Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project | Opposition | Politics
Venezuela’s 2012 State Election: Lessons for Chavismo and the Opposition
The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won an impressive victory in the 16 December 2012 regional election, winning 20 of 23 states. The PSUV didn’t lose a single state it already held, while it won four from the opposition. Those were Nueva Esparta, Carabobo, and the important border states with Colombia, Tachira and Zulia, the latter being considered an opposition stronghold. The PSUV also recovered Monagas state from Jose “the Cat” Briceño, who was PSUV governor since 2004, and switched sides to the opposition earlier this year
As such, the only “real” opposition gubernatorial candidate to win re-election was opposition leader Henrique Capriles in Miranda, a victory seen as crucial for his hopes of being the opposition’s candidate in the case of fresh presidential elections. He fended off a strong challenge from former Venezuelan vice-president Elias Jaua.
In the other two states where opposition candidates won, Lara and Amazonas, both candidates were re-elected after having been first elected on pro-Chavez tickets (in Lara in 2008, and in Amazonas in 2005, the latter then re-elected as the opposition in 2010), and then switching sides to the Democratic Unity Table (MUD) opposition coalition during their terms.
The PSUV also cleaned up in the election of state legislative councils, which are important for approving regional budgets and laws. Of 237 seats in the councils, the PSUV and allies won 186 to the MUD’s 51. In seven states the MUD didn’t win a single legislative council seat, while in all but one state (Amazonas) the PSUV won a majority in the councils. This means that both Capriles in Miranda and opposition governor Henry Falcon in Lara face PSUV majorities in their state legislative councils.
The state elections set the regional balance of power in Venezuela at a crucial moment, when President Hugo Chavez, who is also head of the PSUV, is in Cuba recovering from his fourth cancer operation in a year and a half. The gravity of the situation with Chavez’s health was made clear when Chavez named his vice-president, Nicolas Maduro, as his chosen successor should Chavez be unable to assume his term and fresh presidential elections have to be called.
The state elections also came after the presidential election of 7 October, when Chavez was re-elected by 55% of the vote against the opposition’s Henrique Capriles. In this context, what does the 2012 regional election tell us about the current political situation in Venezuela, and trends going into next year, including for the differing scenarios depending on whether Chavez will be able to assume his next presidential term?
Electoral Participation and Voting Trends
A key aspect of the 2012 regional election was the level of participation and what this suggests about current electoral trends in Venezuela and the morale of both pro-Bolivarian and opposition forces. [i]
With almost 95% of votes counted, the CNE reported that turnout for the 2012 regional election was just under 54%.[ii] This is much lower than the turnout of 80.5% in the presidential election just ten weeks earlier. Of course, state elections cannot be justly compared with presidential elections, as the latter always garner higher rates of participation.
Yet the figure of 54% turnout was also lower than the 65.5% turnout at the 2008 regional election, even if one takes into account that the 2008 elections included mayoral elections as well. Nevertheless, electoral participation this year should not be exaggerated as very low, as turnout was 49% in the 2004 regional election and 56% in 2000. We should also keep in mind that this means turnout in the 2012 Venezuelan regional election was almost as high as turnout for the 2012 U.S. presidential election (which is estimated to be at least below 57% if not more), highlighting a large difference in levels of political participation between those two countries.
What is clear is that compared with the recent presidential election, millions of people this time round simply decided not to vote. According to CNE data published in Venezuelan newspaper EL Universal, just over 9.2 million voted in the 2012 regional election, compared with almost 15.2 million in the presidential election in October, and around 11 million in the 2008 state elections. Even accounting for the fact that the Metropolitan District of Caracas did not vote in the 2012 regional election, less people voted in 2012 than in 2008, despite the number of eligible voters for state elections having grown by over half a million in that time, from under 16.9 to over 17.4 million.
Why was turnout down, and what effect did it have on the results? One reason being cited is election fatigue, with voters having been through the presidential elections a few months before, and in the case of opposition voters, internal primary elections in February. Another reason is the proximity to Christmas, with potential voters using the second-last Sunday before Christmas to buy presents and food ahead of the holidays. These factors, along with the fact that regional elections never enjoy as much interest as presidential elections, explain in part the drop in turnout from earlier this year.
Yet Venezuela is not like many other countries, where political participation and commitment is low enough that a rainy day or shopping considerations would significantly lower election turnout. Most elections are festive affairs, where millions of people turn out “come hell or high water” to either defend the revolution or vote for its destruction. In the presidential elections two months ago, millions of Venezuelans rose at dawn to then wait in queues for several hours in order to exercise their vote. In this election, despite there being little to no queues in many polling stations, and voting therefore being a two-minute affair in the course of the day, many people still chose not to vote. This was matched, in Merida at least, by a marked lack of enthusiasm in and around polling stations even among those who did vote – suggesting that there were other reasons for the comparative lack of participation in this election: low morale, and in some cases, disenchantment.
