It is what they call a zero-sum game: what you win, the other loses. Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela, and Henrique Capriles, head of the opposition, have their respective futures at stake in the municipal elections this Sunday.
Public opinion-wise, what do they have going for them? Capriles, apart from devout appeals to democracy, hammers away at the disastrous record of Chavism after Chávez. Inflation, 50 percent this year, and more than 60 percent in food; $4.6 billion in food imports; the bolívar quoted on the black market abysmally below its nominal value; flight of capital to a value of some $150 billion in the last nine years; the index of corruption, as compiled by international organizations, in which Venezuela stands at 165 among 174 countries; some 60 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants per year, thus ranking third in Latin America, a league which continent-wide is the toughest in the world.
In Maduro's repertory are a recent set of emergency measures, and frequent invocations of the one on high (Hugo Chávez). Under an emergency-powers law in effect for the term of a year, he is moving to socialize the Venezuelan economy as Chávez himself had never ventured to do. On November 10, the president first proceeded to the seizure of appliance warehouses, selling off stocks at sharply reduced prices; a more general law on prices and profits points toward a command economy, at least in the services sector; and a new security force which the opposition calls a political police. But neo-Chavism also exploits every resource at its disposal for a rousing campaign — in recent weeks the popularization of the Blue Book, halfway between Catholic devotional literature and the Red Book of Mao, written by Chávez when he was in jail (1992-94) for an attempted coup. One sample: "The new Venezuela, so far defeated, has a date with its destiny of victory, by the hand of the people." Back then, however, Chávez did not use the word Socialism, never mentioned in this personal Vulgate. To his "competitive authoritarianism," as the political scientist Steven Levitsky terms it, Maduro now adds a miracle-working necrocracy, built on an exacerbated cult of the dead leader, who was "not buried, but sown" in the soil of Venezuela — words no doubt sincerely felt, but also patently electoralist.
Sunday's results are to be interpreted by three yardsticks. The number of mayoralties that both forces obtain, the way the vote goes in the big cities, and total votes. These last figures will have to be compared with those of the presidential election in April, when Maduro won by 50.66 percent against 49.07 percent, which was already a sharp drop for the Chavists with respect to the last Chávez victory in October 2012, also against Capriles, by 55 percent against 44 percent.
In Latin America three great political blocs coexist, into which most of the continent's countries fit, as if in a smudged reproduction of the old-time Europe of the balance of power, born of the Peace of Westphalia in the 17th century. These Latin American forces are: a traditional right, oligarchic or modernized; a social-democratic left; and a new radical and authoritarian version of the left, which we cannot yet say whether it is fully socialist. The Venezuelan municipal elections will confirm the strength of Chavist radicalism, or scrawl a large question mark over its continuance.
Last week in the presidential elections in Honduras the old-time right seemed to have won, though there may be a recount in favor of a left of still undefined type. And on the 15th of this month Chile will predictably confirm the victory, also presidential, of the social democrat Michelle Bachelet. This is just now the arithmetic of power in Latin America. A game in which the sum is rarely zero.