A couple of hours after the results were announced, here are my initial reactions. Winning by 9.5% represents a real decline from the three previous presidential elections which Chávez has won by 15 to 20%. However it is still a decisive victory that Chávez accepted with grace. While previous victories have led to vitriolic triumphalism, tonight Chávez was more circumspect in his celebration.
Capriles recognized the electoral defeat quickly and gave no encouragement to the “plan B” of saying the electoral playing field was unfair. Indeed he actively discouraged the “creative radicalism” of some elements of the opposition. This would seem to reinforce the predominance of the new generation of opposition politicians represented by Capriles and campaign manager Armando Briquet. However, the fact that Capriles did not make any reference to the December regional elections suggests to me that not all is settled in the opposition camp. If Capriles had lost by 5% or less, his dominance in the opposition coalition would have been ensured. But losing by almost 10% means there could well be a struggle for leadership.
It will be interesting to see what this electoral result will mean in the international community. While some in Washington recently revealed “Chavez’s plan to steal the election,” and announced that “the fix is in,” Capriles accepted the electoral loss without qualification.
Of course it would have been difficult for him to do otherwise. During this electoral process, the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) allowed for more audits of the electronic platform than ever before. The opposition participated in, and approved all of them. Arguing that the government dominated the media also became difficult when both the CNE and the UCAB, in separate studies, found that Capriles had received more media coverage than Chávez. And focusing on voter intimidation certainly became more difficult when turnout exceeded 80%.
Former Ambassador Patrick Duddy’s recent contingency memo had one important suggestion that has not received enough attention. In the opening section he argues: “If Chavez is reelected in a process judged acceptably free and fair, the United States should seek to reset the bilateral relationship with an eye toward the eventual renewal of high-level communication on areas of mutual interest.” Tonight’s results and the candidates’ acceptance of them suggest that it’s time for Washington to think through Duddy’s suggestion.