CARACAS — President Hugo Chavez is unlikely to tone down his polarizing style or abandon his socialist revolution despite an electoral fright due to the stronger, more united Venezuelan opposition.
The charismatic leftist leader extended a hand to the opposition after defeating Henrique Capriles in Sunday’s election, but pledged moments later to continue his “march toward democratic socialism of the 21st century.”
“I didn’t see any willingness to change,” Venezuelan historian Margarita Lopez Maya told AFP. “He will continue the same way, polarizing and closing dialogue. He may become more repressive because he feels stronger.”
Chavez vowed to become a “better president” following his victory, in a tacit acknowledgement of growing discontent over the country’s soaring crime rate, lack of proper housing and inflation that runs above 20 percent.
But the bombastic leader will see his victory as a clear mandate to continue policies that have angered critics, using Venezuela’s oil wealth to fund social “missions” at home and build alliances abroad, analysts said.
“He will persist with the idea that we must deepen and radicalize the revolution,” said Ignacio Avalos, director of the Venezuelan Electoral Observatory, a non-governmental organization.
“We will again be divided in two,” he said. “His argument is, ‘if I have such success (in elections), why should I change?'”
After almost 14 years in power, the main threat to his coming six-year mandate that starts in January may be a recurrence of the cancer that weakened him earlier this year. Chavez declared himself cured in July.
Chavez survived a coup mounted by business leaders in 2002, but analysts say the opposition will continue taking its fight through the ballot box, with the next test coming in elections for mayors and governors in December.
The question now for the historically divided opposition is whether it can maintain the unity it forged behind the Capriles candidacy.
The 40-year-old former state governor was chosen as the opposition’s standard-bearer in an unprecedented primary election in February.
“He has potential to continue leading the opposition, but it is heterogeneous,” said Angel Alvarez, political science professor at the Central University of Venezuela, noting that the candidacy was backed by parties from the right, center and left of politics.
“He engenders more sympathy than other opposition politicians. Plus he’s young and has a big of political future,” Alvarez said.
The youthful candidate attracted a huge following with vows to reduce the murder rate, which rose to 50 per 100,000 inhabitants, and unite the polarized nation, but it ultimately did not translate into victory.
With 97 percent of ballots counted, Chavez won 55.11 percent of the vote in the election, or 735,000 more votes than in 2006, when he defeated opposition candidate Manuel Rosales by 25 points.
Capriles drastically improved the opposition’s score, with 44.27 percent, or almost 2.2 million more votes than six years ago.
“The (opposition) strategy was correct but it faced a candidate who used all state resources to his advantage,” Lopez Maya said, referring to charges that Chavez used public funds and the state-controlled media to campaign.
For Capriles, the next step is unclear. He could return to his post as governor in the northern state of Miranda, which he had given up to run for president.
“The people contributed to opening a new path and this path is here,” Capriles, wearing a jacket in Venezuela’s yellow, blue and red colors, told supporters in conceding defeat.
“I am also on this path and I won’t leave almost half the country alone,” he said.
Ratings agency Fitch saw a continuity on Venezuelan policy, given the fact that Chavez’s comfortable re-election win and Capriles’s acceptance of the result meant the risk of post-election social unrest had subsided.
“Still, the re-elected government faces a challenge in adjusting its exchange rate policy, and considerable uncertainty remains over the government’s ability to rein in the fiscal deficit, while at the same time maintaining economic growth and fighting inflation,” Fitch said.
“The question of President Chavez’s health remains relevant in light of ongoing uncertainty over his ability to serve a full six-year term,” it added.