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New realities in Venezuela

venezuelaeleccionesregionales.jpgPolarization will remain the cornerstone of Venezuelan politics. But which of the country’s models will end up prevailing? The global crisis and the price of oil will influence the answer, says the author.


(From Vigo) THERE ARE SEVERAL OPEN POLITICAL scenarios as a result of the recent municipal Venezuelan elections held last November 23. A preliminary reading of the results suggests that the major players in the national political scene – President Hugo Chávez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV in its Spanish initials), and the political opposition, now apparently coalesced into the joint platform Unity For Venezuela (UPV in its Spanish initials) – have each picked up clear electoral and political triumphs, albeit from different perspectives.

The high turnout – in excess of 65 percent, an unprecedented figure for these types of elections in Venezuela – also demonstrates that this is a decisive political and electoral moment, which also strengthened the traditional democratic commitment of the Venezuelan people. Similarly, the immediate and mutual recognition of electoral victories, by both Chávez and the opposition, has allowed for a healthy easing of the climate of tension.

With this level of voter participation, the results do not leave much room for doubt. Let’s begin by analyzing the gains made by Chávez and the PSUV, the political players that risked the most in these elections, which were practically defined as a referendum on the government’s management.

Of the 22 governorships of 22 of the states in play (the state of Amazonas, governed by the PPT, does not hold regional elections until 2009), the PSUV prevailed in 17: Anzoátegui, Apure, Aragua, Barinas, Bolívar, Cojedes, Delta Amacuro, Falcón, Guárico, Márida, Monagas, Lara, Portuguesa, Sucre, Trujillo, Vargas and Yaracuy. In doing so, chavism racked up an overwhelming and indisputable victory.

THE PSUV’S TIME

“Following the reelection of President Chávez in December 2006, his announcement of deepening Twenty First Century Socialism with the immediate creation of the PSUV in mid-2007 gave way to the first internal division within chavism

An analysis of a socio-political cross section of the PSUV vote shows that, aside from the eastern oil state of Anzoategui, the mining and iron and steel southern state of Bolívar and the touristy, western Mérida, the other states in which the PSUV triumphed are highly agricultural regions, with various infrastructural problems and a socio-economic picture marked by significant levels of poverty and unemployment. In short, they are in great need of public spending by the central government.

These results illustrate how, broadly speaking, chavism managed to retain an overwhelming majority of governorships, taking into consideration that in the municipal elections of 2004 it won 20 of the 22 governorships at stake, and 290 of the 328 mayoralties in contention, numbers that are virtually impossible to exceed.

At that time, chavism could not count on the support of the as yet uncreated PSUV, but instead it was immersed in a vast platform of parties created in 1998 under the name of the Patriotic Pole, with the standouts being the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR, the original party created by Chávez in 1997), the PODEMOS party (which split off from the Movement Towards Socialism, MAS), Fatherland For All (which split off from the R Cause), and the historic Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV).

Following the reelection of President Chávez in December 2006, his announcement of deepening Twenty First Century Socialism with the immediate creation of the PSUV in mid-2007 gave way to the first internal division within chavism. For the sake of preserving the existent plurality in the chavist platform, and avoiding what they considered a process of political verticalization and ideological bureaucratization, PODEMOS, the PPT and the PCV broke off from the PSUV in order to form a dissident wing of chavism, with only PODEMOS joining the opposition platform.

“With a popularity of above 50 percent, Chávez still holds a lot of power in his hands”In turn, during 2008, the PPT and the PCV engaged in frequent verbal and political arguments with Chávez, to such a point that a definitive break took place a few weeks ago. The 2004 elections gave the PPT four states, Aragua, Guárico, Yaracuy and Trujillo that have now been passed to the hands of the PSUV. Thus, the PPT, a dissident wing of chavism even though its ideological convictions make it similar to Chávez’s revolutionary process, has been the big loser in the municipal elections of November 23rd.

