22 December 2012

Chavistas Score Another Famous Victory

There are as many ways of explaining election results in Venezuela as there are of reading tea leaves. There are some obvious features of the December 16 elections for 23 state governors in that country, the second-most important electoral event after the October presidential elections. Some of the changes are harder to quantify, but real nevertheless, and there is political evolution of which it is still too early to come to a conclusion.

First, the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), Chavez’s political creation, won 20 of the 23 governorships at stake and steamrolled the Opposition and its own dissidents. The Chavista influence extended to 298 of the 334 municipalities, a pointer to what will happen in next May’s mayoral elections. In 15 of these 20 states, the Bolivarian candidates won by more than 55% votes that they had achieved during the presidential elections. The Chavista votes increased in the three states where it lost to the Opposition. Henrique Capriles, the Opposition presidential candidate, was the winner in Miranda, the state adjoining Caracas and with the largest concentration of the moneyed classes in Venezuela but with a reduced number of votes and only a four-percent victory margin. His challenger was Elias Jaua, a former Vice-President who, along with Nicolas Maduro, current Vice-President and Hugo Chavez’s successor if his health fails him, sits right at the top of the emerging generation that will rule Venezuela. Elias is far from politically finished; his candidature went down very well with the Bolivarian social base nationally and he will surely mount another challenge in 2016. Capriles retains his presidential option but is weakened, diminished in stature, and despised outside the Caracas oligarchy which controls money and media access for the Opposition.

The PSUV did not lose any of the 15 states it held and took five states from the Opposition or deserters from its own ranks. And what states. The victory in Tachira and Zulia, bordering Colombia, deprives the Right of resources that organised crime fetched for them. With victory in Merida, where the Communists mounted a challenge, the Andean region has returned to PSUV fold. Zulia is the most populated state, oil rich and an agricultural powerhouse. The state of Carabobo is part of the country’s limited non-petroleum industrial base and losing it will hurt the Opposition financially. Eleven of the winning governors are former soldiers, two of them former Chiefs of Staff, one of whom in the Andean state of Trujillo won with over 80% of the votes and the other who unseated a long-serving Opposition governor in the island of Nueva Esparta, Venezuela’s tourist hub. There are four women governors this time, the double of four years ago. The Bolivarians have taken control of all but one of the state legislatures, among these Miranda, which will restrict Capriles’ freedom of action.

The Opposition has been pushed back territorially and also to its rabid upper class core voters. The Chavistas have put the reverses of 2007-8 behind them when they lost a constitutional referendum and important states in the last state elections. Abstention was surprisingly high this time, about 46%, and seems to have affected both camps. Various theories have emerged overnight to explain it: voter fatigue, disillusionment in the Opposition camp and dissidence in Chavista ranks. Most of these are hypotheses for now but surely one certainty is that both camps have been reduced to their core voters and, while the PSUV emerged as by far the largest party securing close to half the votes, its mobilising powers are still not extensive as is thought. There are many, many Venezuelans who vote for one side or the other in different elections, suggesting that the voters are not always as polarised as the politics.

The biggest significance goes beyond numbers, in what Venezuelan political analysts describe as the emergence of Chavismo, a political force forged definitively in these elections. Chavez’s party secured this triumph in his absence. Chavismo has emerged as a durable phenomenon: it adheres to a set of values based on inclusion and social justice, a loyal support base, a mean election machinery and a leadership without any major discernible fissures nationally. But its strength is precisely its greatest weakness. It remains an electoral machinery and many join it like the civil service, hoping to further their political careers.

These elections also saw some of the PSUV allies, principally the Communists, challenge the official candidates in some of the states and campaign against the PSUV while professing loyalty to Chavez. The emergence of a non-Chavista Left comes at a curious time, when Chavez is still alive and as revered by his people as ever. These parties cannot win on their own, or defend the revolution on their own, but can electorally damage the PSUV. They secured respectable votes in at least four states, claiming to be still loyal to Chavez but left one question unanswered: by splitting the votes are they willing to let he Right sneak into governorships or mayoralties, or some day into the presidency?  Voting numbers suggest that the Venezuelan Communists and some other Leftist parties will feel that they can only grow at the expense of the PSUV by sheltering its dissidents.

The Opposition increasingly resembles a one-legged man in a kick boxing competition. Chavismo has made its transition to a new generation but the unity of the broad Left is not so assured and the PSUV, contrary to appearances of a hegemonic domination, remains a fragile creation.

No comments: