Venezuelan elections: Mixed results intensify class struggle

PSUV members rally before the November 23, 2008, elections.

By Christopher Kerr

Electoral politics in Venezuela are primarily an expression of the greater class struggle occurring around them. This general tendency occurs despite efforts by the government to institutionalise the mechanism of elections as the legitimate method of implementing the political project of both blocs of power, and ensuring the transparency and reliability of the electoral process in the eyes of the Venezuelan masses.

Usually in Venezuela, elections for governors, mayors and the National Assembly are not marked by high turnouts or great interest by the population in comparison with presidential elections. However, with the development of the Bolivarian Revolution and the increased politicisation of the Venezuelan population, local elections are not merely elections regarding the actual candidates but also express -- to some extent -- support for, or opposition to, the national Bolivarian government (as the expression of leadership of the revolutionary process) led by President Hugo Chavez, which has proclaimed to have taken an explicit turn to build ``21st century socialism''. As the Argentine political journal America XXI put it:

To continue down this path implies a very rapid and energetic deepening of measures to adapt the state apparatus to the necessities of radical transformation. Will the Venezuelan people express, with sufficient participation and a majority weight, their will to accelerate the revolution?

There is no historic precedent of a struggle of this type ever being resolved through elections -- much less in the era of corporate monopoly over information and the shameless manipulation of opinion by the media.

Thus, it is necessary to analyse the context leading up to the November 23, 2008, elections in order to fully grasp the significance of the results. In the 2004 gubernatorial elections, the Bolivarian government had just defeated a massive effort by the opposition to recall President Chavez and in doing so had destroyed their morale and their momentum -- a tendency which was reinforced by sectors of the opposition calling for electoral abstention as a form of destabilisation. The result was an electoral map dominated by the candidates supported by the national government, that in some ways didn´t fully reflect the electoral popularity of the various camps.

Even at the height of popularity of President Chavez with his reelection at the end of 2006, the opposition still received over 4 million votes, a number which may be numerically inferior on the national scale but could be strategically important in larger urban centres where their support has a higher concentration.

In 2007, the Bolivarian government launched a constitutional reform to explicitly bring the constitutional framework in line with the socialist direction of the revolution. For a number of reasons, already analysed in depth elsewhere, that referendum failed to pass, signaling the first major defeat of the Bolivarian forces. However, what was significant about that defeat wasn't the rise of the opposition as a force to be reckoned with but rather the abstention of a large section of the base of Chavismo, with the national vote dropping from over 7 million to 4 million within the period of 12 months.

This defeat, to some extent, rejuvenated the base of the opposition, with its new public relations face of an independent student movement (whose leadership is closely related to the opposition parties, with figures such as spokesperson Freddy Guevara -- who once proclaimed the apolitical nature of the student movement -- consequently running for the main opposition party, Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Era), in the most recent elections) but which still was incapable of uniting in order to launch an alternative national program.

However, the opposition, which at one point appeared politically deceased, still had two sources in its life-support mechanism. The first was its lifeline of the largely intact corporate media monopoly, and the second was political resources from the United States (and to a lesser extent other nations), which took the form of overt financing of US$50 million starting from the year 2000 in combination with strategic political cadre.

According to Eva Golinger, the Venezuelan-American lawyer who made this intervention public through the Freedom of Information Act:

These foreign agencies, like the aforementioned USAID and the NED, and others such as Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (Germany), FAES (Spain), FOCAL (Canada), Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Germany), among others, have been working in Venezuela for years, advising and financing parties such as Primero Justicia (Justice First), Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Era), and Podemos to help them create political platforms and strategies that reflect the needs and wants of the Venezuelan people, but maintain a hidden agenda that promotes a neo-liberal, anti-socialist vision... The work of these agencies has also been extremely effective with the NGOs and within right-wing student groups, such as Sumate, Cedice, Hagamos Democracia, Sinergia, "White Hands" student movement, and others.

