked against him, since most print media and radio are also privately owned and to varying degrees against the government. This election, like the October 7 presidential election, also showed the superior organization of the president’s party, which in most of the 20 states that they won, they won by large margins.
It thus appears that if Chávez is unable to complete his term, the most likely scenario would be that his endorsed candidate, Nicolás Maduro, would win the presidency in the special election that is required to take place 30 days after a presidential resignation. Polls taken before the last election showed Maduro trailing by 6 points behind the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski; but that is before the recent endorsement from Chávez, and of course the boost that Chávez would give him with any further appeals to the electorate. Capriles avoided disaster by winning the governor’s race in Miranda, but it was not by a huge margin (50 - 46), especially considering the massive media exposure he had during his presidential campaign.
Of course, many things are possible, but the wishful scenarios that one sees in much of the media, “that a deeply polarized and de-institutionalized Venezuela will be both turbulent and unstable for the foreseeable future,” is looking increasingly unlikely. For a relevant comparison, Lula da Silva finished his second term in 2010, and had relatively little trouble getting his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff – who had never before held elective office – elected president. The major media, and the anti-Chávez commentators that have a near monopoly on discussion of Venezuela, tend to exaggerate the role of Chávez’s personal charisma in Venezuelan politics, and tend to underestimate the importance of the unprecedented improvement in living standards – real (inflation-adjusted) income, employment, poverty reduction, and increased access to health care, public pensions, and education. These gains have been at least as big in Venezuela under Chávez as they were under Lula in Brazil, and will likely determine the outcome of any special election – if there is one -- as they did the election of October 7.