It did not. Venezuela’s president has vanquished his challenger and enraptured supporters to win a fourth term, extending his 14-year rule, health permitting, until 2019.
Most opinion polls had given the 58-year-old a wide lead but a few showed him trailing, suggesting his cancer and the country’s economic and social problems might end voters’ faith in his revolution.
Instead his electoral “red machine”, a formidable combination of petro-state power and grassroots activism, mobilised the chavista base and floating voters to renew the mandate for “21st-century socialism”and the “Bolivarian process”.
His illness, along with Venezuela’s high crime rate and crumbling infrastructure, risked swinging history’s pendulum against him. But the victory showed enduring charisma and political mastery. A question mark, however, hovers over how long he will live to rule. Chavez claims to be cured but some palace insiders say the cancer is terminal.
As results were announced some opponents cried foul, saying the president had abused state resources and illegally tilted the playing field against Henrique Capriles, 40, a state governor who had barnstormed the country, whipping up ecstatic support.
It was a familiar lament but Chavez, a shrewd strategist behind the clownish stunts, has for 14 years made a consistent, triumphant assertion: “Somos la mayoria.”We are the majority.
It is the pillar of legitimacy that props up his socialist experiment and protects it from critics at home and abroad who claim Venezuela is veering towards autocracy and tyranny.
After each election landslide, Chavez has emerged on to the “people’s balcony”in Miraflores, the presidential palace in downtown Caracas, to savour acclaim from the crowds below.
It has been an extraordinary journey dating back to 1982. Chavez, a poor boy from the plains who adored folk tales and stories of Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century liberator, was a young army officer with a dream: revolt.
Petrodollars and peaceful alternations of power between two parties had made this corner of South America a supposedly prosperous democracy but beneath the sheen festered oil dependence, corruption, poverty and social exclusion.
The then Lieutenant Hugo Chavez recruited fellow officers into a conspiracy to overthrow the establishment and usher in a new, better democracy. After a decade of plotting, in February 1992, they attempted a coup. It was a military fiasco, letting the unpopular president, Carlos Andres Perez, survive, but Chavez, by now a lieutenant colonel, turned his televised surrender address into a political triumph. Eloquent and dashing in his red beret, he introduced himself to a startled nation - “listen to Comandante Chavez”- and said his objectives had not been met “por ahora”(for now). He deserved 30 years in jail, went the joke: one for the coup, 29 for failing.
Pardoned and released after two years, he was adopted as a figurehead by a coalition of grassroots movements and small leftwing parties and stormed to victory in the 1998 election, cheered not only by the poor but a middle class fed up with an ossified establishment. With a barrel of oil just $8, the petro-state was near broke.
Few outside Venezuela, until then best known for beauty queens and oil, knew what to make of this mercurial figure who praised Fidel Castro and promised revolution but said he was neither left nor right but seeker of a Blairesque “third way”.
It was often forgotten later but Chavez’s early economic policies were moderate, in some ways even conservative. He retained the previous government’s finance minister, toyed with privatising telecommunications and spoke of fiscal rectitude.
Politically, however, he steamed ahead with a referendum and elections for a new constitution and system of government. It was in many ways progressive and addressed social exclusion but also greatly enhanced executive powers and permitted two consecutive terms.
Chavez’s vehement rhetoric against the wealthy as “squealing pigs”and “vampires”who looted the oil wealth endeared him to the barrios but alienated the middle class and traditional elites. The country divided into a third who adored Chavez, a third who despised him and a third who floated in the middle.
Opponents called him a monkey and worse. In April 2002 the elites briefly ousted him in a Bush-administration-backed coup, tried again with an oil strike, then a recall referendum, dramas which stained the opposition and burnished Chavez’s legend.
Even so he would have lost the 2004 referendum, he admitted, were it not for the recovery in oil prices and help from Castro who sent thousands of Cuban doctors, nurses and teachers to staff social programmes in the slums known as misiones (missions). They multiplied and consummated Chavez’s bond with the poor. Poverty decreased, health indicators improved and thousands got jobs in the expanding state sector. The moribund opposition boycotted the 2005 national assembly election.
