There is no point in dwelling in teary eyed symbolism such as Rosales recognizing his electoral defeat. He did what he had to do. What is more interesting to observe is whether Chavez would recognize that there is an opposition. Let’s look meanwhile at the voting results and the reality ahead.
The new opposition panorama
In April of 2006 nobody gave much for the opposition. The scenario was Chavez winning almost unopposed. The 70% or more figure floated freely in the air. Even many in the opposition thought that he would get close to his 10 million silly slogan. Only a few clear headed people were able to do enough math to see that with or without opposition Chavez could not get the 10 million and that it was foolish for his side to persist on this chimera. But at least at the time it served chavismo purpose well, to demoralize the opposition, to make sure it would not rally around a single candidate, to allow Chavez to travel the world, showing that he did not even need anymore to lower himself to a menial electoral campaign. The polls were cruel: all opposition combined was receiving at best a dozen points or more. Last Sunday, in barely 4 months, it rose to 37 points, more or less recovering the share it has always had since 1998 and that Chavez was so hoping to halve as the final proof of his success.
Well, Chavez initial plans did not tuned out as expected and eventually Chavez had to land in Venezuela and run a boring campaign that surprisingly still brought him 7 million votes. Amusingly the 4 million of the opposition did indeed sort of look better than the 7 of Chavez as many eyes focused on the missing 3 million. “El pez muere por la boca” as we say in Venezuela (meaning that Chavez usually gets in trouble because of hsi big mouth).
However a possibly better gain was in for the opposition: there was a general clean up within its ranks. Of the multiparty coalition that supported Rosales we found out that it was never a multiparty coalition, that it was a two group game from the start: Primero Justicia and Un Nuevo Tiempo. All the other failed to even reach 1% of the vote, except Copei. And the best of it all is that the new “power houses” of the opposition do not even compete in the same states, and will thus be able to maintain their electoral pact. Perhaps it might even help in getting a reasonable political alliance for the long term. Thus Chavez wakes up on Monday morning with an irredentism of 4 million strong, able at any time to organize a much larger rally than he could ever do with the supposed 7 million he bought or browbeat into submission. Sometimes the greatest electoral victories come pregnant with their future downfall.
The reality in front
That reasonable success does not mean at all that the opposition has it easy in the future: it has a lot of work to do, in particular within an opprobrious state that will use every trick it can come up with to block any progress. For example, the two main leaders of PJ are or will be barred from seeking office in the future. That could even happen to Rosales. This goes well with the primitive mentality of chavismo who has only one leader whose untimely death in the bathtub would bring a speedy collapse of chavismo. They think that just cutting the visible head of any opposition group is enough to kill it. If Lopez and Capriles are barred, then PJ will still have Borges, Ocariz, and Hernandez to field, and quickly groom a half dozen more. If Rosales goes down, the Zulia machinery he has built would come quickly with a viable Maracucho. See, opposition politics are based on groups and leaders, chavista politics are now based on how better to please El Supremo.
But there are other ways to block the rise of the opposition.
Political financing will not happen while chavismo at all levels will keep digging into the state purse for its petty electoral cash.
The judicial system will remain geared against the opposition aspirations and thus diverse red shirted storm troopers will be allowed to smash local gatherings in a way they could not against larger national rallies lead by Rosales. These new "rot Sturm Abteilung" will remain unpunished, of course.
The deterioration of the army will advance. Today after 8 years there are still enough reasonable officers left from the past who are able to behave properly at election time. But last Sunday we already saw too many hot headed pro Chavez soldiers only too happy to promote their side. In the coming years the new graduates of the military academies, much more brain washed by chavismo, will reach higher ranks from where they will be only too willing to smash opposition goals and help blithely electoral fraud as needed.
The task ahead
Thus the opposition has in front of it a daunting task: how to face a proto-totalitarian system; how to maintain some form of electoral unity without which any success is clearly demonstrated as impossible; how to expand its offer to the country so as to rally more people, convince them that they need to wean themselves from the governmental Misiones teat. In brief, how to elaborate a long term strategy, while hoping from some event to happen that could speed up our return to democracy.
We must be clear on one thing, Venezuela has ceased to be a democratic country, it is now a plebiscitary regime, were on occasion people are asked to ratify the regime in a way that it is difficult for the regime to lose. But if this seems to indicate a great strength it also conceals quite well the clay footing of the regime. If you doubt it look at historical examples. You can start locally with the Perez Jimenez plebiscite of 1957 which was promptly followed by the 23 de Enero, barely one month later. Or you could look at the Pinochet plebiscite. Or even further back in time at regimes such as Napoleon III in XIX century France. In these regimes the opposition was near helpless, but was ready and united. When a crack happened it was able to engage the regime and successfully force it out with a stupendous ease.
Perez Jimenez was worn out and the plebiscite convinced no one, even if he probably won it. The military realized that the goodies were going to be only for an ever more restricted group and decided that they wanted more. Within a few weeks it was all over.
Pinochet thought the Chileans wanted him forever. When he realized that it was not so, one general opened his big mouth on purpose to the cameras to announce the negative result of the vote and Pinochet could not perpetrate his fraud any more.
In both cases the army had become aware that the opposition was just there, that it would never go away, that it would keep growing. They also realized that they had no stomach to shoot them down all. Not to mention that the opposition had become more respectable, cured of the extremes of 1947 in Venezuela and of the extremes of Chilean left of the 70ies.
In France it was a little different. Napoleon III made the necessary concessions right on time to a very prosperous country. Liberals accepted a deal where the end of Napoleon rule would be spread over time until the Empire would become a constitutional monarchy like in Britain (these were different times, remember!). But the May 1870 plebiscite large victory was followed by the stupid war against Prussia and the Empire collapsed in a very few days early September 1870. The prosperity of the Empire, buying votes successfully, could not help it in front of a small but determined democratic opposition: Monarchists and Republicans united as if nothing to send Bonaparte’s relatives away for good.
Thus the way for the opposition: patience, strategy, internal dialogue and unity. Worry not, the ego, the incompetence, the megalomania of Hugo Chavez will bring the opportunity to get rid of him sooner or later. The boat was missed in 2002, but in politics sometimes opportunity rings twice. Those who gave Chavez his “Sunday mandate” last week end can easily desert him spectacularly in a few days. Ask Pinochet, Fujimori, Napoleon III, Perez Jimenez, or even up to a point the PRI, Getulio Vargas or Peron. Mass movements have a curious tendency to change massively.
Unless Chavez follows the Castro way, and then we will not need to worry about elections anymore.