Life After Chávez

With Venezuela's president-for-life looking pretty close to death, the country's politicians are jostling to fill his shoes.

CARACAS, VenezuelaRamon Pacheco likes to boast that he is a Chávista to his bones.

President of his rural consejo communal, or commune, outside the northern city of El Consejo, Pacheco has voted for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in each of his four presidential runs. A member of Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the 37 year-old farmer has been willing to overlook growing crime in his village, constant power outages, as well as shortages of fertilizer, seeds, and basic foodstuffs such as corn meal and sugar.

"I believe in Chávez," says Pacheco. "Sure, we have problems -- but they're not el comandante's fault. He's surrounded by incompetents, opportunists, and thieves."

He's still not sure which of the three Vice President Nicolás Maduro is. Chávez anointed Maduro as his heir apparent last month before leaving to undergo his fourth cancer surgery in Cuba. Since his departure, Chávez hasn't been seen or heard from -- leading to rumors about his demise or permanent incapacitation. The president is said to be battling a respiratory infection that has made it difficult for him to breathe.

But we now know for certain what has been suspected for weeks -- that the president will be unable to attend Thursday's scheduled swearing-in ceremony. The National Assembly voted on Jan. 8 to allow Chávez to be sworn in before the Supreme Court at a later date. (Under the Venezuelan Constitution, however, all presidents must be sworn in for a new term on Jan. 10 before the National Assembly, or before the Supreme Court at another location.) The country's supreme court ruled on Jan. 9 that the postponement is constitutional. What will happen, though, if Chávez doesn't recover is a more problematic question.

"Maduro's no Chávez," Pacheco says. "He doesn't connect with the people like Chávez does. He doesn't understand us. He doesn't think like one of us. I may think differently if he starts to do something like take a strong stance against corruption, which is running wild here. I just don't see him doing that."

Whether Chávismo will be able to survive in the event Chávez dies, or is unable to continue governing, will depend on Maduro's abilities to convince people like Pacheco that he can carry on the country's socialist revolution. The challenge is that the revolution, up until now, has been a populist movement rooted in the president's visceral charisma and force of personality, rather than any concrete principles or policy platform.

"I have my doubts about Chávismo without Chávez," Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chávez in the October presidential race by 10 percentage points, told El Universal newspaper in a widely quoted interview. "Any leadership without Chávez appears to be to be profoundly vulnerable."

The tall, mustachioed Maduro -- the new face of Chávismo -- has had a rocky start since taking center stage last month. Unlike the glad-handing Chávez, who was constantly kissing, embracing, and hugging his countrymen, the former bus driver appears aloof and disconnected.

Maduro's speaking style is stolid, especially when compared to his mentor's jocular verbosity. Chávez often spoke for hours in televised monologues, working in slanders against his opponents, discussions of his love life, and even jokes about his diarrhea.

Maduro, who has increasingly opted to wear shirts of any hue save red, the color of Chávez and the revolution, has adopted an antagonistic stance vis-à-vis the opposition, and especially their insistence that the government release a full medical report on the ailing president.

In doing so, Maduro has seemingly hurt himself by giving overly optimistic reports on Chávez, which were subsequently contradicted by others.

"So far, Maduro has proven to be a much less articulate and charismatic speaker than Chávez," says Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with Eurasia Group. "The opposition would probably like him to continue talking."

Maduro also has another disadvantage. Since 1999, Chávez has been able to blame the country's problems on the country's old political elite and the moneyed class. Fourteen years into the revolution, that's a tougher sell.

"Maduro has to take some responsibility for the problems facing the country," says a member of the opposition's MUD umbrella group, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He just can't blame everything on Acción Democrática or Copei [formerly Venezuela's two largest political parties]. He has to take some ownership and say that Chávismo has had its share of mistakes as well."

Still, it's too early to count Chávismo or Maduro out. Since being named foreign minister in 2006, Maduro has been able to steer clear of domestic controversies, and has avoided accusations of taking advantage of his position for personal gain.