However, it wasn't only the opposition that was attempting to transform itself into a qualitatively new and superior political force. The other major development of 2008 was the rise of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the first time the Bolivarian Revolution had use of a political instrument that was capable of uniting the previously fragmented forces into a democratic structure, leading the revolution in many of its expressions and providing broader leadership outside of President Chavez, by allowing the base of support of the revolution to increase its organisational capabilities and political power.

Campaign strategies

The opposition bloc made a point of not campaigning specifically against President Chavez as its central slogan (as in previous electoral battles) but instead campaigned around the daily issues that the Bolivarian government has yet to fully address, such as street crime, rubbish collection, maintenance of infrastructure, along with the broader and more historically rooted issues of bureaucracy and corruption. The opposition also campaigned for peace, tolerance and stability, using slogans such as ``the government is red but we are many colours".

The opposition took this line of attack because as all polls showed, despite differing concrete statistics, the personal level of support for Chavez was significantly higher than the level of support for the candidates of the PSUV, thereby deducing that their chances of success were significantly higher by making the elections about the day-to-day issues between government candidates and opposition candidates. One reason for the differing levels of support is because many of the previous Chavista candidates were seen to be riding the coat tails of Chavez, but once in power, doing little to address the daily needs of their electorates and more interested in constructing personal political and business apparatuses instead.

By focusing the campaign in this way -- rather than attempting to attack President Chavez, the Bolivarian program as a whole and attempting to introduce an alternative program of power -- the opposition bloc was relying on one tendency of electoral politics: using elections primarily to punish ruling parties (rather than select opposition parties based on their own merits), as well as the new candidates, for the poor performances of previous candidates.The opposition was hoping to ride that wave of backlash into power, which would have been even larger if it reflected the results in the failed constitutional reform referendum of last year.

The Bolivarian government, in its electoral campaign, was attempting to rebuild momentum towards not only electoral success, but also as a mandate to deepen the structural reforms of the revolutionary process in general. Rebuilding this momentum from the failed referendum campaign was going to be done through three methods:

1) Improving the quality of candidates standing in elections -- which was partially achieved through the democratic primaries carried out by 2.5 million members (roughly 20% of the Venezuelan adult population) of the PSUV, being the first primary elections in Venezuelan history.

2) Move the campaign away from strictly focusing on the candidates themselves, but also build awareness that these elections were about the momentum of the broader Bolivarian project, implementing democratic socialist structural reforms, and blocking the opposition from destabilising the country further.

3) By strengthening the organisational capacity of the PSUV base and using it as the political instrument to build strong mobilisation from below. This strategy, which emerged in the in the 2004 recall referendum vote on President Chavez, was seen as the most superior to date and far more successful than the 2007 referendum vote which relied more on the leadership. The 2007 strategy tended to rely upon older and more familiar populist patterns of winning elections combined with riding the wave of Chavez's personal popularity.

Throughout the PSUV campaign this time around however, these three campaigning strategies were only partially achieved and their level of success would only be known on the actual election day.

Venezuelan electoral process

In an attempt to transform the Venezuelan electoral process into one that is more transparent and therefore legitimised as the main institutional process to achieve political power, the electoral process is strictly controlled by the National Electoral Council, a body which is independent of the Venezuelan executive.

The official campaign time is opened and closed by this body, as well as determining the limits of campaigning. Thus, both sides had access to media and to street advertising. President Chavez was barred from holding his weekly television program, Alo Presidente, during the campaign as it was seen as an unfair campaigning advantage. A few days before the actual election occurred, all campaigning ceased until and including election day. The only political advertisements seen were from the National Electoral Council encouraging the population to vote and take a part in deciding their future. Apart from street signs (of both political blocs) that had not been taken down, there was no electoral campaigning on election day, even to the extent that people wearing political shirts were not allowed entry to polling boothes, in order to eliminate (even perceived) political pressures on voters waiting in line.

