Venezuela: Regional elections

14 million people came out early in the morning and went to the ballot boxes to elect governors, mayors and regional representatives

On Sunday 23 November, more than 14 million people entitled to vote came out early in the morning and went to the ballot boxes to elect governors, mayors and regional representatives. These were the second regional elections to take place during the course of the “Bolivarian Revolution” (the first ones took place in 2004). Twenty-two provinces, 330 communities and 225 federal representatives were to be elected from a range of 8,000 candidates standing on behalf of 7,860 political organisations (national and regional parties and independent organisations). These are the official statistics from the CNE (Consejo Nacional Electoral – National Electoral Council), the governmental agency in charge of the electoral processes of the country.

“The Bolivarian government won 17 of the 22 provinces that were contested in the recent elections of 23 November; President Chávez confirmed that the triumph is the ratification of the people for the socialist project of the 21st century,” the deputy president of PSUV, retired General Muller Rojas, said in a press conference, “The six provinces won by the political opposition do not represent a victory for these sectors. ”

Second triumph of the opposition or the consolidation of the bolivarian project?

Obviously these results are an advance for the opposition forces that apparently have abandoned for now the conspirative route and are concentrating on kicking Chavez out of power by democratic means. It is possible the opposition has a long-term plan and their next objective will be the next municipal elections and the national parlamentary elections in 2009. On the side of the Bolivarian movement, with all the contradictions, they still maintain the majority of the governors and also popular support. In this particular instance, it would appear that one force is recuperating and the other is losing ground. Of six of the governorships obtained by the opposition, four are new and amongst them is the high governor of Caracas (the regional governor for the capital). The other three are a state which borders Columbia, Taxhira, the central state of Carabobo (one of the principal industrial developments which possesses the principal seaport of the country, Puerto Cabello where the majority of imports enter), and Miranda, where the PSUV candidate was considered the successor to Chávez and inheritor of Chavismo as the leader of the reformist wing of the party.

Given this situation, it would be impossible to not see changes in the politics of the government and in the situation of the country itself. It is necessary to highlight that the opposition maintained its control over the state of Zulia, which borders Columbia and has the majority of the petroleum wealth of the country. There, the opposition has its principle leader, Manuel Rosales, who stimulated the autonomy movement (?umbo Propio – “For a liberal and capitalist independent Zulia” is his slogan) similar to the Media Luna autonomy movement in Bolivia. This state had been the most visited by President Chávez and the state where he put the most emphasis during the campaign. The president even threatened to put the opposition candidate in jail on charges of alleged corruption. We will see if this threat materialises in the future. In concrete terms, the opposition controls six regions of vital importance, three of which have the largest electorates: Zulia, 2.1 million, Miranda, 1.7 million, Carabobo, 1.3 million, and in total it now controls 37% of the national electorate. This foreshadows a new stage in the ?olivarian Revolution.

The social and political situation before the elections

Venezuela has been trying without success to construct a socialist model without breaking with the structures of capitalism and the bourgeois state it inherited. Although this has been one of the governments with the highest social investment and reforms that have favoured to a high degree the most marginalised sectors of the population – while 50% were in poverty in 1998, today official statistics reduce that figure to approximately 20% – today the same demands of the population, which Chávez used in his 1998 presidential campaign when he was elected for the first time, still apply: overcoming insecurity, the demand for new jobs, housing, higher-quality public services and measures to counteract the high cost of living. So far this year, there is an accumulated inflation rate on food products and basic necessities in Caracas of more than 45% and at the end of the year, the inflation index will be between 28% and 30%. At the same time, the minimum wage of the working class rose by 30% this year. Homicides in Caracas have increased, making murder the third highest cause of death according to some statistics and studies carried out by important human rights organisations. Additionally, it was not until 2006 that the government really began to construct housing, and even that year, the percentage of new housing built was less than 50% than the original goal to construct 200,000. Each year, the shortage of houses amongst the Venezuelan population increases by 100,000.

The problem is that the state is the same one that was left by the bourgeois governments of the past. It has consolidated itself in the last 10 years, which has stimulated corruption, bureaucracy and inefficiency amongst individual ministers. Given these contradictions and weaknesses in the process, the opposition has very skilfully developed a campaign to emphasise these points. For example, four years ago it was unthinkable to imagine a leader of the opposition visiting public institutions to carry out a political canpaign and introducing himself or herself in the poor neighbourhoods without being rejected by the vast majority. During this campaign, in an important public health centre of Caracas, the opposition candidate for the post of high governor (the state governor) presented himself at this centre and even though he was rejected by some workers, was able to be in the building for a number of minutes and received support from other workers there. In an informal interview, one of the workers who supported the opposition candidate affirmed that she was with Chávez, but that she supported the opposition for governor, saying that she was not an ?ity yankee (the term used to characterise the pro-US-american opposition) but that she was tired of the current governor’s corruption, that the institution was deteriorating, that they didn’t pay salaries on time, nor did he listen to the rest of her demands and that, as a punishment vote, she was going to vote for the opposition candidate. This reflects the consciousness of the people and the consequences of promising changes that later are not carried out. Maybe this example can give us an idea of what is happening in Venezuela today after ten years of revolution and counter-revolution in the mood of the people that was manifested in the elections.

