AS/COA Online | Capriles Wins Venezuelan Primary to Become Chávez's Challenger

Co-authored with Mark Keller.

Henrique Capriles Radonski won Venezuela’s opposition primary on February 12, making him the top contender in the race against President Hugo Chávez. Capriles, governor of the state of Miranda, pulled in 1.8 million of the 2.9 million votes cast. He will serve as the nominee of the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD), an alliance of opposition parties formed to more effectively compete with Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela. A former legislator, Capriles faced four other candidates but faced his greatest competition from Pablo Pérez, governor of Zulia state. Another candidate, Leopoldo López, dropped out of the race on January 24 and put his support behind the frontrunner, giving Capriles a last-minute boost. In hopes of overcoming past electoral setbacks, MUD candidates signed a September 2011 pact agreeing to back the primary winner to avoid possible splintering of the opposition vote in the October 7 election. The MUD also agreed to a unified platform last month, pledging to combat the country’s violent crime problem, engage in democratic reconstruction, and pursue a sustainable economic model. AS/COA’s Rachel Glickhouse and Guillermo Zubillaga note in an election overview that the February 12 vote “test[s] the momentum of support for the opposition coalition before the general election.” Can Capriles, backed by a unified opposition, compete with the loquacious, long-governing Chávez?

Capriles can count on the support of many Venezuelans who believe the country, governed by Chávez since 1999, is on the wrong path. Last year the country recorded South America’s highest murder rate.  “Violent crimes rarely come to court and a sense of impunity pervades the country,” writes Venezuela expert Michael Penfold in Foreign Affairs. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2011 ranked Venezuela as the tenth most corrupt country in the world, and second-most corrupt in the Western Hemisphere (after Haiti). Economic concerns continue to simmer as well; the Chávez government’s high rate of public spending funded by petrodollars means Venezuela’s inflation rate closed 2012 as Latin America’s highest, running at a rate of 27.6 percent.

During the primary campaigns, Capriles named Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as an inspiration, promising a pro-business attitude but vowing to maintain the most successful of Chávez’s social programs. Capriles has made the effort of visiting the barrios, or slums, traditionally loyal to Chávez. “He’s the only one who can penetrate the poor,” Carlos Romero, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela told The Christian Science Monitor. On top of that, rumors abound about Chávez’s declining health in the wake of cancer treatment, leading to questions about whether he is healthy enough to continue governing, as well as what might happen in a post-Chávez Venezuela.

Nevertheless, Venezuelans remain divided over Chávez’s policies, and the campaign against the president will be tough. A January Hinterlaces poll found that 50 percent of the population intends to support Chávez, while 34 percent said they would support the opposition candidate. Observers expect Chávez to shore up support through lavish spending on public programs, as he did before the 2004 recall referendum. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Venezuelan government boosted public spending for 2012 by 40 percent, or nearly $69.3 billion. The military, which has been packed with Chávez supporters, could also pose a challenge. New Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva indicated that the army would not support an opposition win. However, in an article for Americas Quarterly, Latin America security analyst Simon Strong downplays this possibility, writing: “[F]ew believe that the swollen ranks of the generals… would have either the capacity or the stomach for violent confrontation.”

Learn More:

  • Read an AS/COA hemispheric update covering the primary and issues to watch ahead of October’s election.
  • Read an AQ Web Exclusive by Simon Strong that explores the Venezuelan military’s support for Chávez.
  • Access the website of the MUD coalition.
  • Access the website of the presidency of Venezuela.
  • Visit Venezuela’s El Universal for coverage of the primaries.
  • Read a GlobalPost profile of Capriles.
  • Reuters offers a “factbox” of Capriles’ proposals.