Denise Delaney, a Fullbright Scholar currently living in Maraciabo, Venezuela, writing for the Boston Globe, vividly illustrated her experience at the local polling booth:

Most people have to wait anywhere from one to three hours, maybe more in some cases, to vote. Many bring umbrellas to protect against the sun and chairs to wait. Street vendors set up shop along the lines selling all kinds of refreshments like chicha, a local rice milk, and ice cream. Fortunately, there was a bit of cloud cover here in forever hot and humid Maracaibo. Despite the lines, it was reported that more than 65 percent of Venezuelans voted. Arriving at the school, the line was snaking around the block. I lucked out; the elderly get right in. Assisting the lady of the house, who suffers from severe scoliosis and has trouble walking, I was allowed right into the school.

En route, we ran into a family friend who was a voting official that day. The couple proudly introduced me and explained that I wanted to see how Venezuelans vote. He greeted me with a wide smile and the standard hug and kiss on the cheek saying, “Su casa,” which translates to “your house.” Even though I stick out like a sore thumb here in Venezuela with my blond hair, blue eyes and pale complexion, I felt most welcome. Any anxieties I had about being looked upon strangely or suspiciously as an obvious foreigner at national elections were dispelled. Even the observing military dressed in their army green uniforms and combat boots with rifles over their shoulders did not look twice.

While her husband went off to vote, we met up with their daughter. She was a volunteer observer and had been there since 5:30 a.m. The daughter and I guided her mother to a row of laptops manned by voting officials. In Venezuela, people are called to election duty much like we are required to fulfill jury duty in the United States.

At this point, individuals checked the voter’s identification, took their finger prints with a scanning machine, and gave them a slip indicating which classroom they would vote in. Skirting the line once again, we made our way to the first classroom. Here, we waited no more than a couple of minutes. It was a welcome rest for our voter. Her identification was verified once more before moving behind the flattened cardboard boxes that concealed the voting machine. An official asked if she was ready, and pressed a button initiating the session. She then had three minutes to make her selections for the seven-point ballot (five other local positions were voted on in addition to mayor and governor). The machine spat out a confirmation slip that she then placed in a cardboard box. These slips are counted to ensure that the number coincides with the computerized results. The final step entails dipping one’s right-hand pinky finger into a jar of blue ink to signify that they have voted. It is a measure to ensure that no one votes multiple times.

In contrast to the generally smooth running of the electoral process, and the ultimately high voter turnout, the distribution of the turn out during the day was uneven. The first half of the day was marked by a higher level of abstention (the historical pattern), and one which would have played into the hands of the opposition in the same way that the higher abstention did during the 2007 referendum campaign, with an opposition bloc consistently churning out around 4 million voters.

Thus, in order to avoid another relatively poor result, the base of the PSUV sprung into action and mobilised its networks through the communities to encourage people to leave behind their apathy and vote. The upshot was, from the afternoon, the lines began to increase and flowed after the official closing hours. The opposition, in attempting to squash the Chavista mobilisation went to all corporate news networks, and called for polling booths to be closed -- in clear violation of the Venezuelan constitution which guarantees every citizen's right to vote, as well as more concrete Venezuelan laws which stipulate that polling booths must remain open until the lines have gone and everyone has cast their ballot.

The result was the highest participation of voters in this type of election in Venezuelan history at 65% (a statistic based upon a significantly expanded electoral roll) and by late evening, the National Electoral Council was able to confirm the results of 21 states while confirming the following two the next morning.

The electoral results and their political implications

The actual positions up for grabs in the elections included 22 governors, 328 mayors and 233 legislators to the state legislative councils. The PSUV won 17 out of 23 governorships (73%) and 265 out of 327 (81%) mayoral contests.

In assessing which side has the momentum coming out of the new distribution of governorships, the pro-opposition analysts tend to reference the 2004 regional elections which delivered 21 out of 23 governorships to the Bolivarian forces, while the pro-government analysts point to the change in the balance of forces that occured since that time, pointing out that the government only had 16 governorships heading into the election and increased it to 17 coming out of the elections.

