Capriles' kamikaze candidacy

Hugo Chávez's followers like to say the late president, by trying to beat terminal cancer and remain in power, was "laying down his life for his people." But he's not the only martyr around. One could be forgiven for thinking that Henrique Capriles also has a death wish after launching his presidential campaign under seemingly impossible circumstances.

It's been finally announced that the election to replace Chávez will take place on April 14. Before his death, Chávez appointed Vice-President Nicolás Maduro as his heir, and Maduro now reigns as the government's uncontested leader. Last Sunday, Capriles decided to take Maduro on, but not before seriously considering withdrawing altogether.

The reasons for not participating are many. After last October's defeat in the presidential poll, shortly followed by a similar thumping in the gubernatorial elections, the opposition is in no mood to "compete." All of the state's resources -- cash for volunteers, handouts in the form of electrical appliances, and an overwhelming amount of free media -- are used against the opposition. The result is typically the same: A valiant effort on the part of the opposition is met with a myriad of abuses, which in turn leads to a mauling. The opposition is not interested in yet another defeat, especially after thousands of grieving Venezuelans flocked to see the president's earthly remains.

But this alone would not justify withdrawing. The reason the opposition's chances are practically non-existent lies with other factors. Compared to the approaching one, last October's election was downright Jeffersonian in its democratic character.

Last Wednesday, as Hugo Chávez's coffin -- sans body, according to Spain's ABC newspaper -- was paraded through the streets of Caracas, the defense minister, an active navy man, told the media that the best way to honor Chávez was "for the armed forces to ensure Maduro is elected." He warned the opposition that the military would be used against what he called "fascists," and that they would "strike their mothers," a colloquial Venezuelan expression that roughly translates into striking a deadly or fatal blow.

This came after the head of Venezuela's Electoral Body, Tibisay Lucena, appeared at a memorial for Chávez wearing an armband that identified her membership in the chavista movement. Lucena, who has long been accused of being partial to the government, has told the opposition they only have ten days to campaign, and will be permitted four minutes of airtime a day total. That is less than a single hour of television time for the entire campaign. The government, however, will be allowed to air unlimited "informative" broadcasts, which are typically electoral in nature.

The most severe blow, however, came as 33 heads of state were attending Chávez's funeral. With the president of Venezuela's Supreme Tribunal of Justice sitting in the crowd, the court announced that Maduro could be sworn in as "president in charge" -- a term that does not exist in the constitution -- and that he will not have to resign in order to contest in the election, contrary to prior court rulings and what is mandated by law. This appalled many in the opposition, who rightly viewed it as a carte blanche for Maduro to use all the powers of the state, including the limitless funds of the state oil company, PDVSA, to ensure his victory. Coincidentally, shortly after Chávez's death, Maduro named Rafael Ramírez, PDVSA's CEO, to head his own campaign's get-out-the-vote effort.

An intense debate sprang up in the opposition. Many -- myself included -- viewed the election as a lost cause, pointing out that the powers of the state have never been so clearly aligned in favor of the government's candidate. Capriles did not immediately accept the opposition's offer to be its candidate, and seriously considered not running.

In spite of the obstacles, Capriles ultimately decided to run. In a moving speech, perhaps the best of his career, he vowed to fight, doing it for "the mother whose son was killed by gunfire, the worker without a job, the young student whose prospects are dim." He acknowledged that some people thought he was "headed to the slaughterhouse," but he said he would use the candidacy as a platform to warn Venezuelans of the dangers of Chávez's successors. His coalition was impressed, and the unity of the opposition -- which appeared to be cracking -- immediately solidified.

According to the conventional wisdom, Maduro has a lock on this election, despite his poor speaking skills and his ill-preparedness for the job. But in valiantly taking on a seemingly insurmountable challenge, Capriles appears to have ensured he will remain the leader of the opposition -- even if it's something of a death wish.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and the co-author of "Blogging the Revolution." Read the rest of his posts here.    

Photo by LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images


Democracy Lab Weekly Brief, March 11, 2013

In the latest of our in-depth Lab Reports, Javier Corrales analyzes the political economy behind Venezuela under the rule of Hugo Chávez.

Juan Nagel takes a look at how Chávez transformed the minds of Venezuelans. Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez offers a personal perspective on the death of Chávez -- and a report on the government's plans to keep the leader's remains on view in a crystal tomb.

Tom de Waal reflects on the unexpected revival of civic political engagement in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.

In his column, DemLab editor Christian Caryl explains how a government watchdog's report confirms the futility of democracy-building efforts in Iraq.

Jeffrey Bartholet interviews Tom Catena, an American missionary serving as the only Western doctor in Sudan's embattled Nuba Mountains.

Seema Shah explains why Kenya's efforts to improve the legitimacy of poll results may have actually undermined it.

Mohamed Eljarh reports on the return of Ansar al-Sharia to Benghazi.  

Min Zin applauds the Burmese government's recent talks with rebel groups.

And Mohamed El Dahshan shows how the Harlem Shake craze has born some peculiar fruit in the post-revolutionary Middle East. 

And now for this week's recommended reads: 

The Guardian investigates a site in the Syrian city of Aleppo where the bodies of 114 victims of execution-style killings have been found since January. Also reporting from Aleppo, Der Spiegel's Kurt Pelda offers a riveting reportage on life in the war-torn city. The Institute for the Study of War releases a new report on how the war in Syria has shifted from a limited insurgency to all-out civil war.

Democracy Digest offers a fresh take on the state of the transition in Yemen, where some observers see good signs.

The New Yorker shares the stories of Pakistani Shiites who face greater arbitrary violence and murder.

Business Standard reports that two people have already died from stampedes during Shivratri, a major Hindu festival shortly following Kumbh Mela where over 30 people died. The photo above shows a devotee of the god Shiva celebrating the holiday.   

Writing for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, activist Aung Din offers two reports on decision-makers in Burma. In the first, he explains why politicians are courting Aung San Suu Kyi to boost their images. In the second, he looks at the leaders of the armed opposition and the prospects for peace in the country's long-running civil war.

Challenging conventional wisdom, Juan Cole analyzes a backlash against what he sees as the "Muslim religious right" in various parts of the Islamic world.

And, just to keep things interesting, here's a sympathetic take on Hugo Chávez and his legacy.

Photo by SHAMMI MEHRA/AFP/Getty Images