Just months after he was first elected president of Venezuela in 1998, at an event in Washington organized by the Inter-American Dialogue, Hugo Chávez was asked how he would maintain a democratic equilibrium absent an effective opposition. Chávez, an avid baseball fan, was quick to respond. "That's not my problem," he quipped, "I field my team -- the other side fields theirs. That's how the game is played."
But Team Chávez is one dynasty that looks a lot less dominant than it was back then. He won his first election with a 16-point margin. The following contests -- in 2000 and 2006 -- he won even more resoundingly, by 22 and 26 points, respectively. On Sunday, Oct. 7, the populist leader vanquished his fourth challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski. This time, however, the gap had shrunk to 10 percentage points. And, most crucially, the country's political tenor had dramatically changed.
In the end, Chávez prevailed by relying on the magic formula that has worked so well for him (and for all populists) -- he spent lots of public money on an array of consumer goods, housing, and other benefits for his supporters to guarantee their political loyalty. In this case, keenly aware of his increased vulnerability, Chávez cranked up the patronage machinery nurtured over his nearly 14-year rule and engaged in a spending orgy to neutralize a superior opposition challenge. Although Venezuela's economy is deeply troubled, it still helps to be sitting atop the world's largest oil reserves. PDVSA, the state petroleum company, though suffering sharp declines in production and investment, nonetheless had enough money to sustain Chávez's social programs.
Chávez, who came to power by identifying with the legitimate grievance of social injustice felt by many Venezuelans, also proved that he retains a powerful sentimental bond with the country's poor. Since being stricken with cancer in June 2011, Chávez, 58, has slowed down considerably, as reflected in the latest campaign. But his charisma and seductive rhetoric haven't disappeared. And his control over the media and key government institutions is intact.
Beyond Chávez's notable staying power, however, the big story emerging from the election was the impressive challenge mounted by a unified opposition. Capriles, a former governor elected in a primary contest last February, ran a remarkably smart campaign. For the first time, a Chávez challenger directly competed for the Venezuelan president's core constituency -- the very poor. He wisely advanced a social democratic agenda and invoked Brazil's popular former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as his political model.
Capriles did not deny that many of the poor had benefited under Chávez's rule (keep in mind that oil was only $10 a barrel when he came into office). Rather, he persuasively made the case that the tremendous opportunity to improve the well-being of most Venezuelans -- in a political environment marked by consensus, not polarization and rancor -- had been squandered. He noted the country's dismal governance -- as exemplified by decaying infrastructure, shortages of basic goods, and skyrocketing crime -- relative to the ample resources at its disposal. He developed well-thought-out alternative proposals for governing Venezuela.
What's more, Capriles, unlike many other opposition figures (and often the United States in years past), remained refreshingly focused and disciplined in the face of Chávez's characteristic taunts and provocations. In comments broadcast on state television on Sept. 10, Chávez said, "He's a little rich boy dressed up as a poor kid from the barrio." Chávez also charged that Capriles, who comes from a family of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors, belongs to a "fascist" Catholic group. Capriles ably defended himself, but by refusing to go for Chávez's bait, he was never thrown off balance. He gave Venezuelans a taste of what nonconfrontational politics would be like.