Emboldened, the president became more radical, declared himself a socialist and started nationalising “strategic industries”and expropriating millions of hectares of “unproductive”land. He stormed to a second term in 2006 with 63% of the vote. He declined to take part in a debate with his challenger, a gruff, opposition governor named Manuel Rosales, on the grounds that “an eagle does not hunt flies”.
It was his apogee: the economy roaring, the people on-side, globally feted for condemning the US invasion of Iraq. He called George W Bush a donkey, Mr Danger, an asshole and, during a memorable UN speech, the devil. Supporters such as the former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, the actors Sean Penn and Danny Glover and the polymath Noam Chomsky paid homage in Caracas. The president dominated airwaves, commandeering radio and television for folksy, freewheeling speeches which lasted hours.
But problems began to mount. Pulling the plug on RCTV, an opposition TV station which had backed the 2002 coup, triggered student protests which climaxed with Chavez losing a 2007 referendum to abolish political term limits.
The web of currency and price controls and harassment of the private sector produced inflation and sporadic shortages. Violent crime spiralled. The opposition revived and made inroads in 2008 regional elections, wresting back Caracas and even slums such as Petare, previously chavista bastions.
Chavez tightened control over his own movement, as well as the armed forces and judiciary, and won a second attempt to abolish term limits in a 2009 referendum. Some opponents were jailed, purportedly for corruption, and others fled to exile. Chavez spoke of ruling until 2030, an ambition echoed by a growing state media empire which promoted a personality cult.
Rolling power cuts and crumbling infrastructure cost his PSUV party the popular vote in 2010 national assembly elections - “we are the majority”, crowed the opposition - but gerrymandering gave it most seats.
Few doubted Chavez would win a third term - a third of the population still revered him and petrodollars and institutional control would woo the ninis - until last year when he was struck down by cancer, a disaster for a system of government and political campaigning built around his personal energy and charisma.
While Capriles campaigned vigorously, Chavez remained largely confined to the palace and a few, relatively fleeting public appearances. But petrodollars funded an emergency house-building programme and a reboot of decaying missions, a fiscal splurge which boosted economic growth to 5%. Chavez also warned of civil war if he lost, casting himself as the unlikely friend of the wealthy because he represented stability.
Even with the chief partially incapacitated, and some rallies cancelled or poorly attended, the formidable electoral “red machine”cranked into high gear. Billboards, posters and murals sprouted across the country. Chavez dominated television, if not always in person then through surrogates. His voice filled the radio dial. Civil servants were bussed to events in huge convoys, a mobile army. Workers from the misiones roved the barrios handing out campaign leaflets and signing up people to expanded social programmes. A frenetic house-building programme gave thousands of families new homes and put hundreds of thousands more on a waiting list, saying they would be housed after the election if Chavez won.
Patronage may have helped turn out the vote, but Chavez could also count on a powerful affinity with Venezuela’s poor, said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue thinktank.
“Despite his illness, I still think he retains a large emotional connection with a lot of Venezuelans that I think were not prepared to vote against him,”he told the Associated Press.
State media depicted Capriles as an agent of the oligarchy and US imperialism who would introduce savage neoliberal austerity. Chavista activists disrupted his events - blocking motorways, throwing bottles and, in one case, shooting dead three people. The consulate in Miami was closed, disenfranchising much of the pro-Capriles diaspora.
Even cancer, in some ways, helped Chavez’s campaign. After disappearing from view for treatment, stoking mystery and alarm, he would reappear, Lazarus-like, and proclaim triumphant resurrection. Speculation about his health and squabbling between rival courtiers - there is no obvious successor to keep the movement’s factions together should he die - could roil his fourth term. All that matters for now is that the campaign successfully brushed over the issue.
Opponents complained about dirty tricks and abuse of state resources but to supporters the comandante’s victory proved yet again the veracity of his venerable campaign slogan: “Chavez es el pueblo”. Chavez is the people.
Rory Carroll is the author of a book about Chavez, Comandante, it will be published next March by Canongate in the UK