Monday, October 27, 2008

The Venezuelan 2008 election: update 12 - Carabobo and Aragua, in search of the inner chavista

After having reviewed the Caracas area we can now look at the very interesting developments in Carabobo and Aragua, Venezuela's industrial "heartland" of sorts. The region stands out as probably the laboratory of what is at stake for the future of chavismo. We see in Aragua a traditional battle between a populist left and a more social democratic option and in Carabobo we can witness chavismo in all of its hubris as the Supremo decided to test his ability to dictate his choices. As such it is not so far fetched to write that the results of these two states will indicate us how democratic we are as a country, truly.



Carabobo

In Carabobo the opposition has one of its best shots at a strong come back, with some sour notes. Two things are at play here: chavismo has filed the possible worst of ideological candidates in a state that is more educated and more conscious of the bounties of democracy and economic freedom. As we have discussed when looking at past election results, chavismo tends to do poorly in developed urban areas whereas it does better in rural areas or dormitories: look for example the preceding post where the Caracas dormitories of Guarenas-Guatire vote more for Chavez than some of the lower classes of Caracas's Petare neighborhood. The other state where this is clearly seen is Carabobobo where Valencia and its residential neighborhoods of Naguanagua and San Diego vote against Chavez while more industrial and dormitory areas of Guacara, Libertador and Los Guayos hope for chavismo (though Guacara said NO in 2007). It is interesting to note that Valencia as the largest district in Carabobo has extensive popular areas in its South side and still that did not stop it from giving a major thumbs down to the constitutional reform of 2007.

Historically Carabobo had been ruled by the Salas dynasty for almost a decade and a half. Carabobo was considered as one of the best administered states. Thus the narrowest of losses by the then sitting governor Henrique Sals Feo was considered a surprise, even in such an unfavorable year as 2004 for the opposition. In fact of all the results of that regional election the ones of Carabobo were perceived as the most dubious one as the CNE sent Jorge Rodriguez to preside personally over what was considered organized cheating. Salas Feo threatened all sorts of actions but in the he decided to take care instead of his personal life and let the new Governor Acosta Carles take the state to seed. It paid off apparently because with little money, with little campaigning Salas Feo is parading far above on top of any serious poll published for the state. Maybe in retrospective it was a wise move for Salas as paradoxically the Acosta Carles administration might have been bad but not as bad as other chavista administrations. At the level of state services Carabobo could be recovered quickly to its pre-2004 status, which is apparently what people there want.

Acosta Carles was the Nazional Guard General who had the famous burp that went around the world in January 2003 when he seized a soft drink plant on strike. He became the darling of the vulgar chavismo, the one that wanted to punish the opposition, and thus his way to Carabobo governorship was a given. He was elected under a cloud, and a dark cloud at that because of the paradox that Salas Feo’s Proyecto Venezuela retained a majority in the state assembly, a cross voting never seen in Venezuela.

Still, Acosta Carles dropped his military fatigues and took the business civilian suit. And in more ways than one. He apparently started dealing discretely with the mayor of Valencia who even though an opposition mayor was also a personal enemy of the Salas. Quickly Acosta Carles found out that there was money to be made in social construction as well as popularity to be gained. We can criticize him at will but we are told that of all chavista governors he is the one that built the most housing under his tenure. He also had deals with Puerto Cabello commerce and harbor. Soon Acosta Carles showed the very dangerous situation within chavismo of being able not to depend anymore from the beloved great leader. Within two years of rule rumors of a break up between Acosta and Chavez were starting to circulate, not because of the corruption associated with his tenure, but because Chavez could not stand his independent ways. Early this year the break up came when Chavez forbade Acosta to run for reelection. After a few weeks Acosta decided to run anyway under his name and no matter what heavy artillery chavismo, and Chavez as the loudest gun, deployed against him, he retains at least 10-15% of voting intentions.

It must be said that Chavez did not simplify his task by ensuring that Mario Silva would be the PSUV candidate. We think that it must be because of his personal friendship between them because the man has absolutely none of the qualities needed to become governor of any state. He is crass, vulgar, vindictive, manipulator, a liar, probably a druggie and what not. But no one sucks better to Chavez, and this from his late night infamous show of La Hojilla that Chavez visited frequently. Apparently Chavez mistook the ratings of la Hojilla for approval of what was said there and decided to send Mario Silva with zero administrative experience, without any electoral victory under his belt, to earn the governorship of the third most important state of Venezuela, and perhaps the most sophisticated one at that in spite of its smaller size.

