Venezuela held regional elections on October 31, 2004. The circumstances were quite exceptional, and although one cannot fairly claim that the result is a real representation of the political divisions of the country, these results will be those that people will have to live with for the next 4 years.
How representative were these elections?
Before examining the result and try to understand the message, the first question is to evaluate the validity of the outcome. This is not idle exercise as the August election was highly questioned and very strong evidence of fraud was presented. In addition, this time around, as it was the case during the recall election campaign, the Chavez administration has used and abused of its power; it has accessed public treasury to literally in some cases buy votes. Whether actual fraud was committed either August 15 or October 31, one thing is certain, the campaign conditions and the electoral set up were strongly favoring Chavez or the candidates he supported. By itself such an abuse casts a shadow on the democratic nature of these elections.
With this provision made, one must admit that most of the results of October 31 are probably real results if not necessarily representative. The divisions within the opposition, the devastating abstention campaign in some areas, the lacking qualities in some of the opposition candidates helped chavismo gain enough margin that any electoral fraud that might have been planned did not need to be activated. Besides, the electoral gerrymandering, if not outright illegal manipulation of the electoral registry (REP), was an electoral maneuver already set into place for August 15 and one that the opposition was unwilling to face on as it should have done. As a consequence the prediction of a loss of at least 100 districts (about 30%) did take place.
All in all, except for clear hints of fraud in Carabobo state, and not so clear hints in Miranda and Yaracuy, one can say that the results of October 31 are for the most part real results.
Winners and losers
Perhaps the most surprising result is that there are no real winners in these elections. Of course that the opposition lost half of its districts and kept only one state house with a rather insignificant gain of another one shows clearly that it is the major loser in the battle. But does that make chavismo a big winner? Well, again, for a movement that gained 20 of 22 state houses, one does not sense quite an air of triumph in its followers. More than anything else, the fact that almost all candidates that won for Chavez are his appointees rather than natural and local leaders has certainly a lot to do with it. These elections were a victory of Chavez more than the local guy winning it. Only Didalco Bolivar in Aragua, and, up to a point, the governors of Portuguesa, Sucre, Guarico and Monagas can claim any personal leadership in their states. And all of them share one thing, they are not from the army!
Chavismo in victory
More than ever chavismo is now the MVR party. The others associates can have on occasion some following but the MVR is now the towering figure in chavismo. And the MVR owes it all to Chavez. This ought to create some significant resentment within chavismo and we will have to wait and see how this will play.
Another factor that attenuates the festive mood of chavismo is the realization that its victory is due to the stipends versed through the misiones more than from any revolutionary fervor. By voting for chavista candidates many people made a pragmatic and non ideological decision: they wanted misiones benefit to keep coming in and they wanted a stop to the constant fighting between Caracas and their state house. Once it was clear that Chavez was staying for a few more years then survival dictated for some that the governor should be of the same scarlet color. After all, not all of Chavez opponents are ideologically committed to the tenets of the opposition, or even believe in democracy. Populist rule since 1958 has created such kind of voters, devoted only to the most likely provider..
The opposition, or rather AD, debacle
The main culprit, or rather the direct one is Accion Democratica, AD. The old party decided officially on the third week of August to go solo for these elections, though its decision might have been taken as early as December 2003 when it failed to control the signature gathering process. The reason was very simple: AD realized that Chavez had the will and the money to play it foul if needed to remain in office for as long as possible. AD understands that very well since they did practice that type of arrogance and gumption in their own past, though not to the extent that Chavez practices it. It is possible that AD decided to bet on at least 4 more years of Chavez. AD thus needs to become the main opposition party first and then nurture some possible future presidential candidate to face off with Chavez after 2006. The only obstacle in AD plans is Primero Justicia, MPJ. This party accused to be born from the media by special interests has shown that it can actually run towns and penetrate popular sectors. MVR also has realized that and it is quite telling that it coincides greatly with AD in their attacks on MPJ, trying to prevent any further spread outside of the Caracas region.
The strategy of AD was thus quite simple: run its own candidate wherever it could not convince the opposition to rally behind its candidate. This last hypothesis only happened in Nueva Esparta and Monagas while AD had to cave in some states where it was too weak, such as Miranda, or where it hoped to control the future government, such as Bolivar. Otherwise in Merida, Trujillo, Lara, Yaracuy, Caracas, and others, AD went solo even if the polls told that it was a no win situation for the opposition if divided.
