Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was re-elected on October 7, gaining a fourth-term in office after an election campaign that galvanized both sides of the political spectrum in an already polarized country. This election posed one of Chavez’s most serious challenges as it was accompanied by the persisting uncertainty of his own personal health.
With 90 per cent of ballots counted, Chavez held just over 54% of the votes, beating his younger rival, Henrique Capriles, who won just under 45%. It was Chavez’s narrowest electoral victory since he took office in 1999, and was a far-cry from his previous re-election in 2006, which saw him win 62% of the vote, beating the opposing candidate by 27%. The country’s Electoral Council reported a record turnout of 81% of eligible voters, one of the highest seen in recent history.
Speaking from the Presidential Palace, Chavez told his supporters, “Truthfully, this has been the perfect battle, a democratic battle. Venezuela will continue its march toward the democratic socialism of the 21st Century.” He also added that he would be a “better president” and acknowledged the portion of the electorate that voted against him.
Capriles, speaking from his campaign headquarters, conceded defeat, but added “We have planted many seeds across Venezuela and I know that these seeds are going to produce many trees. I will continue working to build one country.” Noting the polarization among voters, he added, “There’s a country that is divided and to be a good president means to work for all Venezuelans, to work for the solution of all Venezuelans’ problems.”
The candidacy of the younger, energetic Capriles, 40, a former mayor and governor of Miranda state was a big challenge for Chavez. The former lawyer-turned-politician was able to rally the opposition around persisting socio-economic problems, including the nation’s elevated crime rates, rampant government corruption, and frequent power outages. Challenging Chavez’s socialist approach, Capriles had campaigned on a more moderate platform inspired by former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva. Capriles would have seen greater trade liberalization and a more centrist foreign policy.
Chavez’s victory now paves the way for another six year term, which many believe will allow him to cement control over the economy. Even with his greatest political battle behind him, he still faces serious economic challenges in a nation heavily dependent on oil exports. Additional problems to be addressed include the degradation of the country’s infrastructure, a sluggish GDP growth rate and high crime rates.
His reelection also comes with his recent battle with cancer, which entailed undergoing treatment from 2011 through to this year. The exact nature of his cancer remains officially undisclosed, leading many to speculate about its severity.
Chavez, a former lieutenant colonel and army paratrooper, first came to national prominence in 1992, when he led a failed coup against then President Carlos Andres Perez. He later founded the social-democratic party, the Fifth Republic Movement, and was first elected President thereafter in 1998.
The Venezuelan leader, inspired by revolutionary leaders like Fidel Castro and Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar, has made the poor a cornerstone of his domestic policies, investing significant portions of the nation’s oil revenues into various social projects in an attempt to tackle poverty in Venezuela. Chavez’s time in power has also seen a spate of state nationalization policies,, the rise of public collectives and successful attempts to achieve greater income equality, which is now one of the fairest distributions in the region.
On the home front, the President’s charisma and investments in the poor have won over many Venezuelans from the poorer segments of society. But great state control over the economy, and what opponents see as Chavez’s autocratic tendencies, has seen him loathed as well, especially by portions of Venezuela’s middle and upper classes. There were concerns raised over the use of state funds for Chavez’s re-election campaign, with opposition supporters accusing the President of funneling millions in state funds into his re-election bid.
Internationally, Chavez has become famous for his ardent opposition of American foreign policy. Especially since April 2002, when Chavez was briefly ousted in a coup that included U.S involvement, the firebrand leader has been vociferous against what he sees as the actions of an imperialist power, both in Latin America and abroad. In recent years, Chavez has allied himself with other left-wing Latin American leaders, like Rafael Correra of Ecuador, Argentina’s Christina Fernandez, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Adding to the ire of Washington, Chavez has deepened ties with nations also looked upon at least some suspicion in the West, including Iran and China.
Hugo Chavez’ most recent election win will minimally entail the continuation of his state-involved policy alternative to Western capitalist ideology. By having won six additional years in office, he has been granted the chance to preserve and grow the economic policy which has come to be branded as “21st Century Socialism” in Venezuela.