By Federico Fuentes. Supporters and opponents of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution have produced very different assessments following the November 23 regional elections, which Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called the most important electoral contest yet.
Twenty-two governorships, 328 mayoralty posts, and 233 legislative council positions were at stake.
In the lead-up to the polling, Chávez presented the vote as a virtual referendum on his government’s socialist project — and on the goal of deepening the revolutionary process that has succeeded in significantly reducing poverty, but faces increasing pressures from the still-powerful corporate elite.
The opposition, echoed by the international media, claimed it would deliver a significant blow to the Chavista movement, and continued to paint the government as dictatorial.
Despite those charges, more than 130 international observers agreed that the vote was free and fair, as were the 12 previous votes held since Chávez was first elected in 1998.
The total of nearly five million votes for Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) far surpassed the votes of the second largest party, the opposition A New Time (UNT) party, which scored just over one million.
The Chavistas describe this outcome as an advance, citing pro-Bolivarian victories in 17 governor races and 81% of the mayoral contests. They point out that the national PSUV vote exceeded the total opposition vote by 1.5 million.
On the other side, the US-backed right-wing opposition is emphasizing its victories in the three largest states — Zulia, Carabobo and Miranda — and in the mayoral election in Greater Caracas. It now controls the governments of five states.
In the last regional elections, held in October 2004, the Chavistas won all but two states. However, it must be remembered that the opposition largely abstained, and that pro-Chávez forces had just won a crushing victory in the August 2004 recall referendum, The regional elections are traditionally marked by low turnouts, but this time the number of registered voters was up, and an impressive 65% voted, reflecting the increased political participation that the Bolivarian revolution has spurred.
It should also be noted that just a year ago the Chavista forces suffered their first electoral defeat, when voters narrowly rejected the government’s proposals for a wide-ranging, and somewhat confusing, package of constitutional reforms. In that referendum, 3 million of the 7 million people who had voted for Chávez in 2006 abstained, giving the victory to the opposition, whose vote was only slightly larger than the 4.3 million it received in the presidential election.
Following the referendum, the opposition parties and counter-revolutionary media immediately declared the beginning of the end for Chavismo, predicting that the opposition would win 12 to 15 governorships this year.
The right wing hoped that the factors that let it win the referendum — dissatisfaction with the bureaucracy and corruption, the poor performance of many Chavista officials and ongoing problems such as crime and housing — would allow them to win new support from the poor Venezuelans who constitute Chávez’s main support. Instead, the campaign developed as a referendum on the country’s direction, a choice between accelerating the drive towards socialism, on one hand, and strengthening the opposition’s frontal attacks on the revolution, on the other.
Given this situation, what do the results mean?
The Chavista vote rose from just over 4 million last year to more than 5.5 million this year, an important recovery of support although only half way to the 7 million votes for Chávez in 2006.
Especially significant are the nearly 5 million votes cast for the PSUV itself, confirming that it is the primary political force in Venezuela, less than a year after it was formally constituted. The PSUV held primary elections for its candidates, involving 2.5 million people, the first time this has occurred in Venezuela’s history.
Chávez called for the formation of the PSUV after his 2006 victory, to unite the dispersed revolutionary forces and create a badly needed political instrument to lead the process towards socialism. The party was formally launched only this year.
The lack of such a party contributed to the defeat of the constitutional reform campaign in 2007.
Previously, the Bolivarian process had to rely on the amorphous electoral machine of the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) — viewed by much of the ranks as a vehicle for opportunists — and on several smaller parties.
In addition to the PSUV vote, 500,000 votes went to candidates from other parties that are part of the of the pro-Chávez Patriotic Alliance that involves the PSUV.
A number of dissident Chavista candidates who stood against PSUV candidates garnered just over 400,000 votes. These were either candidates that didn’t win PSUV pre-selection or candidates of the Communist Party of Venezuela or the Homeland for All party. Both of these parties have declined to join the PSUV, but take part in the Patriotic Alliance. While some such candidates expressed left-wing discontent with the PSUV, most hold political positions counterposed to the revolutionary process.
Their comparatively low vote indicates a general rejection of attempts to pose a pro-Chávez alternative outside the PSUV.
As for the candidates of the rightist opposition, they tallied just over 4.1 million votes, a drop of almost 10% from the 2007 referendum.
Much has been made in the Western media of the fact that the opposition won five states, compared to two in 2004.
This ignores the fact that that since 2004 five governors who were elected as pro-Chávez candidates had broken with the government.
Two, in Aragua and Sucre, were aligned with the social-democratic party Podemos, which left the pro-Chávez camp in 2007 and which was aligned with the opposition this time. The governors of Carabobo, Guarico and Trujillo broke with the Bolivarian process this year and opposed the PSUV in this election.
This means that the Chavista forces held 16 states before the election; they now hold 17.
While the PSUV did not win the two states the opposition won in 2004 (Zulia and Nueva Esparta), it regained control of Aragua and Sucre — destroying Podemos on the way — as well as Guarico and Trujillo.
In Carabobo, the opposition candidate won a narrow victory mainly because a right-wing Chavista dissident split the vote.
In 2004 the Chavistas narrowly won Tachira, which borders on Colombia; they lost it this time.
Furthermore, the PSUV won 264 municipalities, up from 226 Chavista victories in 2004, including 80 of the 100 most populous municipalities. The opposition dropped from 70 to 56 mayoral offices.
The biggest upsets, however, were the opposition victories in the state of Miranda — which includes part of Caracas — and the Greater Caracas mayoralty.
The first item on the balance sheet is the increase in the Chavista vote, which resulted from three factors.
