|Chavez in Caracas after his poll victory. (AFP)
Washington, Oct. 8: Hugo Chavez, Latin America’s inheritor of Fidel Castro’s legacy, was re-elected Venezuela’s President last night with a comfortable 54.4 per cent of votes, guaranteeing that his Bolivarian Socialist revolution will extend to at least 20 years with a new six-year mandate.
As remarkable as a third term win for Chavez was a speech on election night by the united Opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, in which he gracefully conceded defeat.
That concession set at rest fears that the Opposition may not accept defeat and instead take to the streets as in Mexico earlier, for instance, or start a colour revolution challenging the poll outcome as in some emerging democracies with support from Washington.
Although stray incidents of violence were reported at the time of writing, the entire election process and the declaration of results has been largely peaceful and an impressive 80 per cent of Venezuelans voted yesterday.
Long lines of voters forced polling stations throughout the country to remain open well past the official closing time. Venezuela’s independent election commission, the National Electoral Council, known by its Spanish acronym CNE, has won praise worldwide for its work, including an increase in the number of polling stations from a mere 7,000 when Chavez first took office to 38,236 in yesterday’s election.
A sustained campaign to enroll voters, especially in remote areas, has ensured that as many as 96.5 per cent of eligible adults in Venezuela are now registered to vote.
The George W. Bush administration, which covertly supported a coup d’etat in 2002, when Chavez was briefly arrested and flown to a military base on a Caribbean island, portrayed him as a dictator throughout its tenure. However, relations have been better, though not normal, since Barack Obama became US President.
Yesterday’s conduct of elections ought to go some distance in radically changing that perception. The US state department today congratulated the Venezuelan people for turning out in large numbers to exercise their franchise and for the mostly peaceful voting.
“We believe that the views of the more than six million people who voted for the Opposition should be taken into account going forward,” a state department spokesman broke the Columbus Day government holiday in Washington to tell reporters.
The story of how popular protests forced the plotters of the 2002 coup to release Chavez and his triumphant return to the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas was reminiscent of the putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in the Soviet Union when Boris Yeltsin led the people enabling the Soviet President to return to the Kremlin and launch Russia on a path to democracy.
In one of his final campaign speeches, Chavez said two Sundays ago that he would vote for Obama if he had been a US citizen. “I think that if Obama was from Barlovento or some Caracas neighbourhood, he would vote for Chavez.” He also gave credit to the incumbent at the White House for ending the fear mongering about his rule by making it plain that “Venezuela is no threat to the interests of the US”.
In his concession speech, the candidate who lost to Chavez last night said that just as Opposition supporters should “know how to win, you need to know how to lose” as well. “We began the construction of a path and on it there are more than six million people who are looking for a better future… I am convinced that this country can be better and I am convinced that Venezuela is going to be better”.
It was a remarkable turnaround for a hemisphere where military dictatorships were the norm and human rights abuses by cruel juntas were at their worst not long ago.
Chavez supporters spilled into the streets of Caracas for spontaneous parties after the re-elected President spoke from the “people’s balcony” of his presidential palace. “Venezuela will never return to neo-liberalism and will continue in the transition to socialism of the 21st century,” he declared.
Chavez held out an olive branch to the Opposition by praising it for accepting the outcome: “They have recognised the truth, they have recognised the victory of the people.” In what may appear to hard core advocates of unbridled economic liberalisation in India as jarring or out of tune with the new millennium, the election campaign in Venezuela forged a national consensus on socialism of one form or another.
That will have a spin-off in the rest of Latin America which has moved to the Left with several countries electing leaders like Chavez. Home to one-fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves, Venezuela has bankrolled some of those governments, including Cuba.
Although Radonski is the scion of a wealthy family and was once member of “Tradition, Family and Property”, a Catholic group with fascist leanings that supported military juntas in Latin America, he campaigned as a social moderate promising to take Venezuela along Brazil’s path of soft socialism under its previous President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff.
In a fascinating scenario of democracy in action, Radonski’s shift to the Left of Centre actually forced Chavez to move away from extreme Leftist positions and court voters from the centre and campaign on a plank of stability.
At a news conference last month, Chavez surprised everyone by arguing that “even the rich families should vote for Chavez. The middle layers, the professionals should vote for Chavez, because we guarantee peace”.