Needless to say that it has not worked out well. As far as I know Mario Silva has not been able to cross the 30% voting intentions in polls even though his situation improved some when people started realizing that Chavez really, really wanted Mario Silva and was not going to change him. In fact Chavez has been campaigning heavily in Carabobo. From there for example he expelled the US ambassador while at a Puerto Cabello meeting. At another opportunity he said that Carababo was a land of traitors, which is exactly the kind of thing you do not say if you want to endear yourself to the people of a rather proud state. This of course was promptly used by Acosta Carles in his web page.

These days there is a rumor that chavismo might consider making up with Acosta Carles, though we do not know if it is to give him the nod after all the insults Chavez sent his way, or to Mario Silva paying off Acosta, or maybe even another one though the late date almost excludes that possibility. But the damage is done among chavismo as its campaign turned really grotesque, to the delight of humor sites like Chigüire bipolar. Polls are clear, even if we were to assume that the Acosta and Silva people would make up and kiss in spite of the incredible insults exchanged, their sum is still a few points below Salas Feo.

But all is not rosy for the opposition as division reigns in at the level of municipalities. Proyecto Venezuela has proven to be a rather intolerant negotiator and wants all of the state for itself. This has not gone down well, in particular after 3 years of a diffident Salas Feo who only returned to run, avoiding any confrontation with chavismo for 3 years while others tried to defend Carabobo alone against the abuses of chavismo. Thus I am not expecting the opposition to make significant gains in its town hall count. Though this is also compensated in part by a relative lack of unity in chavismo camp. Except for the all but certain victory for the governorship one can only project tendencies, with victories in three Valencia districts.

Bejuma is an interesting district because it is one of the rare rural districts where actually chavismo and opposition can battle. Bejuma could be recovered this time by the opposition (it held it in 2000-2004), which would be bad news for chavismo in other such districts, the more technologically advanced rural areas which might be escaping the grasp of chavismo as evolved urban centers do.

Besides Bejuma the other district to watch is Puerto Cabello where chavismo has not hesitated in threatening local radio stations that were not favorable in their talk shows. The incredible graft existing in Puerto Cabello and the general deterioration of the area which also depends on tourism could bring a surprise as the opposition there did manage a unity candidate. But the historical trend in Puerto Cabello (Chavez got 71% in 2006) is not favorable and Lacava aggressiveness could pay off for chavismo.

Finally the possible good news for the opposition is that the many divisions within chavismo can compensate for the divisions within the opposition when the vote for the legislative council is considered. I expect there the opposition to get an easy majority.

Aragua

Aragua used to be the most chavista state of all. Chavez got 71.8% of the vote there in 2006 but the SI of 2007 was a paltry 53%. What happened?

Didalco Bolivar is the long serving governor of Aragua and through the quirks of electoral calendar and the 1999 constitution he has been ruling Aragua since 1995! A record in Venezuela! but he broke up with Chavez over the 2007 constitutional coup and as such Aragua is up in the air. That is, not accessible to the old opposition yet, but possibly to the new opposition that is birthing from chavismo ranks: the traditional opposition of Venezuela and the new one of Primero Justicia have only a role to play in Maracay and La Victoria.

Aragua has always been ruled from the left since governors are elected. This is due to two things: its industrial and worker trade union base, and its historical heritage as Jose Vicente Gomez administered Venezuela since Maracay and as such Aragua was the most controlled state of Venezuela 80 years ago. That Gomez established the main military bases of Venezuela there did not help in creating a democratic, dialog centered, political culture in the state.

When Chavez came to power Aragua of course gave him fervent support. In 2006 for his reelection the locals under the flag of PODEMOS did not do that well: of the 72% that Chavez got, 45.3% came from his own MVR ballot and PODEMOS only gave him 13.7%. This was already seen in 2004 when Didalco Bolivar got 12.3% from his own PODEMOS whereas the MVR brought him 37.8%. True, many people vote MVR because it was simpler to find in the ballot but it remains that the relative strength of PODEMOS in Aragua is weakening to the benefit of more radical chavismo. The whole question this time is to see how powerful PODEMOS really is, how the machinery of Didalco bolivar will be able to help its candidate, Henry Rosales, win.

