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The regional elections in Venezuela
The results of the November 23rd regional elections in Venezuela have been widely perceived as a bit of a mixed bag.
The pro-government candidates of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won 17 out of 22 state governorships (77%) and 262 out of 372 mayoralties (81%); PSUV candidates got 5.4 million votes nationally whilst the opposition received 4.3 million. The level of electoral participation was 65% - a historic high in Venezuela.
For any other country in the world, such electoral results would have merited media reports of a landslide victory by the pro-government forces - but not for Venezuela. The corporate media managed to present these results as a serious setback for the Chavez government because the opposition scored significant electoral gains by carrying the day in Caracas, Miranda, Tachira and Carabobo (the opposition already controlled the states of Zulia and Nueva Esparta). And this was presented against the supposed pre-election government position of being in control of 22 out of 24 state governorships.
As always, the truth about Venezuela necessitates digging the actual facts of the situation from the mountain of media distortions under which they are buried. The 22 state governorships under the control of Chavismo came about because, at the 2004 regional elections, the opposition was just coming out of a severe defeat at the 15 August 2004 recall referendum – results which they alleged had resulted from mass electoral fraud inflicted on them by the government and which led them to endeavour not to get the results recognised, despite the elections having been declared free and fair by independent international observers such as the Carter Center.
Thus the opposition mood in October 2004, when the regional elections took place, was one of civil disobedience, insurrection aimed at overthrowing the government and of electoral boycott. In short, because of what they perceived as a shocking electoral defeat at the recall referendum, their appetite for democratic electoral contests – never too intense anyway- had drastically diminished. In practice, their anti-election stance led them to largely boycott the October 2004 regional elections, thus leaving the field open to Chavista victories in 22 out of 24 states. This was confirmed on 4 December 2005 when the opposition, very likely following orders from Washington, completely boycotted the parliamentary elections.
So in December 2005, 100% control of the National Assembly was handed to the Chavistas, who got 167 out 167 MPs. Ever since, the world corporate media have used this to charge the Chavez government with totalitarian control over Venezuela’s state institutions.
Furthermore, by November 2008 the Chavistas had no longer 22 state governorships out of 24, mainly because sections of the government coalition had began to part ways with the government’s radical aim of building an entirely new socio-economic and political system. This came to head in the December 2007 constitutional referendum, when these sections went over to join the opposition. This was the case particularly with the PODEMOS party, which took with it the state governorship of Sucre and Aragua.
Additionally, incumbent state governors in Guarico, Carabobo and Yaracuy refused to accept PSUV candidates, thus taking these three states to the side of the opposition. Thus the real electoral situation for Chavismo at the 2008 regional elections was that it actually controlled 16 out of 22 and the challenge it faced was whether it would be able to recover them. The world corporate media, the Venezuelan opposition and their supporters internationally made a big deal out what they referred to as the ‘Chavista dissidents’, who they expected to make big gains, the implication being that the pro-Chavez vote would split.
This was not a small matter. The ‘dissidents’ stood candidates in six states in which they competed for the chavista votes. This, together with the electoral gains they expected the opposition to make, would turn the 2008 regional elections into a crushing electoral defeat for Chavez and Chavismo, with the equivalent weight of a decisive referendum against the Bolivarian Revolution.
Such expected defeat was to be presented by the corporate media as a triumph of democracy against Chavez’s totalitarian tendencies, as was stated by the insidious editorial article of The Guardian (‘Chavismo loses its charisma’) published on the eve of the 23 November 2008 regional elections. It claimed: "[Chavez] has threatened to cut off national funds and send tanks on to the streets of those states that end up in the hands of opponents", and called on the President of Venezuela "to uphold a constitution that guaranteed basic rights."
But democracy in Venezuela, every time there is an election, belies the skewed reporting of the corporate media. The opposition did make some emblematic gains, such as in Caracas, Miranda Carabobo, and Tachira, and was able to hold on to Zulia and Nueva Esparta, but it lost everywhere else.
Not a single tank (nor even a bicycle, though I may be wrong on whether bicycles have actually been deployed) has been deployed against those states or municipalities that returned opposition governors. In fact the opposite has been the case.
