Venezuela: Majority votes for socialism

By Roberto Jorquera and Marce Cameron, Caracas

Elections of state governors and local mayors were held across Venezuela on November 23. Candidates of President Hugo Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won 5.7 million votes, 1.4 million more votes than supported Chavez in the December 2007 constitutional referendum. They won 17 out of the 22 state governorships that were up for elections and 81% of the 327 contested mayoralties in municipal elections. As Chavez pointed out in a press conference early on the morning of November 24, this result gives the revolutionary working people’s government he leads a clear mandate to continue on its socialist course. “This ratifies the building of the historic project of Bolivarian socialism”, said Chavez. “Now we must deepen it, extend it.”

Despite the PSUV winning 51% of the votes (as against 42% for the anti-Chavez opposition), the Western corporate press has claimed the election result was a defeat for Chavez. The November 24 Wall Street Journal claimed that Chavez was given “a sharp rebuke” by voters who “elevated” the opposition. The same day’s New York Times claimed that “many of President Hugo Chavez’s supporters deserted him” and the “outcome of Sunday’s vote was the second blow dealt to the president in a year, after voters rejected last December his plan to alter the constitution to give himself more power”. An editorial in the same day’s NYT claimed that the “results mean that the opposition will rule more than half of Venezuela’s population”. An editorial in the next day’s Washington Post was sub-headlined “Voters deliver another rebuff to Venezuela’s strongman”. However, the pro-capitalist opposition actually lost support in the November 23 elections. In the December 2007 referendum the opposition won the support of 51% of the 9 million voters who participated.

In the 2000 state elections, candidates supporting Chavez, whose political platform at the time was not pro-socialist but for a “Third Way” between neoliberal capitalism and socialism, won 17 of the country’s 23 state governorships. In the 2004 state elections, after initially fielding candidates, the opposition called for a boycott and pro-Chavez candidates won states previously held by the opposition such as Carabobo and Miranda.

In this year’s state elections the opposition retained two states — oil-rich Zulia and the tourist island of Nueva Esparta — and recovered Carabobo and Miranda. The opposition also narrowly won the Colombian border state of Tachira (with 49.54% of the vote, against 48.04% for the PSUV) and the mayor’s office of the federal district of Greater Caracas. As a result, opposition politicians will hold the top local public offices that cover 45% of Venezuela’s population, not the “more than half” claimed by the NYT’s editors. Furthermore, in all five states where opposition candidates were elected as the governors, PSUV candidates won control of the majority of the municipal governments.

In this year’s state elections, the PSUV has taken three states that had been won by the opposition in 2000 — Apure, Monagas and Yaracuy. The PSUV has also won the governorships of another three states — Aragua, Guarico and Sucre. The Western corporate media has not counted these three states as victories for the PSUV because their incumbent governors had been elected in 2004 claiming to be Chavez supporters, but had broken with Chavez shortly afterwards.

Participation of Chavez’s supporters in the elections over recent years has varied greatly. Chavez received some 7.5 million votes in the 2006 presidential election, but only 4 million in the December 2007 referendum on a raft of constitutional changes aimed at consolidating a socialist state and allowing Chavez to run for re-election indefinitely. This lower result was due largely to the complexity of the amendments being proposed and the difficulty in winning support for these changes given the fear campaign waged by the opposition media. It was abstention by too many Chavez supporters, rather than growing support for the opposition, that killed this constitutional initiative. Mobilising the revolution’s supporters to vote for PSUV candidates was the first real test of the new party, which was only launched in March 2007 with an initial 2000 members. Given the voter indifference towards state elections in the past, Chavez and the PSUV campaigned hard to turn the November 23 elections into a de-facto referendum on Chavez’s leadership and the socialist revolution.

Several parties that had been part of Chavez’s coalition in the 2004 elections ran directly against PSUV candidates in these elections. Jorge Rodriguez, the PSUV national coordinator, was challenged in the poorest and most populated section of Greater Caracas, the Libertador municipality, for the position of metropolitan mayor, by National Assembly deputy Luis Tascon (who recently launched his New Revolutionary Path party). While claiming to be a Chavista, Tascon ran a fierce “leftist” campaign claiming that Rodiguez “represents the materialisation of the bourgeois state within the revolutionary process”. Rodriguez won 53% against opposition candidate Ivan Gonzalez with 41%. Tascon received 6% of the vote.

In the state of Trujillo, the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) also challenged the PSUV with a candidate who had lost the vote to become the PSUV candidate in the primaries (where PSUV members directly pre-selected the party’s candidates). PSUV candidate Hugo Cabezas still won with 59% of the vote. The Patria Para Todos (Homeland For All) party picked up Lenny Manuitt after he had also lost the pre-selection vote to be the PSUV candidate, and ran him as the PPT candidate in the state of Guarico (a PPT strong hold). But William Lara still won it for the PSUV with 52%.

More than a few nominally pro-Chavez governors and mayors have proven to be incompetent, corrupt, or both. Some pro-Chavez officials have defected to the opposition. The poor performance of many nominally pro-Chavez incumbents led some Chavez supporters to refuse to vote for PSUV candidates on November 23, even when these candidates enjoy a high public profile.

At a November 18 PSUV rally in Caracas, Chavez had a blunt warning for incompetent or corrupt PSUV public officials: “If newly elected PSUV governors or mayors do not perform they should immediately be removed … We can not allow any more traitors in the revolution.” Chavez also called for unity among the pro-revolution forces, addressing his comments to political parties that say they support the socialist revolution but which have refused to join in building the PSUV — in particular, the PPT and the PCV: “Communist comrades, this is the road of unity, we must go beyond sectarianism.”

In his November 18 address, Chavez projected a new stage in the socialist revolution beginning in 2009, saying: “We will see a fundamental change in the economic and political sphere … There needs to be a consolidation of the instruments of popular power and self- government ... [W]e need to move towards making the communal councils the main forms of people’s power in local government.”