Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was re-elected on Dec. 3. Chavez has defined his re-election as a triumph over his nemesis, U.S. President George W. Bush. However, the international implications of his victory mask potentially turbulent times on the domestic front.
As all credible opinion pollsters predicted, Chavez was re-elected by a large margin over his main rival, Manuel Rosales. With 91% of the votes counted, according to the National Election Council, Chavez received 62.6% of the vote, compared with 37.2% for Rosales, on a turnout of 75%. The breakdown of votes reflects the persistence of pro- and anti-Chavez voting. Rosales lost because his campaign was unsuccessful in breaking down the cleavage between the pro-Chavez majority and the opposition minority.
The decision by sections of the opposition to raise the “fear factor,” and concerns over the transparency of the voting system, probably had a negative effect on the opposition candidate. Election day revealed that these concerns were unfounded. International election observers expressed confidence in the process and final result. Voters themselves did not appear to share the views of radical opposition sectors.
The result is acutely problematic for the United States. Any attempt by Washington to build bridges with a resurgent Chavez is likely to be rebuffed:
–The balance of political force in Central and South America may be interpreted to have shifted, with the re-election of Chavez the culmination of a regional election process that has seen the victory of left-wing candidates in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador. These political developments will strengthen Chavez’s resolve to lead an anti-neoliberal and anti-U.S. bloc in the region.
–At the same time, the Venezuelan government is of the view that Bush is in a weak position.
These developments underscore the weaknesses inherent in the U.S. strategy of seeking to isolate and undermine Chavez.
Although Chavez will seek to capitalize on the altered balance of forces in the region, limitations on the domestic front will weaken the consolidation of Chavismo. The new Chavez term will see several challenges played out within the administration:
— Oil dependence. The government will need to reduce dependence on oil export revenues to ensure the sustainability of its expansive social policy programs. It is not clear that this dependence can or will be effectively tackled.
— Importance of transparency in public finances. There is an urgent need for the government to rationalize finances and transparency in spending.
— Intra-party divisions. Chavez is seeking to unify the Chavista movement in 2007. However, this is likely to face resistance from within his wider alliance. Deep tensions over the future direction of the government exist within the alliance, and these will be played out.
— Need to pluralize government. Rosales has accepted the legitimacy of the election result. This is a very important development and opens up the possibility that the opposition will now develop as a “loyal” group that works within the rules of the game. However, the continuing exclusion of the opposition will leave a significant sector of society cut off from decision-making and interest representation.
— Crime and corruption. Corruption and crime must be a key priority for the government. As yet, there has been little progress in developing and rolling out national plans of action.
— Institutional weaknesses. There is an urgent need for the government and its supporting organizations to rationalize institutions to enhance public service delivery.
The balance of forces within the alliance, between hard-line and moderate factions, will determine the extent to which the new presidency will be positioned to address these issues. The election results probably will be seen as a victory for hard-line groups. The fact that Venezuelan socialism remains incoherent is problematic.
Chavez will be a resurgent force on the political stage, and the popular mandate his administration enjoys merits serious efforts at engagement from the United States. However, the marginalization of moderates by hardliners committed to an anti-U.S. course is likely, with possible negative implications for medium-term stability.
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