Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez has decisively won election to a fourth term following a tough campaign by the challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski. A record 80.4 per cent of the country’s 19 million registered voters turned out, re-electing Mr. Chávez by 54.4 per cent to 44.9 for Mr. Capriles, with about 90 per cent of the votes counted. The public themselves proved portents of violence wrong, and the substantial numbers of armed national guard personnel on the streets had little to do. The procedure itself was strict: voters, who were identified by a digital thumbprint reader, made their choice on centrally-connected touch-screens and printed out their vote to check it before it went into a ballot-box. This election is the closest any rival has come to the President, who won by 16 per cent in 1998 and 26 in 2006. Pre-election indications were that Mr. Capriles was pressing President Chávez hard, though the incumbent’s core supporters among the poorer classes clearly valued the difference he has made to them with state aid after natural disasters, subsidised food, free medical care, and adult education. Moreover, Mr. Capriles got votes from people who thought the country needed a change but who also believed his promises to retain many Chávez policies.
The strong showing by Mr. Capriles is good for Venezuelan democracy, and indeed for the success of Mr. Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ — which might otherwise meander or lose direction without the constant accountability that only a robust opposition can ensure. Venezuela faces major domestic challenges, including corruption and a high murder rate. Poorly maintained infrastructure has reduced oil production, the country’s principal source of income. In the six additional years he now has before him, Mr. Chávez must not ignore these problems, even as he pushes ahead with his promise to decentralise power to local councils and take on the might of powerful private players in sectors like retail and transport through the promotion of public companies. His plans for the oil sector involve closer collaboration between the state-owned corporation PDVSA and international players like Rosneft and Lukoil from Russia. Chevron is also a player here, but that will not end open U.S. vilification of Mr. Chávez, not least for putting his country’s oil wealth to enlightened geopolitical use in Latin America and beyond. The newly reelected President’s health following treatment for cancer remains in question, but delivering even some further improvements to the lives of ordinary Venezuelans will be a triumph both for him and for the model of ‘21st century socialism’ he espouses.