After Hugo Chávez convincingly won re-election on Sunday, the margin of victory—over 1.5 million votes, totaling over 10 percentage points—has stunned members of Venezuela’s opposition, leaving them searching for answers.
Some pointed to the Consejo Nacional Electoral (National Electoral Council—CNE), which is controlled by chavistas and turned a blind eye to government abuses. Others pointed to the intimidation of public workers and beneficiaries of social programs. Yet another group simply interpreted the loss as a sign that the majority of Venezuelans who support Chávez simply have a different set of values.
They are all mistaken. The story of Chávez’ victory is simpler: it is a love affair between a people and their leader—one who, in their eyes, makes their lives better thanks to his generous use of the nation’s petro-dollars.
It was always going to be nearly impossible to beat a president with the deepest pockets in the world, one who is revered by a majority of his countrymen with the fervor of a religious leader. Most in the opposition were riding on high hopes about the possibility that this could be overcome with a near-perfect campaign from Henrique Capriles Radonski.
The opposition was wrong.
In the last few years, social spending under Chávez has increased dramatically. Stories abound of people in lower- and middle-income neighborhoods seeing their lives improve thanks to these policies—from electrical appliances at deeply-discounted prices to computers for poor children to free apartments.
However, that alone does not explain the result.
People also feel empowered because they feel they have access to greater education, even if there is no proof that chavista social programs actually improve productivity. The labor market certainly does not reward graduates of chavista educational “missions,” and many of them have no choice but to find employment in the government.
Further, there is a deep misunderstanding between the two camps in regard to the political preferences of public employees. Many in the opposition believe that public employees are all forced to attend Chávez’ rallies against their will. However, reports from people covering Chávez’ rallies spoke of a festive atmosphere; many feel genuine affection for their boss.
In sum, Chávez’ victory boils down to a love affair with a generous petro-crat. All the other factors may have played a role, but they don’t explain the outcome.