Henry Rosales does have some advantages: he is a local, he is well known, he has the Didalco machinery behind, he won the only opposition primary which allowed a good support across the board, he has the rule of Didalco behind him which for all its fault looks to have been better than the one of its neighbors in Miranda and Carabobo. But Rosales lacks charisma, is seen too much as a continuation of Didalco who, ruling since 1995, is getting a little tiresome. In front of him he has the all but appointed Rafael Isea. And ex military participating in the coups of 1992 I have difficultly to be objective writing about him. This is made more difficult because as a finance minister he has presided his office while some of the deals exposed these days in Miami were taking place. Nobody is investigating him so far.

The campaign of Isea is very simple: gifts and promises, and I mean gifts as his giving washers and refrigerators are well known. Of course he does not pay them from his own pocket. But I have other more important problems with him: as a strong supporter of Chavez the state will become a radicalized one under his tenure. I suspect that he will have no qualms dismantling the federal structure to surrender it to the local military entrenched at Maracay bases and who already have more local power than what they should be getting. Isea is someone who like Chaevz has no notion of what dialog is, and who as a military even as a governor of his state he will have no problems obeying Chavez even if it hurts his state.

The only district here worth watching is Girardot, the main one that covers most of Maracay. There is a generalized political division in this district. Chavismo won it in 2004 without a majority of the vote and thus it was always up for grabs. The 46.3% SI were further bad news, noteworthy considering that Maracay has a large military population which is supposed to support Chavez. It seems that the candidate of Primero Justicia Richard Mardo is slowly gaining and could become the next mayor. That would be a major success for Primero Justicia because it would consecrate it as a national party proving that it can gain important districts outside of the Caracas region. Meanwhile Mardo has had no problem campaigning with Henry Rosales and if Mardo wins he would be in excellent position to succeed Rosales in a not so distant future, taking Aragua from the left for the first time in nearly three decades.

In the other districts things are not clear as we see mostly a fight between PSUV and PODEMOS or PODEMOS supported candidates. The parameters here vary from one town to the next: the influence of Didalco Bolivar in the local vote, whether PODEMOS has indeed its own strength and if that one is able to combine with the rest of the opposition. I tend to go PSUV because of the heavy effort that chavismo has been putting there since 2004 but surprises are always possible so I am not calling anythign in Aragua except for two districts of Maracay that should not go to the PSUV.

Meanwhile the elections for the legislative assembly are totally up for grabs. The district drawing of the state favors PODEMOS and the MVR. The opposition can only hope to sneak in where MVR and PODEMOS are even. No matter who wins the governor's seat, the odds of a legislative body going PSUV anyway is high.

Conclusions

The results of these two states are much more crucial than those more glamorous of Miranda or Zulia. In there we are seeing the most likely scenario of a post Chavez era. The leftist and trade union tradition in both states allow the PSUV to have a more genuine political base there, not as Chaevz dependent. Thus the fight is between a radicalized PSUV or a social democratic future. This social democracy is almost a caricature in Carabobo under Acosta Carles leadership, but the 10% of people behind him are the popular classes that cannot stand the intolerance of Chavez and his PSUV. In Aragua it is more clear as PODEMOS and PSUV battle in earnest for the mantle of the left, whatever left means today, that is. Thus we must hope for a Rosales victory but Isea is running strong.

The future opposition is also being defined there even if it is not as obvious. The "right" is in fact formed by relatively socially conscious movements such as Proyecto Venezuela of Primero Justicia. It seems that there AD and Copei who still breathe in other states, are gone for good as major players here. Salas Feo will face the definite challenge to see what he is going to do with Proyecto Venezuela now that he messed up its start as a National Party that many thought it had reached in 1998. Since he cannot run again in four years he will have to define a heir and this is always a risky proposal in what has been until now a family franchise. Thus Primero Justicia has an excellent chance to rise fast in these two states once the Salas fade away and either the PSUV or PODEMOS decide the left. Yet, one cannot discard that out of spite a portion of Proyecto Venezuela goes to the UNT to complicate things some.


-The end-

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