Thursday, November 27, 2008

The 2008 Venezuelan results: 2 - is there a new chavista voter?

The answer is NO.

What has taken place is a decanting of the electorate into a client group that votes for Chavez, like it or not, and a more critical group that distances itself from Chavez more and more. This is nothing new. Already in 2004 I observed that the Recall Election result was a defeat for Chavez in Caracas area and many urban areas, with his margin of victory coming from outlying suburban or rural areas. You could see that even in relatively small cities like San Felipe where Chavez was defeated, though the result at large of Yaracuy state was a strong win for Chavez. This pattern was described again and again in 2006 and 2007 when I analyzed closely the results then. What we see today is the culmination of sorts of this separation of the electorate which results in the map that we see (that once again I lift from AM as he has the tact to put in light blue the states won by the oppo with less than 50%, and in lighter red the likewise PSUV victories, that way it looks less drab than the propaganda maps offered by chavismo).

Of course, such a political phenomenon is never complete and bears the seeds of its own demise as it takes shape, but I think that this election marks the high water of Chavez strategy to make two Venezuelas so as to have one chunk large enough to rule over the other until it either submits or is politically obliterated. Whichever comes first.

If the red expanse seems rather daunting, it is important to note that it corresponds mostly to relatively empty areas, the Llanos, Monagas and Southern Anzoategui, Bolivar and Delta Amacuro and even up to a point Falcon. Of the densely industrial settled areas chavismo only gets Aragua, by a not very large margin, and Lara by a whopping margin but with a Governor elect who is highly suspected inside PSUV circles. Indeed, part of his whopping victory is due to opposition voting for him. The densely settled agricultural areas are sort of evenly split between the two camps, Tachira on one side and Merida and Trujillo on the other. Yaracuy and Sucre are sort of hybrid areas between densely and not so densely settled areas.

I will get into the details in future posts but it is good to start by addressing squarely the difference between the more economically advanced areas of Venezuela (Zulia is both agricultural and industrial power house, by the way) and the less advanced ones.

The main explanation comes form the ten years of Chavez rule. Policies of land expropriation, of not really promoting actively independent production even at the small level, of economic insecurity, of crime and other calamities such as impassable roads have basically stunted any real growth in the large agricultural areas. And of course also stunting the growth of the cities of these areas who could have developed a vibrant agribusiness system, but did not. Not to mention the white elephants of corruption such as the vaunted gigantic sugar mill of CAEEZ in Barinas. In ten years these areas have become increasingly dependent of government subsidies, be they public administration jobs, misiones handouts or even agricultural subsidies. Some states, such as Vargas and Sucre have become so dependent on governmental handouts that chavismo got an unexpected victory in one and another one with an unexpected margin. Without such extremes this situation is also reproduced in Yaracuy, Cojedes, Guarico, Apure, Falcon, Monagas, Trujillo and to a lesser extent in Merida, Bolivar and Anzoategui. Aragua and Lara do have a leftist tradition which brings a supplemental element to this phenomenon.

To this you add the brutal campaign of Chavez, with threats, blackmail and all sorts of undue pressure. Now, you can do a simple math here. The public rolls, depending on how you calculate them, go from 2 to 3 million folks. Let's say for the sake of the argument that a third of them come from the "ancien regime" and still vote against Chavez. But what about the other 2/3? That is, at the very least one million of public servants are genuinely worried to lose their job if chavismo loses a given town or state. And how many people depend on that governmental pay check? How many votes for Chavez does that translate into?

Now, certainly this is not enough to explain Chavez victory. There is also the social grudges, the hopes, the dreams, the revenge, ideology, whatever, but my point is that in these states where chavismo won yesterday the margin of victory depended significantly on the threats directly mentioned by Chavez when he menaced to cut resources from states that do not vote for him. The campaign was effective: in mid September even this blogger was seeing a trend towards 10 states for the opposition. By mid November I had dropped again that estimate to 5-7, forgetting completely my "best case scenario".

