Friday, December 5, 2008

The results of Venezuela’s local elections

The results of Venezuela’s local elections
Stabroek News. December 5, 2008 @ 5:01 am In Editorial

It is being said that the results of Venezuela’s local elections of November 23 have redrawn the political map of that country.

A year ago, President Hugo Chávez suffered a humiliating defeat in a national referendum on constitutional reform, which would have effectively allowed him to become president-for-life. At that time, it was his first defeat in eleven national polls in nine years and it signalled a significant change in the Venezuelan political landscape.

Now, the multi-party opposition has won five of the twenty-two state governorships up for grabs – the Federal District of Caracas, Carabobo, Miranda, Táchira and Zulia. These administrative areas contain almost half of Venezuela’s population and are responsible for the greater share of the country’s GDP. Most of the petroleum industry is concentrated in Zulia, Miranda is the most populous state in the country and Caracas is the seat of the federal government. In addition, the opposition won the mayoralties of the two largest cities, Caracas and Maracaibo, plus four of the five municipalities comprising the Caracas metropolitan area.

The five governorships and the effective capture of the capital city represent for the opposition, for the first time since Mr Chávez came to power by a landslide in 1999, a major breakthrough, in that the heavily populated coastal states of Caracas, Miranda and Zulia constitute the occupation of a strategic political space that has been critical to winning Venezuelan elections in the past.

Thus even though, as Mr Chávez has been quick to point out, his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won the majority of the popular vote and the lion’s share of the governorships, mayoralties and other municipal posts contested, the results also represent both a quantitative and qualitative advance for the opposition.

The opposition is claiming, with some justification, that the Venezuelan political landscape is now more plural, with an opposition presence in areas that were until recently considered chavista bastions. Also, the combined opposition increased its share of the popular vote since the last presidential election, polling 5,041,717, up 53.9% from the 3,274,841 won in 2004, to win approximately 45% of the votes cast.

Undeterred, Mr Chávez and his supporters are celebrating an overall victory. Indeed, it should be noted that, according to some polls, the President still enjoys a near 60% approval rating, in spite of rising crime rates, the rising cost of living and rising fears of a deep economic downturn in the face of impending global recession and the steep drop in oil prices. Some claim however that the figure is closer to 50% and likely to fall if Venezuela’s social and economic woes worsen.

The opposition is therefore treating the results as a triumph of sorts, pointing out that the higher than normal voter turnout of 65%, especially in the face of official intimidation and dirty tricks, and the enthusiastic and active participation of young people demonstrate that democracy is alive and well in Venezuela. All this is proof, they assert, that a significant section of the population wants and deserves a democratic alternative to President Chávez’s ‘Bolivarian’ socialist vision for the country.

For the opposition, the local elections were effectively a plebiscite on Mr Chávez’s rule and they see inroads being made.

Mr Chávez has reiterated his intention to press ahead with constitutional reform, claiming that his overall victory means that Venezuelans want him to press ahead with his ‘revolution.’

Thus, on November 30, Mr Chávez asked for the constitutional procedures to be initiated for a referendum to be held on extending the term of office of the President. If approved, this would allow him to seek indefinite re-election after his term ends in 2012. Typically, with not a hint of immodesty, the 54 year-old leader declaimed, “I am ready, and if I am healthy, God willing, I will be with you until 2019, until 2021.”

What all this means is that Venezuelans could well be going to the polls yet again, probably in February 2009. Whether they will succumb to voter fatigue or not will depend on the ability of the opposition to keep their supporters mobilized and to build on the momentum gained over last year’s referendum and last month’s elections. Their elected representatives will have to work all the harder to consolidate and build their political capital to erode that of President Chávez, who of course has all the resources of the state at his disposal, in order to prove that they can be a viable alternative.

One thing is certain: Venezuelans’ commitment to forging a mature and truly representative democracy will continue to be tested.

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