The Patriotic Alliance

As in all of the electoral processes before, the Chavismo formed a coalition of political organisations in the attempt to unify its forces and run unified candidates. This alliance, called Polo Patriotico, in the past yielded results, for example in the 2004 elections in Miranda state, a state in the central region that shares a municipality with Caracas of great importance. A candidate of Chavismo had lost to the candidate of the unified opposition, but ultimately won thanks to the votes he obtained from other parties of the patriotic pole But in the situation today, events develop that frustrate this alliance in some states. The bureau of the PSUV had convoked in the middle of the year some internal meetings so that the militants could elect their candidates. But what initially appeared to be an act of revolutionary democracy by the party soon became the beginning of political differences between the different tendencies within the party and the parties of the alliance. This was because a large number of those who aspired to be PSUV favourites did not get what they wanted.

Others denounced the fact that they had won the internal elections, but in the end their victory was not respected and the decision of the president of the party – Chávez – was imposed. This resulted in some of these candidates withdrawing from the PSUV and running with other political organisations. The situation with the other parties of the alliance was even more complicated. The PSUV bureau presented its candidates as the only ones in the electoral campaign and the rest of the parties were told that they should support them. This produced conflicts within these parties and the bureau, including with President Chávez himself, who on various occasions denounced these parties, accusing them of being counter-revolutionary and of not recognising his leadership. In the end, with all of the infighting, what should have been a great patriotic alliance of revolutionary forces that supported the ?olivarian Revolution was little more than a series of convenient agreements in regions where their candidates coincided, and in other areas where they were divided, there was no alliance. The PSUV ran with its candidates and the PPT as well as the Communist Party (PCV) with their own candidates, like Guárico, Cojedes and Portuguesa. While this occurred, the opposition struggled hard for unity, and their candidates remained unified up until the very last day.

The biggest participation in the last 10 years

This was the background to the recent elections. Historically, for this kind of election, abstention ranged from 40% to 50%. These regional elections are not the most attractive for the electorate, and nobody expected a massive participation. But 65% participated, the highest number in the last 10 years. It was an untypical campaign where you did not see large mobilisation and it focused on the aggressive confrontation between Chávez and the candidates of the opposition. Faced with the unpopularity of the majority of his candidates, Chávez took up the campaign as his own and converted it into a kind of referendum. He declared on various occasions that his candidates were the candidates of the people and a guarantee of his continuation in power, the hope for the continued advance of the ?olivarian Revolution and that therefore every revolutionary should vote for them. According to unofficial figures, more than 5 million voted in favour of the candidates of the government, and 4 million for those of the opposition. That translated to 17 governors for Chavismo“ and six for the opposition.

What are the perspectives for the next period?

In 2008, the global financial crisis has intensified, and although at the beginning President Chavez had declared that it would not affect him, in recent weeks he has corrected himself and has called on the population to support his politics of austerity for the next year. The fall of the price of oil during the last few months has him worried, as more than 60% of the national budget depends on oil. In Venezuela, out of every $100 of income into the country, $90 is from oil, which in large parts served to finance public expenditures in different social programmes. At the same time, 60% of this income has been spent on importing food to meet internal demand because of the incapacity of the national agricultural industry to satisfy internal consumption.

This situation without a doubt will be closely considered by the government, and it will pressure and oblige it to make cuts which could be used by the opposition to intensify its attacks and continue highlighting the inability of the revolution to solve the basic problems of the people. However, the prospects for 2009 will not be easy for any reformist political tendency that tries to manipulate the masses for its own interests. Because in this acute situation, the struggles will intensify and the protests of the social sectors for legitimate demands will be greater, affecting the government as much as it will the opposition. It is possible that both sides will try to blame the other, the opposition saying that the government is not giving resources to develop social areas and the government blaming the financial crisis for the possible cuts.

Faced with this possible scenario, revolutionaries should propose a socialist program and struggle for a deepening of the process

The global financial crisis is a crisis of capitalism that is forcing the people and the working class to make sacrifices and pay its costs. Faced with this situation in Venezuela, we cannot permit the government or the opposition to manipulate the masses. We should demand the complete nationalisation of the financial system and the elimination of the financial and economic monopolies that are cotrolled by the five most powerful families of the country and the transnationals. They must immediately be put under the control of the organised people in their communities, peasants without land and workers organised into committees with democratically elected delegates to begin the planning of the economy based on the true needs of the people.

This would be the first concrete step to transform the current structures and go towards socialism. In the same way, the streets must be taken and there must be a constant mobilisation of the revolutionary social sectors to lead the people in their struggle for their just demands. We cannot let the opposition take the initiative in leading these movements. It would be a fatal error for the left. It is also imperative that the workers’ movement overcome its crisis of political direction, abandon the tail of the social movements and take its place in the vanguard. If it is incapable of recovering in the next period, proving itself and renovating its democratic base with a new layer of developing leaders, today will be a turning point allowing the opposing political forces to impose themselves and take control of the country.

Lastly, this whole scenario must open political debates about the weakness of the ?olivarian socialist model. It has shown itself incapable of changing or transforming the system. The reformist attempts to invent an original or self-styled socialism are strategies of the pro-capitalist sectors to take advantage of the ideological and programmatic weaknesses of revolutionary movements like the one in Venezuela. There is one more thing that the revolutionary movement must attack: The financial crisis has shown that the neo-liberal capitalist ideology has failed. It has been forced to retreat to an ideological period they thought they had already overcome, when it was assumed that the state should not intervene in the economy and the supremacy of the markets was unquestioned. They have even had to apply socialist solutions to their crisis, such as the partial nationalisation of their financial system. Venezuela still has the opportunity to carry out a successful socialist revolution, but it depends on a change in the character of the ?olivarian direction or the appearance of an organised and conscious revolutionary workers’ movement with clear socialist perspectives. No matter what, the next period will be one of revolution or counter-revolution.

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November 2008