"No scandals or corruption cases have been linked to him, unlike other Chávistas," said Tarek Yorde, a Caracas-based political consultant. Maduro is also fortunate in that he is facing a demoralized, weakened, and divided opposition, especially in the wake of losing the presidential race in October and a poor showing in the December gubernatorial races. Nonetheless, he estimated that Maduro would lose up to half of the votes Chávez won in the October election.

"Maduro may go to the center to seek support," said Yorde. "He's definitely not like [Finance and Planning Minister Jorge] Giordani or [former Vice President Elias] Jaua, who would go further to the left."

Close to the president and the Castro brothers in Cuba, Maduro has political room to tweak some of Chávez's more radical economic policies. Expropriations of private companies and lands have proven to be controversial, resulting in lower investments by private companies. Foreign exchange controls have also been a disaster, distorting the economy and making Venezuela one of the most expensive countries in Latin America.

Chávismo's future, however, likely depends on what happens to Chávez. Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said on Jan. 7 that the president, who remains in a hospital in Havana, continues to fight a respiratory infection that has made breathing difficult. He gave no other details, and the government has never said whether the president is on ventilator.

So, for now, the politicians are jostling to fill the temporary vacuum. Opposition leaders have suggested that, in Chavez's absence, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello should be named interim president until new elections can be held, as the constitution mandates when the president is unable to serve. Maduro and Cabello have both disagreed, saying that the inauguration date isn't mandatory and that Chávez should be given more time to recover before being declared unfit for the presidency. That doesn't mean they're entirely on the same page, however.

Both men, who represent different factions of Chávismo, have also repeatedly denied rumors of a split between them. Cabello is backed by the party's military wing, and favors less Cuban influence in the country. Maduro is head of the civilian wing, and would continue close ties with Havana. "The stakes are sufficiently high so the PSUV will stay together at least until things become clearer," says Grais-Targow.

But if Chávez can't serve and Cabello becomes interim president, all bets are off, analysts said. The absence of Chávez might encourage Cabello, a former vice president himself, to make a power grab. "Cabello taking over as interim president wouldn't be good for Maduro at all," said Yorde. (While he publicly supports Maduro, he's an ambitious politician and it certainly seems plausible that he might have his own designs on the presidency.)

While Chávez's health concerns play out, Maduro is unlikely to take any major decisions. Chávez had been expected to devalue the currency this month to help the government close a yawning fiscal deficit, made worse by a boost in government spending before the October presidential vote. The government presently pegs the bolívar at 4.3 to the dollar. Analysts have suggested that a devaluation could take it to 8, which is still a far cry from the 18 today's rate is 185 it is trading on the black market.

The spending spree on social programs and voter handouts that the government went on before the last election also depleted international reserves. The country's liquid currency reserves have fallen to about $7 billion, good for about three months of imports. Chronic shortages of spare parts and foodstuffs have grown worse as the government has been forced to cut imports. Venezuela imports about 70 percent of the goods it consumes.

But any devaluation would hurt Maduro politically, especially as it would spur inflation -- already the highest in the region -- and lead to price increases on most foods. Maduro also is unlikely to attack the country's crime problem. Last year, nearly 22,000 Venezuelans were murdered, this in a country of 29 million. By contrast, the United States with its population of 330 million, had 12,000 murders. Faced with these challenges, Maduro or anyone would have a difficult time trying to fill Chavez's place.

In the days when he was a loyal footsoldier in the revolution, Maduro was known for saying, "with Chávez, all things are possible, and without him, nothing is."

This week, he's likely hoping he was wrong. 



Unholy Alliances

Israel's election is bringing together some strange bedfellows.

TEL AVIV, Israel — For the impatient reader, we can begin at the end. On Jan. 22, Benjamin Netanyahu will win the Israeli election and become prime minister for the third time. This much we know already. He will likely form a government of parties that have opposing views about most of the issues that matter to most Israelis -- the occupation, the economy, the role of religion, and more -- just as he did in 2009. Foreign pundits will lament the country's rightward drift and the growing influence of settlers and the ultra-Orthodox.

