Civil Society, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

VENEZUELA: Regional Elections Double as National Referendum

Humberto Márquez*

CARACAS, Nov 21 2008 (IPS) - In Venezuela, where hardly a year goes by without elections, people will vote Sunday for governors in 22 of the 23 states, and for mayors in 328 of the 335 municipalities. The tough campaign leading up to the ballot has turned the exercise into a new referendum on President Hugo Chávez and his project of “21st century socialism”.

“If you’re with me, vote for my candidates. What is at stake here is the future of the revolution, of socialism, of Venezuela, of the government and the future of Hugo Chávez himself,” the president has said repeatedly on his tours of the country to campaign for his allies.

“To make progress with his revolution, Chávez needs strong connections with the people; he is constantly seeking these links, and for that reason the results of these regional elections are not secondary, they are vital,” Luis León, the head of the Datanálisis polling firm, told IPS.

The propaganda of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) shows Chávez alongside the PSUV candidate for every state or municipality, sending a clear message to his followers, especially as some local groups and leaders who previously supported the government have distanced themselves and are standing on opposition electoral tickets.

“Whoever betrays Chávez is politically dead. They are not betraying me, but the people. I need a truly integrated and solid team of governors, mayors and regional legislative councils. One team, one single government,” the president emphasised.

In the last regional elections, in 2004, two months after Chávez handily won a recall referendum, his party’s candidates won 21 out of 23 states and some 300 municipalities, including the metropolitan area of Caracas, the largest city.


In 2005 the opposition boycotted the parliamentary elections, and the 167 lawmakers voted in were all Chávez allies. In 2006, Chávez was reelected president with 63 percent of the vote, for a six-year term which ends in January 2013.

Emboldened by these results, the president put forward a proposal for constitutional reform that would promote his socialist agenda and allow indefinite presidential reelection. But it was defeated in a December 2007 referendum by 51 percent of the voters.

“These regional elections are of key importance to Chávez, because if he achieves a clearcut victory he will immediately propose a constitutional amendment to allow him to run for president again in 2012,” political analyst Fausto Masó told IPS.

If, on the other hand, the opposition gains ground, “it will not only be a heavy blow to Chávez’s project, but his power will also have an expiry date, and there will be aspirants within the PSUV who will start fighting to over the leadership,” said Masó.

The opposition, a varied collection of traditional parties, new groups and local leaders, have also contributed to these elections taking on the character of a referendum on Chávez’s government, because their candidates have often spoken out against the president’s policies, rather than about the failings in local services that need attention, such as lack of public safety or streets filled with rubbish.

The opposition managed to back single candidates for over 80 percent of the positions up for election, which adds to the sense that it is a national referendum.

“Next Sunday’s elections will be a face-off between two forces that have been in conflict ever since the Bolivarian process led by Chávez took an irreversible turn towards leftwing authoritarianism,” Trino Márquez, a professor of graduate studies in the Social Sciences at the Central University of Venezuela, told IPS.

Márquez, who identifies with the opposition, said “a clear, unquestionable victory for Chávez would revitalise the pyramidal structure with a strongman at the top, which suffered a serious reverse in 2007, and would bring his indefinite reelection back into first place on the national political agenda.”

In contrast, “if the opposition and Chavista dissidents win in areas of importance that are currently controlled by the ruling party, it would radically change the political panorama and bring about a redistribution of power. The president would have to coexist with a large number of governors, mayors and regional lawmakers who are not of his persuasion,” Márquez said.

“Opinion polls since February have confirmed that people do not perceive these elections as just another vote for regional or local officials. The key issue is not who might be the best mayor or governor; instead, the national outcome is seen as having enormous weight,” Germán Campos, the head of the Consultores 30.11 polling firm, told IPS.

Even so, Campos said the turnout was likely to be average for this type of elections, at between 50 and 55 percent of the country’s 16.9 million registered voters.

Forecasts by the different polling firms vary widely. Consultores 30.11 predicts the most optimistic results for PSUV candidates, with eight safe states and another eight likely to be won, while saying five states are too close to call and only one is a sure bet for the opposition.

One week before the elections, Nelson Merentes, Chávez’s former finance minister and head of the Gis-XXI polling firm, said that the chances of PSUV victory were “high” in 16 states, “medium” in four, and “low” in two.

Datanálisis, Hinterlaces and Consultores 21 forecast opposition or Chavista dissident wins in at least four states. Some firms predict opposition victories in up to 10 states.

“Success in these elections will be measured in symbolic terms, rather than numerical, so either side can claim victory,” León said.

“Therefore, gains by the opposition would be a terrible blow to Chávez, who wants a sweeping triumph so that he can display the enemy’s head, and for this the vital battleground is Zulia,” he said.

Campos concurred that “of the more than 20 regional battles that will be fought on Sunday, the most important, the big prize, is undoubtedly Zulia.”

Zulia, a state in the northwest, surrounding Lake Maracaibo, on the border with Colombia, is the most densely populated and richest state in the country, producing oil and food, and has a strong and distinct regional culture.

It is one of the two states that the opposition held in the 2004 regional elections, and its governor, Manuel Rosales, ran against Chávez in the presidential elections in 2006.

Rosales cannot stand again for governor, so he is running for the office of mayor of the regional capital, Maracaibo, where he began his political career. He is regarded as a strong favourite in the race by all the polls.

Chávez has concentrated a good many of his personal attacks during the campaign on Rosales.

Consultores 30.11 classified Zulia as a disputed state, while other firms say opposition candidate Pablo Pérez has the advantage.

Another state that is disputed and highly symbolic is Barinas, in the southwestern plains, the president’s birthplace, where his brother, Adán Chávez, is the PSUV candidate to take over as governor from their father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez.

Here Julio César Reyes, the mayor of the capital city, also named Barinas, broke with the PSUV and is running for governor. Chávez has added him to a list of “filthy traitors,” along with governors and candidates who have distanced themselves from him politically in these elections.

Chavista dissidents, some of whom have joined forces with leftwing parties that the president broke ties with recently, are also putting the people’s loyalty to the head of state to the test.

With his campaign trips to the regions, and dozens of national radio and television broadcasts, Chávez has been omnipresent during the campaign, to the point that the elections have become another occasion to put his leadership and his government to the popular vote.

(Note to subscribers: Reporting poll results this week is prohibited by law in Venezuela, under a pre-electoral ban.)

 
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