Caracas, Venezuela – On Sunday, 8,044,106 voters in Venezuela granted incumbent President Hugo Chávez a fourth consecutive term in the nation’s highest political office. The latest official numbers indicate an unquestionable victory for Chávez, who won 55 percent of the votes and all but two of 24 states.
The results extend Chávez’ mandate until 2019. By then he will have governed the country for nearly two decades and will have the possibility of running for yet another six-year term as president.
Chávez’ main opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, obtained 44 percent of the votes, falling more than 10 percentage points behind Chávez despite obtaining a record 6,461,612 votes for the Venezuelan opposition.
The margin of difference between the two candidates (1,582,494 votes, as of Monday evening) was larger than expected. Leading up to Election Day, most polls—beyond their disparate projections—foresaw a tightly contested election and gave Capriles a decent shot at obtaining the presidency. Sunday’s results upset those predictions, drawing a new map of a country’s political make-up that will keep analysts writing for months to come.
A record voter participation rate (81 percent) points both to the perceived importance of Sunday’s electoral contest among Venezuelans and to the highly politicized voter population. There was no big surprise there, however: this presidential election was expected to draw a massive number of voters.
What no one predicted about last Sunday’s elections, though, was that Chávez would win the popular vote in five of the six states currently held by the opposition, including in the highly populated state of Miranda, where Capriles was governor until joining the race for presidential office. Chávez won the vote in that state by a small fraction of a percentage point.
Despite the opposition’s defeat in what were thought to be its bastions of voter support, Sunday’s results indicate that the opposition has grown significantly as a political option in Venezuela and that Chávez has lost voter support relative to past presidential elections.
When he last ran for re-election in 2006, Chávez beat then-candidate Manuel Rosales by 25 percentage points, a margin more than twice as large as on Sunday.
In terms of the number of votes, President Chávez obtained 735,000 more votes than in 2006; the opposition picked up 2.2 million votes as compared to six years ago. During that time, the voter population in Venezuela grew by 3.1 million registered voters.
In the coming months, there will be time to analyze these results as Venezuela prepares for state elections on December 16. But in the wake of Chávez’ victory, there are perhaps more pressing questions to ask.
The top question is Chávez’ health. More than a year has passed since he was diagnosed with cancer and, to this day, the state and nature of his illness remain a national mystery. Although he claims to be fully cured of the disease, after receiving heavy treatments and undergoing two surgeries, he has yet to reveal the type of cancer that has afflicted his health.
Throughout the campaign, Chávez made an effort to display vitality. At his highly-attended rallies, he jumped on stage with rock musicians and strummed a guitar for his supporters. But given the secrets surrounding his health status, there are doubts as to whether he will be physically able to withstand another six years in office.
With a country almost evenly split between two radically opposed political factions, another pressing question relates to the direction Chávez’ next mandate will take, given the gains of the opposition.
“There is a country that has two visions,” Capriles said on Sunday night after congratulating Chávez for his victory. “I ask respect of those who today remain in power, consideration and recognition for the almost half of our country that does not agree with the current government,” he later added.
Chávez, in his remarks that night, congratulated the opposition for its participation in the democratic process. He spoke from the balcony of the presidential palace dressed in the token color of his movement, wearing the bright red shirt he discarded while on the campaign trail.
Chávez and Capriles both announced on Twitter that they spoke on the phone Monday. “Believe me,” Chávez wrote, “I sustained a pleasant phone conversation with Henrique Capriles. I welcome national unity, respecting our differences.”
This friendly gesture between the figureheads of opposing political camps symbolically breaches the growing gap between them. But beyond the phone call, everything points to the likely radicalization of Chávez’ self-proclaimed “socialist” political project.
Venezuelan Vice President Elías Jaua confirmed in a recent interview that the expropriation of businesses in “strategic” sectors of the economy remains on the agenda.
Back on the presidential balcony Sunday night, a euphoric Chávez proclaimed, “Venezuela will never go back to neoliberalism! Venezuela will continue its transition toward the democratic and Bolivarian socialism of the Twenty-first Century!”