Given this certainty, a casual observer might easily conclude that Israeli politics suffer from akinesia, remaining helplessly rigid and motionless like the sorry Parkinson's patients Oliver Sacks described in Awakenings. But that's the paradox of these elections. The outcome will be widely seen, reasonably, as more of the same and a sign of worrisome stasis. In fact, they reflect tectonic changes in the parties Israelis vote for and the issues on our minds. While Jan. 22's vote is almost guaranteed to be a victory for the status quo, the status quo is likely to be short-lived.

The first thing one should realize is that the security issues that have dominated Israeli politics for decades, and get most of the attention abroad, have not been a major factor in this election. Such a state of affairs would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when the Second Intifada and a spate of terrorist attacks allowed Likud to double its strength in the Knesset (19 seats to 38) in a single election. This campaign season is taking place as Iran draws within months, by some estimates, to being able to build a nuclear weapon, and was interrupted by a war with Hamas-controlled Gaza during which Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were shelled. So one might expect security to fully eclipse all other issues. But this has not happened.

Defense minister and perennial candidate Ehud Barak hastily ended his own Knesset campaign and resigned from politics after polls showed that his proficient prosecution of the war with Gaza brought him no popular support. Elections are just under three weeks away, and so far Iran has been raised only once in a high-profile way -- by Shaul Mofaz, the head of the opposition Kadima party, whose election billboards show a mushroom cloud and, referring to Netanyahu by his ubiquitous nickname, bear the text "Bibi will get us in trouble." (Kadima is poised to be the biggest loser of these elections, dropping from 28 Knesset seats to just two, according to the latest polls.) No other major party leader has challenged the present administration's handling of Iran or has said much about the issue one way or another. Even Netanyahu, after months of speaking of little else but Iran and after a ham-fisted effort to scare pro-Israel American voters into backing Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential election, has mentioned Iran only rarely and has generally refrained from making it an issue in his own campaign.

Of course, the issue of Israel's security is inseparable from discussions about the occupation, territorial compromise, and peace with Palestinians. These issues too have been less prominently debated in this election than in past ones -- at least among the parties likely to play a major role in the new government.

The liberal-left Meretz party and the joint Arab-Jewish communist Hadash party remain unwavering in their support for a two-state solution, with the 1967 armistice lines, slightly amended here and there, serving as the border between Israel and Palestine. Present polls give them three and four seats, respectively, of the Knesset's 120. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's new Hatnua party supports immediate negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu's failure even to reach the negotiating table is at the heart of Livni's campaign. Were the elections held today, she would receive eight seats. The mostly modern Orthodox and settler-supported Habayit Hayehudi and Ihud ha-Leumi parties steadfastly oppose relinquishing any of the occupied territories, ever. They poll together at 10 seats or so.

The larger parties -- Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, which are running together; the Labor Party; the new, centrist Yesh Atid party; and the ultra-Orthodox parties -- doubtless all have positions about the occupation and peace negotiations, but they express them with surprising reticence and a seemingly willful lack of clarity.

For almost 30 years, since 1984, every election has brought clashes about religion and state of unparalleled acrimony. Over these issues of whether yeshiva students should be forced to serve in the army, whether Orthodox Jews should decide who can marry and how, whether buses should run on the Sabbath -- and more -- parties have risen to power and prominence and governments have fallen. In this election, however, the perennial enmity between secular and religious Israelis, especially ultra-Orthodox Jews, is strangely absent.

If security, peace, and religion absorb less of the electorate's attention, economics seems now to absorb more. In early December, the Labor Party issued a 66-page economic plan that advocates rolling back decades of neoliberal reforms and privatization and calls for massive government spending on public housing, increases in services across the board, an increased minimum wage, and more. The growing emphasis on the economy may be a sign the party, which had drifted away from its original socialist principles in recent years, got the message after 2011's massive social protests -- in which thousands occupied central Tel Aviv to protest the rising cost of living, privatization of government services, regressive taxes, and an ever-expanding gap between haves and have-nots. Several leaders of the protests entered Labor's primaries last year and performed well enough to be ensured a spot in the next Knesset. Labor has embraced economic issues with unmatched single-mindedness, yet almost all the parties have made economics a part of their election campaign, most promising sweeping reforms of an economic system that they describe as unfairly balanced toward the moneyed and powerful.

