A grassroots campaign in Venezuela

Venezuela’s opposition came up short again, but this campaign was different.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez won his fourth term in office on Sunday, defeating an energized and emboldened opposition headed by Henrique Capriles. While it wasn’t as close as many had predicted (or as millions of others had hoped), there is a silver lining for the opposition: the race proved that real grassroots-style campaigning is weakening the country’s ruling class.

The 2012 campaign was very different than the one that reelected Chavez six years ago. What was a fractured opposition—comprised of more than 20 parties—worked to put aside their political differences and unite in the cause of defeating Chavez. It was part of what gave the opposition its best shot yet at ousting him.

The other difference (and maybe the more important of the two) was that Capriles embraced traditional grassroots campaigning in a way the country’s opposition had not previously seen. The 40-year-old lawyer and governor of Venezuela’s second most populated state was elected to lead the opposition in what was essentially a primary election. Well ahead of the election, Venezuela’s opposition parties formed a coalition—the United Democratic Committee (MUD is the Spanish acronym). MUD established a set of internal procedures ahead of the vote and organized primary contests. Six years ago, the opposition candidate was selected via survey.

By the time the campaign formally began in July, Capriles had embraced the fundamentals—door-to-door canvassing among them. The goal was to knock on as many doors as possible during the stretch of the campaign, but it wasn’t a blanket strategy—Capriles had targets. He knocked on doors with the aim of consolidating his core supporters and then targeted independents the campaign hoped Capriles could win over.

Over the course of the campaign, Capriles visited 300 towns and made almost three full campaign swings across Venezuela. While he focused on issues of national importance—crime and safety, for example—Capriles also localized his message. At many stops he highlighted the inability of the government to provide basic services like electricity, water and infrastructure. His campaign slogan: “There is a way.” (Hay un camino.)

Capriles was able to achieve what no other Chavez opponent had before—he succeeded in setting the campaign’s agenda during the final three weeks of the race. He focused many voters on bread and butter issues that Chavez was ignoring as the incumbent’s message centered more narrowly on ideology.

In part due to his recent health issues, Chavez’s campaign looked much different. The incumbent was more strategic about his campaign visits—he went only where his support was strong. Chavez also made the most of his campaign’s advantage when it came to resources. He relied much more on paid media advertising this time around, and he used the public airwaves. The government is permitted to use as many hours of TV and radio air time as needed to relay important public messages—a privilege Chavez decided to use for campaign purposes. It generated no formal objection from the National Electoral Council.

Chávez also refused to debate Capriles, dismissing his opponent as not worthy of sharing a debate stage with him. But by the time Election Day rolled around, there were some clear signs of concern from Chavez. During the final days of the campaign, Chavez admitted some mistakes and began pledging to increase government efficiency across the country.

While Chavez won fairly comfortably with 55 percent of the vote to Capriles’ 44 percent, the opposition’s share of the vote grew substantially from six years ago. The total opposition vote grew by nearly 34 percent, earning 2.1 million more votes than it did in 2006. In large part, the increase was a result of a commitment to an actual grassroots campaign on the part of Capriles, even in the face of entrenched opposition.

In just 67 days, Venezuela will go to the polls again. A total of 23 governors and state legislative representatives will be elected in a race that is sure to challenge MUD´s unity after the 14th defeat of opposition during Chávez’s tenure.

There will be plenty still at stake early next year. If MUD can hold together and continue to motivate and mobilize its supporters, there’s a chance to balance power between the president and governors, which would keep the opposition growing. If they fail and disappointed voters don’t show up, Chavez will have yet another opportunity to consolidate his hold on power.

Published on Campaigns and Elections Magazine on Oct. 10: http://www.campaignsandelections.com/campaign-insider/330372/a-grassroots-campaign-in-venezuela.thtml

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