Within the Chavista bases, in some states low morale and disenchantment stemmed from the lack of support for the local PSUV gubernatorial candidate, for example as witnessed in Merida and Bolivar states. This was partly the result of the exclusionary manner in which PSUV candidates were picked, by top party leaders, including Chavez, rather than by holding internal elections or consultations to make sure popular and representative candidates were put forward. Thus on polling day in Merida I witnessed several people abstaining from voting for the PSUV gubernatorial candidate, Alexis Ramirez, despite them having just voted for Chavez in October. This voter abstention, resulting from the way PSUV candidates were selected and their campaigns run, links to wider problems within the PSUV of bureaucratization, careerism and short-term electoralism, which erode the Bolivarian movement’s base of support, as analysed in a recent article by VA.com’s Tamara Pearson.
However, it is clear that the opposition also suffered great abstention in the 2012 regional election. Reasons for this include demoralisation following Chavez’s re-election on 7 October, a lack of coherence in the opposition’s campaign on the national level, and a lack of enthusiasm for many opposition candidates among opposition voters. The results were crippling for the opposition in key “swing states”, where although these saw higher levels of participation than many “safe” PSUV states, enough opposition voters stayed at home, and enough Chavista voters turned out, that the opposition saw themselves reduced to holding just three state governments across the country.
In order to see exactly why the opposition lost so heavily on Sunday, it is important to understand that it is not only, or even, a surge in support for the pro-Chavez camp that cost the opposition their states, but rather the effect that opposition voter abstention had, most of all in so-called “swing” states.
With 95% of the votes counted, and adding in the votes of other parties considered pro-Chavez or pro-opposition that were not the PSUV or MUD, the votes for each side were roughly 4.5 million for the pro-Chavez coalition to 3.5 million for the opposition coalition. This difference of one million votes was a similar gap as in 2008. This means the balance of forces between the two sides was almost the same as four years ago, more or less 56% to 44%,[iii] however the opposition lost several state governments compared with last time. How did this happen?
In “safe” PSUV states turnout was generally lower than in contested “swing” states, as noted in endnote ii. In many of these safe states PSUV turnout was lower than in 2008, but that didn’t affect the results as opposition turnout was also lower and had little chance of winning anyway. However, the behaviour of PSUV and opposition voters in comparison to 2008 in the opposition states of Zulia, Tachira, Nueva Sparta, Carabobo and Miranda is telling.[iv] While the opposition received a reduced percentage of the vote in each of these states compared with 2008, the story behind the opposition’s defeat emerges in analysing the total number of votes cast for each side:
1) In the (now former) opposition stronghold of Zulia, the vote for opposition incumbent Pablo Perez went from 776,000 in 2008 to around 690,000 in 2012. Meanwhile, the PSUV candidate went from 660,000 in 2008 to over 755,000 in 2012.
2) In the border state of Tachira, the opposition incumbent, Cesar Perez Vivas, saw his vote fall from 240,000 to 209,000 from 2008 – 2012. The PSUV candidate’s vote increased marginally from 234,000 to 247,000 between these two elections.
3) In Nueva Esparta, opposition incumbent Morel Rodriguez went from 113,000 in 2008 to 94,000 in 2012. Conversely, the PSUV candidate increased their total votes from 82,000 to 111,000.
4) In Carabobo, opposition incumbent Henrique Salas Feo crashed from 408,000 to 318,000 votes between 2008 and 2012, while the PSUV increased from 382,000 to 402,000.
5) In Miranda, opposition incumbent Henrique Capriles Radonski got marginally less votes in 2012, falling from 584,000 to 582,000. Meanwhile, the PSUV candidate increased the number of votes from 507,000 to 535,000.
What is interesting is that in each of these states the absolute PSUV vote increased compared with 2008, even though overall votes cast in 2012 election nationally went down, and turnout overall was notably down. In all of these examples, opposition incumbent governors faced re-election against new PSUV candidates. They all received a lesser percentage of the vote compared with 2008, but most important of all is that they all also received less overall votes than in 2008.
Therefore in an election where turnout was down nationally, and in which the gap in votes and percentage of the vote between the PSUV and MUD was roughly the same as in 2008, in these swing states a different story took place. Chavista voters turned out in greater numbers than in 2008, while many opposition voters stayed at home. As a result, in four of those five states, the opposition lost the state government, with only Capriles managing to hold on in Miranda. In three of those states, Zulia, Nueva Esparta and Carabobo, even accounting for the PSUV increase, if the opposition had maintained their same level of support as in 2008 they would not have lost. In the polarised nature of Venezuelan politics, rather than opposition voters suddenly voting for the PSUV, the main factor in these states was that key numbers of opposition voters simply stayed at home, allowing the PSUV to take the state government.[v]
Thus in the 2012 Venezuelan regional election, for a variety of reasons, both the opposition and Bolivarian movement entered the electoral contest with a certain lack of enthusiasm. However, the opposition’s support base entered the election with possibly greater dispiritedness and apathy than supporters of the Bolivarian movement. Therefore on polling day, opposition voters not only didn’t turn out to try and take state governments from the PSUV, but they also didn’t act en masse to defend their existing power bases, with notable exceptions. This allowed Chavismo to turn out and take key states such as Zulia, causing in turn even greater despair among the opposition’s ranks. This will have ramifications for both sides and for Venezuela’s political scenario going into 2013.