But if I think that Chavez strategy was successful in rallying his troops, believers or not, I also think it went as far as it could go. In fact one or two weeks more of campaign and under such an assault the opposition would have united better and carried places it lost last Sunday, namely Bolivar and maybe Barinas. Getting Tachira or Carabobo for chavismo would not have really compensated for the symbolic loss of Barinas or the real loss of Bolivar. There is law in negative campaigning, which is what Chavez did, it only works if you also bring something positive from your side. By the end of the campaign the "me or chaos" of Chavez was getting thin on this respect.

I will go later into details to illustrate more or less directly some of the things I wrote above, but right now I want to state something: last Sunday chavismo got its last fear victory. The price it will pay for this victory, if we only look at number of states and votes obtained, is that the opposition survived a brutal onslaught, regrouped in stronger and more decided group and proved it can start offering something, and win on it. This is not anymore the defeated opposition of October 2004, not even the barely awakening opposition of 2006. This is now a real opposition, still weak, fragile, but there, present and growing. And it can thank Chavez from his foolish decision to turn the campaign again on a plebiscite on him to in the end pick up only a couple extra states. Ugly greed, no? That is why the victory of Chavez has a taste of defeat because as Teodoro Petkoff so simply stated, it was a "political" victory for the opposition, and it is perceived by all, even chavistas, as such. I cannot tell you how subdued was chavismo "celebration" in San Felipe compared to the one 4 years ago. And yet Julio Leon Heredia got a much, much better result than Gimenez in 2004.

By losing 5 states, including the three bigger ones, by losing Caracas, the political and cultural center of Venezuela, by winning in popular Sucre district and gaining back Maracaibo the opposition can hide very well its other less good results while chavismo is at loss to explain how come in Caucaguita it ONLY got 64,6% of the vote when it should have gotten much more. In 2004 it got 71,3%, in 2006 72,4%, but in 2007 only 59,6%. In 2008 it did not recover these voters lost in 2007. It is worth putting up in a graph the results for Caucaguita since 2004 and think about their meaning.

Why look at Caucaguita? For people old enough reading this blog you will remember the famous political add of 1978 Luis Herrera when he went to Caucaguita, then a very recent slum in Eastern Caracas on the Guarenas road. There he talked to Aleida Josefina and empathized with her. That spot was one of the big hits of that campaign where Herrera defeated the AD machinery. Of course, once in office he forgot about Caucaguita and I believe that Chavez went there in 1998. I do not know whether he ever went back, but Caucaguita in spite of awful public housing built by Luis Herrera (?) is hardly better off than in 1978. Chavez did mention last Monday Caucaguita as one of the popular districts he won and I went to look at the date graphed above.

You can see if for yourself: Chavez HAS NOT recovered his presidential vote of 2006, and the opposition vote is not only more steady than his vote but it shows a trend to grow. Sure, the opposition will probably not win in Caucaguita for another 20 years, if ever, but that the chavista bases are weakening is clearly seen in those results. I am willing to bet that similar graphs can be drawn from all of the popular Sucre/Petare districts and that maybe in all of them the opposition vote has eroded the chavista vote. Yes, Chavez won in every popular district but he failed to recover his shine and the the ceiling has been reached in 2006, likely never to be reached again. Chavez can scream all what he wants to foreign journalists or even to his followers, they all know because they can either figure out data like what I show or because simply they live at Cuacaguita and know better.

That is why the opposition has a political victory if not the numbers victory, yet: it has shown that it can grow in Chavez city quarters and now it needs to find ways to grow in rural and suburban districts. We all know in Venezuela that a large share of Chavez vote is due to his material offerings. We all know that with a declining oil revenue that share could quickly go to abstention or to someone who promises more. How many may he lsoe next time? 10%? 20%? If he keeps this way probably enough to make next result a 17 to 5 in favor of the opposition....

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