This shift in emphasis from security and cultural issues to economics reflects changes in the demographics of Israel's political parties, which themselves reflect changes in the demographics of Israeli voters, though in a complicated way. Over the past few years, many of Israel's political parties have grown more heterogeneous in ideology and varied in membership.

Kadima, which governed the country from 2005 to 2009 under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, was an amalgam of sobered socialists and reconstructed Greater Israelites. The recent fusing of Netanyahu's Likud and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu into Likud-Beiteinu brings Russian free market enthusiasts with a high-European disdain for Arabs together with second-generation settlers and neoliberals in bespoke suits. Haim Amsalem, a former Knesset representative of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has started a joint religious-secular party named Am Shalem dedicated to "combating racism" against Sepharadim (though in interviews, Amsalem has said against Palestinians as well), pushing the ultra-Orthodox into jobs and the army, and "restor[ing] moderate Judaism to Israel," as the party's website explains.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who have traditionally preferred their own identity-based parties, ran this year in primaries for both Likud and Labor, suggesting a further shuffling of religious identities in Israel's old parties.

Unsurprisingly, this growing diversity within parties has come at a time when old voting blocs have begun to disintegrate. Although the million or so immigrants from the former Soviet Union still tend to oppose territorial compromise with the Palestinians and reject welfare-state economic policies that recall the brutal socialism of their birthplace, their political affiliations are increasingly spread across the political spectrum. Israeli Palestinians, though they are largely ignored by Jewish media and politicians during elections, will vote in larger numbers than ever for majority-Jewish parties, chiefly Labor. Settlers' votes are also spread among more political parties than in the past (though almost exclusively on the right). The same is true of Mizrahim, Haredim, and, no less, secular cosmopolitans.

The decline of the old voting blocs has come with a decline of old ideologies as well, on the right and on the left. Among the most notable losers in the Likud primaries was Benny Begin, son of Menachem Begin, the legendary founder of Likud and its first prime minister. The younger Begin represented perhaps the last of the old Likud ideologues, whose commitment to retaining the West Bank was matched, perhaps incongruously, by a commitment to liberal democracy blind to religious and ethnic background. Most politicians today, on the right and left, insist that they maintain consistent political opinions; few, however, will cop to having an ideology. In the past, ideology was de rigueur; now it is vaguely déclassé.

Taken together, these trends suggest that Israeli politics have recently lost definition and grown shaggier. They have changed from a French garden, sharp of line and in fine trim, into an English garden in which the shrubs and the trees have expanded into one another, and a skein of ivy stretches from this plant to that.

Where all this will lead in the long run is worth pondering. In the short run, though, it will lead us to nowhere new. This is in part because in Israel voting patterns are a lagging indicator of political change. The massive immigration of Mizrahi Jews to Israel came to an end in 1964, but did not receive full expression in the ballot box until the 1977 elections, when Likud won for the first time, ending three decades of left-wing rule dating back to the country's founding. A similarly profound political shift seems to be happening today, but while most of the new, established parties have scrambled to exploit the changing landscape of Israeli politics, no one (myself included) has yet come to understand the changes and what they mean.

Over time, the blurring of ideological definition and the demographic reshuffling that one sees in this election may or may not change Israeli policy in fundamental ways. The new focus on issues like housing, education, tax equity, and so forth could give rise to political coalitions that were unthinkable in the past: say, between the secular social democrats of the Labor Party and the Halakhocrats of the ultra-Orthodox parties whose constituents benefit most from government aid. The focus on economics may, in time, even launch sustained public discussion of the practical costs of the occupation, which may in turn diminish the electorate's patience for the status quo.

Or it may not. And this is the point. Surveying with satisfaction the American financial system in 2005, Alan Greenspan praised "the remarkable resilience of the banking system," which would carry on much as it is for years to come. The lesson many will learn from this election is that nothing changes in Israeli politics, which will slouch and shuffle on much as it is for years to come. This lesson is wrong, though it will take time until this is obvious to all.