The popular vote was around 5.4 million votes to the government bloc, known as the Patriotic Alliance (an alliance between the PSUV and other revolutionary parties such as the Communist Party and Homeland For All), and around 4.1 million votes to the opposition bloc. However, breaking down those numbers further, shows the dominance of the PSUV as a political force attaining nearly 5 million votes as a single party while the next largest party vote went to the main opposition party, A New Era, attaining just over 1 million votes.

Thus, while on a national scale it was a landslide victory for the PSUV and the Patriotic Alliance, the balance of votes wasn't distributed evenly between the various states and the opposition's vote tended to be concentrated in the larger urban areas allowing it to secure qualitatively strategic governorships and mayoral seats, including Greater Caracas, which in the words of PSUV leader Gonzalo Gomez "is the centre of the government, where the institutions and the presidency of the republic are. It is the site where power disputes are carried out, and where the decisive confrontation took place when the coup d’etat occurred on April 11th [2002]" -- along with Miranda, Carabobo and Zulia provinces (on top of Tachira and Nueva Esparta, which both have strategic importance geographically).

Therefore, despite the opposition's failure to break the 4 million vote ceiling, it has emerged from the elections with real bastions of state power in which to launch further campaigns on the national scale as well as sabotage the progress of the revolution.

Importantly, it also gives the opposition bloc, at the very least, the appearance of gaining momentum from previous electoral efforts, even if that momentum isn't reflected in the popular vote. However, there are certain limits to their gains. As the campaign wasn't ideologically posed against the Bolivarian government and its social and structural reforms, or for an alternative project per se, but rather against the government's failure to carry out its promises, it didn´t receive a mandate to politically attack the revolutionary process and destabilise the country with the objective of removing the Bolivarian government and President Chavez from power.

The opposition thus has to balance its mandate to improve services and infrastructure and reduce crime -- with a historically proven incapability to do so -- combined with an expectation that it will increase social tranquility and stability (which has been reflected in their speeches since taking office) with its contradictory political objective of political, economic and social destabilisation (reflected in the opposition's actions since taking office).

On the other hand, the PSUV and Patriotic Alliance on a national scale has successfully regained its momentum, bouncing back from the 2007 referendum loss by gaining more than 1 million extra votes. To an extent, the increased vote also reflects improvements made in overcoming daily problems even though the electorate expects much more progress in these areas, and also for government bureaucracy and corruption to be addressed.

The PSUV believes it has also received a national mandate, to carry out the deepening of the revolutionary project, including the radicalisation of the state, the transfer of power to community councils, land reform, the nationalisation and expansion of strategic state industries, as well as the consolidation social missions (programs) and cooperatives.

However, how the PSUV will react and evolve in relation to these elections is uncertain. The mobilisation of the PSUV base as the motor of the PSUV´s success and the voters' rejection of PSUV candidates, such as Diosdado Cabello, who are seen as the endogenous (internal) right of the party may assist in the party's radicalisation, but on the other hand, according to Gonzalo Gomez, the internal evolution of the party isn´t straightforward,

... because the right-wing within the Chavistas can strengthen itself with its own defeat. If those who replace it are part of the oligarchy, they are capable of making alliances, agreements, and transactions.

That is, when we are talking about those who dress up in red but are doing business with the Right, and who do not really want revolution but rather are living and thriving on appearances. Therefore, everything depends on how we administer the rage, the protest, the discontent of the people, which for me is not discontent with the revolution as such, with the original idea of the Bolivarian Revolution, but rather with a failed management.

If we who support the deepening of the [Bolivarian] process, continue to develop the power of the people, if we unify, strengthen, and articulate ourselves, and if we continue mobilising the struggle, then we can take advantage of this critical situation with a frank, profound, open, and constructive debate.

This debate and internal struggle is likely to take place in 2009, when the PSUV meets for its next congress to solidify its program, statutes, structures and leadership, which may again be in the shadow of yet another looming massive electoral contest, in the form of a referendum on removing presidential term limits.

