Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

Opposition Plans Return to Venezuelan Congress

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Apr 27 2010 (IPS) - Political sectors opposed to the Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chávez have elected 22 candidates in primaries, and selected another 143 by consensus, to compete in September for the 165 seats in the single-chamber parliament.

The parliamentary elections are the next political challenge President Chávez must face, while he spurs on his project of “21st century socialism”, setting limits to private property, nationalising companies, concentrating power in the presidency and imitating defence strategies developed by Cuba.

The governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will hold primary elections May 2 to choose 110 candidates for the same number of electoral districts, while the remaining 55 candidates will be designated by the party’s national directorate, chaired by Chávez.

Smaller factions that have supported Chávez, like the Communist Party and Patria Para odos (Homeland for All), as well as independent groups and public figures, may field their own candidates, but the key electoral competition will be between the opposition coalition and the PSUV.

In 2005, the opposition boycotted the legislative elections, fearing possible fraud – of which international observers found no sign, however – thus paving the way for Chávez allies to occupy all the seats in Congress for a five-year term.

Eleven of the lawmakers elected that year have since gone over to the opposition or declared themselves independent.

Primary elections, like the ones the opposition held Sunday and the PSUV will hold May 2, “oxygenate the political atmosphere with democracy, and are the right strategy to consolidate the forces on either side, because whoever makes a mistake will lose ground,” analyst Luis León, head of the polling firm Datanálisis, told IPS.

According to León, “the opposition is growing stronger…It is presenting a united front as a perfect alliance, and is thus increasing its chances of success in the new parliament, because eccentric opponents running for office outside its circle will be left out of the game,” he said.

The opposition coalition for Democratic Unity (Mesa de Unidad Democrática – MUD) is made up of around 50 political parties, 16 of which are national in scope while the rest are regionally based, as well as several social organisations and opinion groups.

The main parties are the traditional ones that lost their hold on power when Chávez was first elected in 1998, such as the social democratic Democratic Action party and the social Christian COPEI, as well as the leftwing Movement Toward Socialism, Radical Cause and Red Flag, or groups derived from these, like the social democratic A New Era, the Christian democratic Justice First and the leftwing Podemos.

Analyst Eduardo Semtei, a former member of the National Electoral Council (CNE), told IPS that “if the opposition maintains its unity and runs a good campaign, given the dissent in the ranks of the government’s supporters, it may win up to 90 seats in the next parliament.”

If that happens, a crisis would blow up between parliament and the other branches of government, which are all in the hands of Chávez and his allies.

The president has urged his supporters to make every effort to hold on to at least two-thirds of the seats in parliament for the PSUV and its allies, in order to continue the pattern of the past five years, when government bills have sped through Congress and the legislature has granted authorisation for Chávez to rule by decree for specified periods.

“If (the opposition) win in parliament, they will come after me and dismantle all the revolutionary laws and the health, education and food programmes. They don’t plan to get into parliament to work, but to destabilise” the country, the president said.

The Chávez administration’s social programmes or “missions” have included literacy training, primary health care in the slums, subsidised food for the poor, soup kitchens for low-income women and children, free eye operations, dental care, microbusiness loans, support for cooperatives, scholarships at all educational levels, and stipends for the unemployed who take training courses.

Opposition leaders deny that if they win a majority in Congress they would boot Chávez out of office ahead of time. They say they would wait until the presidential elections in late 2012. But they would set limits on his actions, such as cutting military expenditure and foreign aid, as well as his marathon national broadcasts on radio and television.

“On Sept. 26 we will have a plural and democratic majority in Congress to reverse the autocratic form of government that has been imposed on the country and begin a new stage in our history,” said María Corina Machado, the leading opposition candidate to emerge from Sunday’s primaries.

Machado, who is from a wealthy family, is critical of the Venezuelan electoral system. She stood as an independent and won one of the two candidacies in the electoral district most coveted by the opposition, an upper- and middle-class area in the east of Caracas where people have consistently voted overwhelmingly against the leftwing Chávez.

A total of 361,000 voters, representing 9.4 percent of their local electoral rolls, cast their ballots to elect 22 candidates in 15 electoral districts in Sunday’s primaries. In this South American country of 28.7 million, 17.5 million people over 18 are eligible to vote.

The other candidate selected for Machado’s district is former police chief Iván Simonovis, one of nine police officials convicted and now serving time for their part in the short-lived Apr. 11, 2002 coup that deposed Chávez for two days.

Several of the nine, who are regarded as political prisoners by the MUD, were nominated in the opposition primaries as candidates in electable districts. If they win congressional seats in September, they must be released under the rules of parliamentary immunity.

Manuel Rosales, who ran against Chávez in the 2006 presidential elections and is now in political asylum in Peru, was nominated as a parliamentary candidate in a district in the northwestern city of Maracaibo. Rosales is the head of A New Era, a party that is strong in the oil-rich northwest of the country.

The opposition garnered 43 percent of the vote in the 2008 regional elections, compared to 52 percent for the PSUV. If these results were to be repeated in September, the complicated electoral system, which allocates seats to the winners in electoral districts and to state lists of candidates by proportional representation, would give the government a comfortable majority of perhaps two-thirds.

But “the president’s approval ratings have declined, although not dramatically, and he is increasingly being blamed for the country’s problems,” said León. In his view, however, “Chávez is weakening, but no contender is gaining strength.”

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