But AD has been the great loser. No matter what Ramos Allup said on November 2 as to AD being the second party in the country, it was a rather pyrrhic victory. AD was indeed the only party that run nation wide and thus was the second vote getter, though very, very far from the MVR! But some disasters such as in Lara and Caracas only showed too well that AD was more a party of the past than one for the future.
And in addition it will have to carry the stigma of having been the one allowing the extensive chavista victory by its arrogance and divisiveness.
Former grandees and minor parties rout
For Copei and MAS, once governmental parties, the rout could not be any more bitter. Copei lost its Miranda state and failed to recover Tachira where in addition it lost some of the districts it held. Elsewhere Copei is a ghost.
The MAS has not survived its division into MAS and PODEMOS which remained with Chavez. Besides a handful of districts the MAS is now nothing and must now face a fusion with other left of center parties if they want to create a movement able to take votes from chavismo in the future.
Other parties who pretended to be big shots, upcoming movements revealed themselves to be no more than hot air. The pathetic case of Arias Cardenas in Zulia is th emost striking example. A former Zulia governor, easily re-elected in 1998 could not get even a 2 % this time.
Local parties mixed results
Local parties did not manage to resist better the national trend. It is actually a sad fact that the governors of what are arguably the best managed states in Venezuela, Yaracuy and Carabobo (likely with fraud) have been ousted, even though abstention was rather low there. This injustice is not compensated by those who survived.
In Zulia Rosales achieved the feat to oppose head on Chavez and survive. This victory is quite remarkable considering the immense effort made by Chavez to impose his candidate. But for once Chavez arrogance did him in. Zulia is the most regionalist state in Venezuela and Chavez has been only too willing to treat it as any other Venezuela area. Zulia denizens, very conscious that their underground is the source of all patronage in Venezuela are rather resentful. Previous presidents were very careful to tiptoe around Zulianos. But Chavez did not, thinking that his grandiloquence would work the same everywhere, be it Caracas, Havana, Rio or Maracaibo. Well, it did not, and Rosales is now in position to challenge Chavez in 2006 if he feels like it and if oil prices go down enough.
The other semi-successful resistance is MPJ. It held onto the three town halls it had in the Caracas area, added one in Anzoategui. More important, it trashed AD in Caracas and came quite close to it in other areas where MPJ mounted a mild challenge. MPJ has survived the combined onslaught of chavismo and AD. It certainly did not grow as it could have grown but it did not buckle either. Had the Caracas campaign been better managed and abstention lesser it could now administer more people than what AD does: the losses of AD were unavoidable, the ones from MPJ could have been avoided and this will benefit MPJ on the long run. That is, if MPJ materializes a deeper communication with popular sectors, can create more Carlos Ocariz to go elsewhere in Venezuela. After all Copei was originally a party from the elite right wing and did manage to reach power twice once it reached out!
There is another factor that could help MPJ to become quickly a main opposition party, and hopefully bury once and for all AD. Proyecto Venezuela and Convergencia cheated out of their Carabobo and Yaracuy state houses can make a deal with MPJ, if not join them. Both of these parties are from the efficient liberal right, have been able to reach popular sectors and are a natural ally of MPJ. Having lost their state houses, an, for Proyecto Venezuela failed to become a nation wide party, it is not unconceivable that they seek union with MPJ making this one suddenly a national party, already bigger than AD!
In following posts the results in some areas will be given and hopefully will make it more clear for the reader to understand the analysis written above.
However we can already each a series of conclusion.
Chavez has won that battle. From a sure loser in the fall of 2002, he is now in near absolute control of the country. Without diminishing this political achievement, this can be very dangerous as this political control depends too much on him. All decisions have to go through Miraflores palace and eventually this will create problems for the regime.
The opposition still has some hopes. That is, if the regime does not tighten the noose further. It seems that the creative forces in Venezuela are in the local parties and in MPJ. The old dinosaurs are on the way out. Even better, all the small little things that acted as if they had major following have revealed themselves non entities. Their future is in either joining AD and bet on its revival or join MPJ and bet on its future. From today's vantage point it seems that the road for MPJ is more difficult than for AD but more promising.
Another conclusion is that decentralization is dead. Most governors are Chavez creatures and owe him everything. They will be tightly controlled from Caracas. Administratively this is a major disaster for Venezuela as we go back in time, against the word current who demands more and more local autonomies! Will there be a backlash? The answer might come sooner than expected.