An analysis of the electoral cross section of 2008 demonstrates that the PSUV is becoming the major political and electoral machinery at the national level, with hegemonic intentions within the Venezuelan political scene. Its main goal is to become the true motor of the socialistic and Bolivarian revolutionary process driven by Chávez. In this way, chavism accounts for the bulk of the PSUV’s militancy today, and will probably continue to do so in the future.

AN INTERNAL REORGANIZATION OF CHAVISM?

However, internal dissent and the electoral results achieved by the opposition are some factors that allow for speculation as to whether in fact chavism is experiencing attrition or not.

“The electoral defeat of these candidates can be analyzed as a kind of punishment vote by the base and militant wing of chavism against those candidates who are not very popular” With a popularity of above 50 percent, Chávez still holds a lot of power in his hands. Similarly, his full involvement and excessive leadership in the electoral campaign of the PSUV candidates sheds light on how the revolutionary process desperately needs the charisma and presence of Commander Chávez as both its motor and promoter.

This perspective offers uncertain short-term scenarios in the hypothetical event that there is a need to designate a replacement candidate for Chávez in the 2012 presidential elections. In this case, Chávez has already announced that he will not seek any constitutional reform in order to be eligible for another reelection, but he has left the door open to the PSUV obtaining signatures (one fifth of the seven million votes received by Chávez in 2006 is needed) in order to lead to a popular consultation regarding indefinite reelection.

In parallel, and taking into account the election results of November 23rd, there is the possibility of a strong internal reorganization – and even a purge – within the PSUV. Traditional leaders such as Aristóbulo Istúriz, Diosdado Cabello and Jesse Chacón, losers in Caracas, the state of Miranda and the municipality of Sucre, respectively, as well as new candidates like Giancarlo Di Martinó (Zulia) and Mario Silva (Carabobo), could be affected by this process.

In this way, the electoral defeat of these candidates can be analyzed as a kind of punishment vote by the base and militant wing of chavism against those candidates who are not very popular, and were even singled out by Chávez himself.

PROFOUND SELF CRITICISM

After the results of November 23rd, various pro-chavism members of the media have stressed the need for a profound self criticism in the course of the revolutionary process, strengthening the PSUV’s unquestionable victories with its need to manage the government more efficiently. With this reality, it is quite likely that this possible internal reorganization of the PSUV will end up persuading Chávez to drive other well established leaders, or even faithful followers known for their chavist militancy, to efficiently carry out the new phase being announced in the PSUV. “More than a hundred opposition candidates were legally disqualified from running in these elections”

It is possible that in this situation figures like Jorge Rodríguez (43 years of age), the recently elected mayor of the Libertador municipality of Caracas, the largest in the capital with a little over two million people, could rise in the ranks. Rodriguez is also the organizer of the PSUV’s national tactical command, and he was previously president of the National Electoral Council and Vice President of the Republic.

Another strong leader within the PSUV is Adán Chávez, brother of the president and the former Minister of Education, who has served as a kind of ideological and intellectual mentor to the Venezuelan president. Adán Chávez won the governorship of Barinas, the home state of the presidential family, which allows him to be an emblematic bastion of chavism.

Even if the results of November 23rd allow us to consider that the PSUV achieved a resounding victory in its first big election, it is indispensable to review how the opposition managed to take away some of chavism’s power in politically strategic states and municipalities.

THE RESURRECTION OF THE OPPOSITION

Let’s now look at the scene in the political opposition. The majority of its national candidates in these municipal elections managed to quickly coalesce under the joint platform of the UPV. And let’s not forget that more than a hundred opposition candidates were legally disqualified from running in these elections; the influential Leopoldo López sticks out among them. He is the 38 year old former mayor of the capital municipality of Chacao, and was hoping to run for mayor of the capital municipality of Libertador.