Next phase of the Bolivarian Revolution

The evolution of the PSUV as a political force capable of driving the process forward will be put to a major test in 2009, as the new national balance of forces, combined with other political and economic pressures, will almost certainly escalate the class struggle as a whole, and inside the Chavista political current.

On December 7, 2008, the government held a collective meeting of all elected PSUV mayors and governors, which was used by President Chavez to demand the acceleration of the decentralisation of popular power to the communal councils, and for the elected officials to lead that transformation of the state rather than fight against it. He argued that this was strategically important as a premise of constructing a socialist democracy, and that the communal councils must also form together into communes receiving even greater control over infrastructure projects, development of agriculture and factories.

On the other hand, the country's direction will also rely on how the opposition uses its newly gained power and mandate to govern. Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor-elect of Miranda state and of the opposition Justice First party, led the way by immediately going on the attack by threatening to close the highly popular social missions, and sending supporters to physically attack and evict the participants, with similar incidents being reported around the country where opposition candidates won office. This has already led to popular mobilisations in defence of the missions around the country.

In Aragua, three trade unionists -- Richard Gallardo, Luis Hernandez and Carlos Requena, leaders of the pro-revolution National Union of Workers (UNT) -- were shot and killed the day after being attacked by the state police under the command of outgoing opposition governor Didalco Bolivar. The unionists were in a dispute with a Colombian milk processing company called Alpina, which has been accused of using similar methods of dealing with labour disputes in Colombia.

Within the same week, Simon Caldera of the Bolivarian Construction and Industry Union was also assassinated. As Kiraz Janicke of Venezuelanalysis reported, this has led to a full-scale investigation by the national government, and a call by a leader of the National Union of Workers (UNT), Stalin Perez Borges, for the immediate organisation of popular workers' self-defence, arguing: “The government must grant all the resources for the training and armed defence of the workers and their leaders.”

Combined with the rising combativeness of the opposition is its two main international allies -- the governments of Colombia and the United States. The fragile tactical reconciliation achieved between President Chavez and Colombia's President Uribe has again been tested with the withdrawal of the Colombian Consul Carlos Fajardo from Venezuela’s second-largest city, Maracaibo, after revealtions of the close links and mutual support between the Colombian government and the Venezuelan opposition in the border states, infamous for the infiltration of Colombian paramilitaries, who combine trafficking narcotics and assassinating progressive community leaders.

Another challenge will most likely also emerge from the United States with the incoming Barack Obama presidency. While Obama has pledged to use diplomacy with Venezuela, his cabinet selection points to a more hawkish approach to relations with the Venezuelan government, something that will be reinforced by the gains of the opposition in the recent elections.

The greatest single external variable will be the massive drop in the price of oil, from a record high in July 2008 of over US$140 to approximately $35 per barrel, combined with reduced output (aimed at stimulating prices) and is further complicated by a 2009 budget based on $60 per barrel oil, forcing the Bolivarian government into making difficult decisions.

While the government has around $40 billion in reserves (the highest per capita in the western hemisphere), including $800 million in a Macroeconomic Stabilisation Fund (FEM) designed specifically to buffer the national economy against fluctuations in oil prices, and tens of billions of dollars more in its national development fund, Fonden, this can’t be more than a temporary solution that serves as a transition to the ultimate adjustments required. And how the adjustment is distributed will also be the subject of a major struggle within the Bolivarian process, and will determine whether it will accelerate structural reform towards 21st century socialism or reverse the gains already made in order to financially maintain bureaucratic sectors of the state.

The next conjuncture where all these tendencies shall be put to the test is likely to be the campaign for the 2009 referendum to remove presidential term limits. The government has decided to hold this vote in February (to avoid another drawn-out electoral contest in the context of falling oil income) and will again provide another flashpoint in Venezuelan politics and another test of support for President Chavez, the Bolivarian government and the construction of 21st century socialism.

[Christopher Kerr is involved in the South Korean-based Venceremos Global Solidarity Network.]