Lawrence Powell world watch
Fifteen years ago, elections in Venezuela were not very democratic affairs, confined to nasty battles between two factions within the country's elite, and largely excluding any representation of the interests of the majority poor, except to temporarily garner their votes. Sound vaguely familiar?
After Chávez, all of that changed. Winning is now a genuine battle for the hearts and minds of the masses of 'chávistas' - without whom one cannot prevail, and whose interests are now front and centre.
Between 1998 and 2012, Chávez dramatically widened the scope of popular participation in Venezuelan affairs - both during, and also between, elections. By living up to his promises to the majority poor, he easily won four consecutive elections for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) by very substantial margins, within a modernised voting process that former US President Jimmy Carter has hailed as "the best in the world".
In the wake of his March 5 cancer death, a new constitutionally mandated election has now been declared for April 14. Chávez's temporary PSUV successor, president Nicolas Maduro, 50, will face off against 40-year-old opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.
Maduro represents a continuation of the Chávez legacy of catering to the majority poor and devoting the country's oil revenues to development of social programmes to further improve their status. Capriles represents the interests of disaffected middle- and upper-class Venezuelans, whose more-privileged existence was unapologetically pushed aside during Chávez's populist 18-year rule.
Chávez, in a televised address last December prior to departing for his final trip to Cuba for a fourth cancer surgery, anointed Maduro as his preferred replacement if he should become incapacitated. Holding up a copy of the Venezuelan constitution to the cameras, Chávez implored, "My firm opinion, as clear as the full moon - irrevocable, absolute, total ... is that you elect Nicolas Maduro as president ... . I ask this of you from my heart. He is one of the young leaders with the greatest ability to continue, if I cannot."
Can Maduro, a former Caracas bus driver who rose to become the nation's minister of foreign affairs, and vice-president, prevail in the election and continue Chávez's reforms - minus the Chávez magic? So far, polls show Maduro with a 14-point lead over Capriles. But that margin could tighten by mid-April if the national mood of mourning subsides and the Chávez magic begins to fade.
The problem his prospective successors face is how to tailor their election appeals to the 'Chávez cult', in a post-Chávez era. As visitors to Caracas know very well, while Chávez was being demonised as an 'evil dictator' in American and European press reports to the outside world, inside Venezuela it was a very different story.
He was regarded by millions as a modern political messiah, a saviour of Venezuela from harsh colonial domination - who, in turn, harkened back to an earlier cultural saviour from imperial rule, Simón Bolívar.
To be sure, there were signs all along that Chávez was becoming a uniquely popular Venezuelan leader. But now, following his death, with Western reporters and television networks witnessing the massive funeral procession and body-viewing crowds, there are unmistakable indications that the passion among his followers has taken on cult-like proportions as a national movement - including deification, his embalmment as a sort of modern-day Venezuelan pharaoh, and fetishism with little quasi-religious Chávez dolls, posters, T-shirts, trinkets and other paraphernalia everywhere.
As tens of thousands lined the streets the day of his funeral procession, CNN reported one despondent woman sobbing, "Take my life, Lord, but don't take that of the president. Without him, we are left with nothing. He's the only president who has helped us."
Another explained his almost messianic attraction in more mundane terms: "I'm the beneficiary of education, I'm the beneficiary of an honourable, beautiful house. I'm the beneficiary of an honourable job. President, wherever you are, we are going to miss you forever."
Maduro has announced that Chávez is to be embalmed and kept in a glass casket, to be viewed "for eternity". Murals on the Caracas city walls show only Chávez's eyes, implying he is still watching over his constituents like a deity. And the newspapers feature pages with his image spread mystically across a sea of faces of Venezuelan men, women, and children of all ages.
The dilemma in this April election, then, for both Maduro and Capriles, is how to channel the power of that cult, that national movement, in the wake of Chávez's death.
Maduro's problem is how to establish himself as the legitimate heir to that legacy without disappointing the masses of loyal chávistas - since he does not, and could not possibly, have the intense personal charisma Chávez possessed.
And though somewhat more dynamic and photogenic than Maduro, Capriles' dilemma is that he is associated in the public mind as a fierce opponent of Chávez, from previous elections. The mainstream international media seem to imply that's a good thing, but inside Venezuela it's a serious handicap. Capriles is also known to have aided the unpopular failed coup attempt against Chávez back in 2002.
With people still grieving for Chávez, how does Capriles distance himself from that, and credibly take on the role of continuing Chávez's popular legacy - which he argues ought to be pursued in a more balanced, neoliberal, business-friendly way, akin to the centre-left path pursued by Lula in Brazil?
Capriles can count on middle- and upper-class support, but how can he capture the additional portion of the chávista vote he needs to win? How does he avoid the impression of dancing on Chávez's coffin so soon after his death? The election's timing puts him, and the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), at a disadvantage.
'CHáVEZ' AS SYMBOL
In trying to understand the intense emotional reactions to Chávez's demise, it's helpful to keep in mind what political psychologist Murray Edelman pointed out in Constructing the Political Spectacle. What we call a 'leader', especially a charismatic one, is always much more than just the actual flesh-and-blood person. Beyond that, he or she is a powerful 'social construction', a national symbol of something, who signifies some good or evil quality to millions of followers (or detractors) in a way similar to what sometimes happens with movie stars and religious figures. Millions of people project their deepest hopes and fears, their loves and hates, on to that person.
The collective dream that the leader symbolises for people may live on as a shared legacy within the society long after he or she is gone physically. This is what anthropologists refer to as 'shared meaning', which, independent of the flesh-and-blood leader, takes on a much wider cultural life of its own, for everybody.
So it's hardly surprising that the most frequently encountered slogans one sees on signs in Caracas these days, and hears in chants at PSUV rallies, are, "Yo soy Chávez" ("I am Chávez") and "Chávez somos todos" ("we're all Chávez").
Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and a former senior lecturer at UWI, Mona. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.