This platform includes a colorful array of political parties, among whom the following stick out: A New Time (UNT), led by Manuel Rosales, Chávez’s presidential opponent in 2006, former governor of Zulia and now the mayor elect of Maracaibo; Justice First (PJ); Brave Village Alliance (ABP); Project Venezuela (PV); Democratic Action (AD); the Christian Social Movement COPEI; and PODEMOS (a breakaway section of chavism).

The unexpected victory of the UPV in five states, Carabobo and Miranda in the central region, Táchira and Zulia in the west, Nueva Esparata and the capital district’s City Hall, has changed the political profile of four of the five municipalities of Caracas, and gives us a sense that a budding new opposition, is emerging as an alternative type of politics. Extremely young leaders stand out in this opposition, which is now driven by those electoral results as much as its electoral victory upon the rejection of Chávez’s constitutional reform project put forward in December of 2007.

These states are part of the so-called electoral corridor of the country, comprising eight states, including the metropolitan mayoralty of Caracas, which accounts for 60 percent of the Venezuelan population. In this electoral corridor, Chávez lost by a majority.

SOCIOPOLITICAL NATURE OF THE STATES

A socio-political cross section of the opposition vote in these elections provides us with the following map: the five states under its control constitute 44 percent of the Venezuelan population, or 12 million people. The state of Zulia is responsible for 40 percent of Venezuela’s oil production, and it is a strong component of the agricultural sector as well.

“The capital Caracas, whose political profile has changed radically with respect to the 2004 elections, must be analyzed as a separate case”For their part, Miranda and Carabobo are states with a largely industrial, carry political and demographic weight and strong ties with both the inside and outside of the country. In those states – as well as in the capital Caracas – the middle class vote for the opposition and the punishment vote of the popular chavist classes against certain PSUV candidates were decisive.

In turn, Nueva Esparta is basically a tourist state, while the western Táchira is vital for its geographic proximity to the Colombian border, especially in matters of cross-border trade, bilateral relations and problems of public insecurity and kidnappings.

The capital Caracas, whose political profile has changed radically with respect to the 2004 elections, must be analyzed as a separate case. The opposition has come to control City Hall with Antonio Ledezma (ABP) as well as the middle and upper class municipalities of Baruta and El Hatillo. In the municipality of Chacao, an independent with possible connections to the opposition won.

A NEW LEADERSHIP?

Ledezma, a former mayor of Caracas, with a prolific political career within the DA’s leadership, could cement his chances of being the opposition’s presidential candidate in 2012, depending on how much he strengthens his management while at the head of City Hall. “These opposition victories leave the names of several already well-known leaders at the center of the Venezuelan political scene”

The electoral surprise of the UPV took place in the Sucre municipality of a million and a half inhabitants, a bastion of chavism because it is home to the popular working class district of Petare. Here, the opposition – in the form of the young (37 years old) politician Carlos Ocariz of the conservative JF – wrested the mayoralty away from chavism.

These opposition victories leave the names of several already well-known leaders at the center of the Venezuelan political scene. This is the case with 37 year old Henrique Capriles Radonsky of Justice First (PJ), a former mayor of Baruta and the current governor of Miranda state, a region under the political and economic control of chavism run by one of its heavyweights, the aforementioned former governor Diosdado Cabello. The victory of Capriles Radonsky in Miranda was followed by that of Carlos Ocariz in the municipality of Sucre, a district that is also under the jurisdiction of said state.

In turn, Henrique Salas Feo (40 years old) of the PV party won the governorship of Carabobo by defeating the PSUV candidate, the controversial speaker Mario Silva, and the former governor Acosta Carlez, who expressed his dissent with the PSUV. It is the third time since 1996 that Salas Feo has won the governorship of the state; he was interrupted by a chavist victory in 2004. “One can sense two blocs within the opposition’s joint platform”

With them, the central states of Carabobo and Miranda and the capital Caracas reveal a geopolitical axis that consolidates the control of two parties: Justice First (PJ) and Project Venezuela (PV). They are of centrist and liberal ideology, and have young leaders brought up on the social-Christian school of thought of the once dominant COPEI party. In this regard, the leaderships of Capriles Radonsky, Ocariz and Salas Feo will be crucial in gauging whether the opposition platform maintains the unity that has been established or branches off into personal political projects.