The opposition forces have launched a wave of violence against the various establishments where the social missions (health, education, literacy and so forth) actually operate, and they have threatened the Cuban doctors that work in the surgeries of the Barrio Adentro free health care programme that so much has benefitted the poor. The opposition has, in the style of the Bolivian right-wing, embarked on wanton destruction of equipment, vehicles, buildings – setting some of them on fire - in the municipalities which they lost to the PSUV. One is hard put to find any reporting on such nasty anti-democratic and criminal activities in the corporate media.
Worse still, not only did the PSUV candidates receive 5.42 million votes (53.5%), and opposition parties attracted 4.04 million votes (39.9%); dissident Chavistas got a paltry 4.1% (411,000 votes) with other opposition parties scoring a miniscule 2.5% (255,000 votes). That is to say, the so called dissidence is doomed to lose any appearance of being a significant political factor. More importantly, the main opposition parties got less votes –actually 0.5 million votes less- than they did at the 2007 constitutional referendum (some voters who supported the dissident Chavista candidates are not necessarily opposition voters).
The PSUV, on the other hand, increased the pro-Chavez vote by about 1.3 million votes as compared the 2007 constitutional referendum. True, at the constitutional referendum the government lost 3 million votes (Chavez was re-elected as president with 7 million votes in 2006), but former Chavista voters did not support the opposition in 2007, they just abstained.
The only possible conclusion of the 2008 regional elections is that Chavismo is well on the way to full electoral recovery but it needs to do much more.
Additionally, an analysis even of the states where the oposition won does not produce a very rosy picture for their level of popular support. In Caracas, for example, the opposition won in the Metropolitan District – not a small prize - but it won by a margin of 8%, about 100,000 votes, with a high level of abstention (879,000 votes, 38,26%). The same picture emerges in the states the oposition won. In Carabobo, although the oposition won the state, they only won two mayoralties, with the PSUV winning the remaining eleven. In the state of Miranda, the figures are 15 for the PSUV and only five for the opposition. In Tachira, the PSUV got 16, whilst the opposition got 13. And even in states the oposition already controlled such as Zulia and Nueva Esparta, their electoral situation is not brilliant either. In Nueva Esparta, pretty much a bastion of the opposition, the PSUV got 6 mayoralties and the opposition 5. But in Zulia, the PSUV, although it lost the capital city of Maracaibo, pro-government mayors won in 13 out of 19 mayoralties.
The electoral map of Venezuela is mainly red; the opposition won in the most populous, wealthiest and most industrially developed states, but they are surrounded by a red sea of Chavismo. In the case of Caracas, however, a PSUV candidate won in Libertador, a poor district whose electoral population is 1.5 million, double that of the other 4 districts that make up the Metropolitan District, where the oposition won. In Carabobo and Tachira, the opposition carried the states by minute margins (1.34 and 3.1 percent respectively). In short, with the possible exceptions of Zulia and Nueva Esparta, chavismo can command 22 out of 24 states. In Carabobo, Tachira, Miranda and Caracas, given the very high levels of abstention, it is arguable that the opposition did not so much win the elections, but rather that Chavismo lost them.
There is no doubt that crime rates, inefficiences in rubish collection, transport facilities and general urban infrastructure (sewerage, and so forth), especially in Caracas, accounts for a great deal of the levels of discontent with the performance of the Chavista municipal and state governorship administrations. A great deal more needs to be done about improving the quality of people’s daily lives if the two million votes that Chavismo lost at the 2007 constitutional referendum are to be fully recovered.
Following the results, on December 1, 2008 President Chavez announced that he will encourage people to propose a constitutional referendum that abolishes the restriction on the number of times a person can stand for re-election as president of Venezuela. The people of Venezuela will decide this in 2009.
The corporate media are presenting this as a constitutional change that will allow Hugo Chavez to stay in power indefinitely. No such proposal is being made. The proposal is to abolish restrictions on the number of presidential terms for any succesful candidate, whether that is Chavez or any individual from the opposition.
The outcome of the referendum will depend on the votes cast. If there is a 'yes' in 2009, Hugo Chavez will be allowed to stand for election again in 2012. It is solely the people of Venezuela who will take these decisions.
As the author of The Guardian editorial conceded, perhaps with the intention of giving the impression of fairness: "Venezuela is a vibrant democracy".
Dr Francisco Domínguez is head of the Centre for Brazilian and Latin American Studies at Middlesex University, UK.