First, the impact of decisive government measures this year to combat widespread problems causing dissatisfaction among the population. These measures include the nationalization of strategic industries such as cement, steel and milk production, together with policies that helped overcome food shortages, increased the construction of housing and to some degree reduced crime.
Second, the non-stop political campaigning by Chávez, who remains hugely popular, ensured that each time he visited a state the local PSUV candidate’s standing in the polls rose several percentage points.
Third, and perhaps most important, was the role of the PSUV. Together with Chávez, it was the grassroots units of the PSUV that drove the election campaign.
The dynamic relationship between Chávez and the grassroots, revived after a certain weakening in 2007, was for the first time expressed in an organic manner through PSUV structures.
This was crucial for overcoming discontent among the popular sectors.
This relationship was demonstrated on election day when internal PSUV exit polls around midday looked bad. The PSUV moved into action and mobilized the popular sectors that recognized the danger.
This helps explain not only why voting booths in many areas remained open well past the official closing time of 4 pm, but also why the opposition urged the National Electoral Commission to close the polling booths after 4 pm — despite Venezuelan law stating that a booth cannot be closed as long as there are people waiting to vote.
On the other hand, it explains the surprising losses in Miranda and Greater Caracas. While an important turnaround in voting trends occurred — many of the last polling booths to close were in the impoverished neighbourhood of Petare — this was not enough to secure victory in the Sucre municipality and handed the opposition its victory in Miranda and Greater Caracas.
Mismanagement and corruption by the previous mayor of Greater Caracas, the governor of Miranda and the mayor of Sucre — all Chavistas and all with jurisdiction over Petare — meant that in poorer areas of Petare many people refused to vote for Chavista candidates. In those areas, between 40% and 45% of voters abstained.
Another factor was popular rejection of such candidates as incumbent Miranda governor Diosdado Cabello, who is widely viewed as a leader of the Chavista right wing.
Overall the opposition vote stayed solid at around 40%. This can be explained more by the corporate media monopoly than the policies of a divided opposition, which is united only around the goal of removing Chávez.
While that is not enough for the opposition to win national elections, it is still a major barrier to the move towards socialism, which requires the support and mobilization of the great majority.
Another important factor is U.S. intervention. In the border states of Zulia and Tachira, U.S.-inspired right-wing Colombian paramilitaries played a significant role in ensuring opposition victories. In Petare the U.S. government agency USAID funded opposition-run popular networks that built a base of support among the poor.
The election’s outcome and reactions to it seem to point towards growing confrontation, and a possible return to the turbulence that characterized the period of 2002-2003.
While the opposition secured control of some crucial posts, it is clear that support for Chávez and the revolutionary process remains strong.
It is also clear that the revolution needs to resolve some internal questions.
The rejection of right-wing Chavista candidates by the revolution’s working-class supporters, and the possibility that newly elected Chavista governors may jump ship (especially in Lara where the new PSUV governor previously expressed his willingness to run on an opposition ticket and formed his own party during the campaign) demonstrates the need to carry out the “revolution within the revolution” that Chávez has spoken about.
To do this it is crucial to build the PSUV not simply as a powerful electoral machine but as a real political instrument at the service of working people and the revolution.
Chávez has stated that the election results are a mandate for accelerating the pace towards socialism. This will require dealing with the dominant corporate media, U.S. subversion and capitalist economic sabotage.
A number of opposition governors were openly involved in the 2002 military coup that briefly overthrew Chávez, and will undoubtedly seek to use the institutions they control against the national government. Chávez has warned the opposition governors that any destabilizing activity will be met by the full weight of the law.
Already there are disturbing reports of opposition thugs in the newly opposition-run areas, violently attacking activists involved in communal councils, social missions and other popular organizations. In some places, street battles have broken out, while in others activists have been forcibly ejected from buildings that house popular projects that tackle the needs of the poor.
Addressing supporters on November 28, Chávez spent eight minutes reading examples of attacks on the pro-poor social missions, without completing the list. He declared:
“They want confrontation. Venezuelan people, Venezuelan soldiers, we are ready to defend the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution!… We are willing to die for the Bolivarian revolution, for the spaces that the people have won and the path we have chosen to take.
“Where civil or military functionaries try to interfere in the process of the recovery of the property that belongs to the people, they need to be singled out by the people … and we need to apply the full weight of the law against these functionaries, no matter who they are.
“This is part of what I call a revolution within the revolution.”
That day, thousands of people marched in defence of the social missions in the capital of Miranda, Los Teques, and against the newly elected opposition governor, Henrique Capriles Radonski, who has been accused of orchestrating violent attacks.
The march was led by the Chavista mayor-elect of the Guaicaipuro municipality, Alirio Mendoza, who stated: “We are here today supporting the people in defense of their constitutional rights. We can not allow the representatives of capitalism, of fascism, to violently seize the spaces that we have won with struggle and revolutionary commitment.”
In this new political context, the PSUV will have to develop a strategy to directly confront coup-plotting activity in Miranda, Caracas, Zulia and other regions. This can only be done by simultaneously confronting the powerful right-wing within the PSUV.
The next year looms as decisive for the Bolivarian revolution, which faces lower oil prices, internal battles over direction, and the counter-revolution’s newly secured control over important positions.
On the other hand, the important gains in 2008, as well as the still-high popular support for the process, show that significant progress is possible.
An earlier version of this article was published in Green Left Weekly, November 29, 2008 http://www.greenleft.org.au/2008/777/40078.
The Australia Venezuela Solidarity Network has published further information on current right-wing attacks on Venezuela’s democratic process at http://www.venezuelasolidarity.org/?q=node/7686.