The case of Zulia stands apart, since Manuel Rosales and the UNT managed to create a political hegemony in this oil state several years ago. With Pablo Pérez (UNT) as governor and Rosales as the mayor of Maracaibo, the UNT hopes to consolidate itself nationally as the key party within the opposition’s joint platform. Its ideological affiliation appears to be close to social democracy, giving it some common ground with other opposition parties within this ideological spectrum, such as PODEMOS, AD and ABP.

The reelection of Morel Rodríguez in Nueva Esparta and César Pérez Vivas’ (COPEI) victory in Táchira, where the largest mayoralty – that of San Cristóbal – was also won by the opposition, completes this picture of opposition victories. Their electoral programs were more focused on finding solutions to concrete problems such as public insecurity, unemployment, urban cleanliness and economic development than on emphasizing a discourse of marked ideology.

However, one can sense two blocs within the opposition’s joint platform: two localist hegemonic parties, the UNT with Rosales in Zulia and the PV with Salas Feo in Carabobo; and two parties on the rise nationally and based in Caracas, the PJ with Capriles Radonsky, Ocariz and Leopoldo López, with Antonio Ledezma (ABP) as a possible leader of this platform.

WHAT SCENARIOS FOR THE FUTURE?

Lacking any electoral events for 2009, the Venezuelan electoral timetable has three things scheduled in the medium-term: legislative elections for the National Assembly of Popular Power, scheduled for December 2010; the next municipal elections, probably to be held in October 2012; and the decisive presidential elections of December 2012. “The harsh reality that an indiscriminate rise in public insecurity in Venezuela would entail could greatly erode the credibility of the government’s management”

As such, the political players are risking several critical cards. Chávez will seek to deepen his socialist revolution, with the PSUV as its centerpiece, and wait and see how former party allies such as the PPT and PCV react when it comes time to rejoin the PSUV or make a definitive break. Thus, reorganizing the PSUV after these elections will be an urgent task for the Venezuelan president, with his sights set on the possible call for a popular referendum on indefinite reelection.

However, Venezuela’s economic picture, with a barrel of oil going for less than 50 dollars, will make it difficult for Chávez’s government to continue with its massive social spending, as well as several of its international commitments with countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, in the maintenance of geopolitical alliances in the hemisphere.

Similarly, the harsh reality that an indiscriminate rise in public insecurity in Venezuela would entail could greatly erode the credibility of the government’s management, something that could be politically exploited by the opposition.

POLARIZED POLITICS

In turn, it is precisely the opposition that is risking the sticky issue of unity by looking forward to the next electoral events as a means to capitalize on its recent electoral victories. Depending upon how much progress they make with their management in the states and municipalities won in the elections, the new opposition leadership will seek to devise strategies with the goal of uniting under a single platform in order to have some political strength when they take part in the National Assembly elections, not without first forgetting that this opposition boycotted those same elections that were held in 2005, alleging that there were electoral irregularities.

The opposition’s presidential candidate deserves to be analyzed separately, whether or not Chávez is legally empowered to stand for reelection. Here it must be noted up to what point there is a possible concretion of interests or a fracturing among what we could consider the veteran leadership, headed by Rosales and Ledezma; and the young generation of opposition leaders, with Capriles Radonsky as the most visible candidate.

All of these variables announce some new political realities in Venezuela, whose polarization continues to be a driving force in its politics. This new reality and the impact of the global economic crisis – that of the oil price crisis in particular – will be determinant variables that will allow us to predict how the political future of Venezuela will unfold, as well as to see which of the country’s models will end up prevailing.