Venezuela Elections Pose Big Test

Venezuela's local elections on November 23 are the first major test for the government of Hugo Chávez since his socialist-oriented constitutional reforms were defeated last year. Although the elections are unlikely to dramatically shift the national balance of power, the results will help gauge the momentum of Chávez's project to create a “twenty-first century socialism."

November 20, 2008

Venezuelans are ready to head to the polls in what will be the first test for President Hugo Chávez and his allies since a government-sponsored constitutional reform project was defeated by referendum last December. The failed referendum was widely seen as the Chávez government's first major defeat since the president took office in 1998.

Venezuelans will cast ballots on November 23 to determine 22 governors, 328 mayors, and 2 metropolitan mayors—every major office besides the presidency and the National Assembly.

The balance of power is unlikely to shift dramatically as a result of the upcoming regional elections, but a series of political developments make these elections unique and will reveal the degree to which Venezuelans are supporting the call to “twenty-first century socialism."

For the first time in nearly a decade, the opposition, led by failed presidential candidate and Zulia state governor Manuel Rosales, is more re-invigorated and unified. It is also the first electoral test for Venezuela's Unified Socialist Party (PSUV), which was created out of Chávez's former party, the Fifth Republic Movement, and smaller chavista parties. Another first is a significant presence of competing factions within the chavista parties—that is, supporters of socialist principles that have not fused themselves into the PSUV. The two principle Chávez-aligned parties that are on the "outs" with the PSUV are the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) and the Fatherland for All (PPT) party. The two independent parties have formed an electoral coalition called the Patriotic Alliance.

Oscar Figueroa, a leader of the PCV, explained that despite shared affinities with the PSUV, the PCV was not willing to dissolve itself to join the party. "One does not have to belong to the PSUV to belong to the revolution," said Figueroa. Tribuna Popular, an organ of the PCV, pointed out that the party is supporting PSUV candidates in 16 gubernatorial elections, while it has joined in coalitions with other political forces in six other state elections.

Further embittering relations between the PSUV and the smaller Bolivarian parties surround the circumstances of two Patriotic Alliance gubernatorial candidates. The PCV is running its own candidate in Trujillo state and the PPT has a viable candidate in Guárico state. Both candidates had failed to win the PSUV nomination in the primaries and subsequently left Chávez's party to run on the ticket of the smaller groups. President Chávez, who has been actively campaigning for the candidates of his party across the country, criticized the parties for picking up these candidates and labeled the actions of the PCV and PPT as "counter-revolutionary".

Although the PSUV has claims several million militants, Chávez's governing coalition has lost some support as once independent parties have splintered off from the coalition. Podemos, a social democratic party, parted ways with Chávez before last year's constitutional referendum, and has since joined the opposition. In the 2005 elections for National Assembly, PPT and PCV candidates received a combined total of nearly 300,000 votes. Although a relatively marginal number compared to those expected from the PSUV, the split in the Bolivarian vote could still prove costly to the PSUV if it provides the opposition with breathing room.

Races To Watch

In Zulia state, the opposition is fielding candidates under a new party called A New Time (UNT) founded by the state's outgoing governor Manuel Rosales. Rosales is running for mayor of Maracaibo (the country's second-largest city), while UNT party president Pablo Pérez is running for Zulia state governor. Rosales is currently facing corruption charges, which he has characterized as a "political lynching" trying to discredit him ahead of the elections.

Besides being the capital of Zulia, Maracaibo is an important industrial center and the heart of the country's strategic oil export industry. Having a sympathetic governor and winning Maracaibo would allow Rosales to remain a thorn in Chávez's side. Chávez supporters are united behind Gian Carlo Di Martino of the PSUV in the race for Zulia governor, placing a great deal of attention and resources into trying to take the state as well as Maracaibo. In the last election for governor in 2004, Rosales won with a slight majority (54 percent).

Chávez has also warned that certain opposition figures such as Rosales and Sucre governor Ramón Martínez will not recognize the results of the election in the event of their loss.

In Carabobo state, the host of the popular TV show "La Hojilla," Mario Silva is the PSUV candidate. Chávez's coalition was barely able to hold onto the state in the 2004 elections, squeezing out a narrow victory. Carabobo is also a traditional stronghold of the opposition, which is running former governor Henrique Salas Feo with Rosales' UNT party. Recent polls suggest that this is once again a tight race. Losing this strategic state would be major defeat for the national government.

The outgoing governor of Guárico, Eduardo Manuitt, has fallen out of favor with the PSUV following his objections to the redistribution of lands in the state, some of which purportedly belong to his brother. Manuitt backed his daughter, Lenny, in the PSUV primaries, but she lost to long-time Chávez ally Willian Lara. But Manuitt managed to stay in the race for Guárico governor by switching over to the PPT. While Guárico has been solidly chavista in the past with the PPT leading all parties in votes, it is unlikely that the PPT will produce a surprise win. However, if Manuitt takes away a significant amount of votes from Lara, then the PPT vote split might be the deciding factor in the oppositions favor.

Pablo Vivanco is a NACLA Research Associate.

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