The Bolivarian Bloc
The United Socialist Party of Venezuela was undoubtedly delighted with the results, apart from the failure to take Miranda and remove Henrique Capriles Radonski from the political scene. The PSUV’s campaign manager, Jorge Rodriguez, described the PSUV’s win as an “immense victory, of quantitative and qualitative magnitude, in these spiritual moments…of accompanying our leader [Hugo Chavez]”.
While the voting trends described above do not show a sudden surge in support for the PSUV beyond previous levels, it would certainly be fair to say that the PSUV managed to hold up their vote well across the country in an election marked by lower levels of participation, and in particular managed to increase their absolute vote in key “swing” states to make gains from the opposition. As the director of the polling firm GIS XXI, Jesse Chacon, pointed out, “All this in a scenario where the president (Chavez) had no active participation with any of the (PSUV) candidates”. As if often noted, Chavez is more popular than the party he leads, and so in his absence from the campaign, one could think that the PSUV would have performed more poorly.
There are several factors that go into explaining the PSUV’s victory. The first is the national context in which the election took place. With Chavez undergoing his operation the week of the election, the message was hammered home that a great election victory would be a “gift” for Chavez and a way to support to him in his hour of need.
This was not just the cynical electioneering it may appear. Venezuelans are facing an uncertain political scenario in which Chavez may not be able to take the Venezuelan presidency for health reasons and that fresh presidential elections could be called. Comments coming from the Venezuelan opposition have not calmed fears among Chavez supporters that the opposition are waiting in the wings to take advantage of Chavez’s illness and capture the presidency. Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s vice-president and named political successor, said on the Monday before the election that a strong victory was necessary ““to clear the path to this country’s political stability, and to continue developing the [Socialist] Plan of the Nation”. This feeling was shared by many Chavez supporters. I heard a couple of voters in Merida say that while they had reservations about the PSUV gubernatorial candidate, Alexis Ramirez, they would vote for him as a means of supporting Chavez, and keeping the opposition candidate, the unpopular Lester Rodriguez, out of the state government.
One must also remember that, ultimately, the PSUV is held by the majority of Venezuelans as the main political vehicle of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution. Thus, even in the context of criticisms in the way the party functions, it continues to benefit from its positioning in Venezuelan politics as “the party of Chavez and the revolution” and draws the largest number of votes. The party is associated with a common vision, identity, and set of values, something that cannot be said of the opposition’s MUD coalition.
A second reason for the victory was that the PSUV had a coherent national strategy and message. Candidates across the country had the same basic message of “more efficiency, better governance,” and being “the candidate of Chavez” as well as promising to work with the national government in implementing the Socialist Plan of the Nation and support the government’s social programs and investments in housing, infrastructure etc. While valid criticisms exist that this approach was inflexible of local demands, with candidates simply repeating the national government’s line, it did provide a coherent message in a short campaign that many ordinary Chavez supporters could vote for. Further, it fed into the perceived need to maintain PSUV governors in order to guarantee political stability and the continuity of the Bolivarian process in the face of an uncertain political scenario.
Another factor is that with strong campaigning, a barrage of election propaganda, and high-profile figures and new faces as candidates, the PSUV were able to get their vote out where it counted, to keep PSUV marginal states and win in opposition states.
Finally, greater opposition abstention played into the hands of the PSUV, delivering them an impressive victory in a key moment for Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution. As such, many figures in the PSUV have since referred to the election as “mission accomplished” and the “gift” that Chavez wanted, with Maduro commenting on Monday 17 December that the results would allow for the “consolidation” of the Socialist Plan of the Nation 2013 – 2019.
However, the results mask a growing discontent within more active and political advanced sectors of the Bolivarian movement toward the PSUV, which is seen by some as suffering from increasing bureaucratisation and clientilism, while limiting internal debate and criticism in order to pursue purely electoral goals.
After the way in which PSUV gubernatorial candidates were picked with little consultation of the PSUV bases or allied parties, the Venezuelan Communist Party, supported by a few other organisations, decided to put forward four candidates of its own, and support the PSUV in the other 19 states. As described by Jorge Martin, those four candidates received respectable votes in differing local contexts: 10% in Merida, 8% in Bolivar, 5% in Amazonas, and an impressive 24.5% in Portuguesa, pushing the MUD into third place there.
This highlights the diversification of currents within the Bolivarian revolution and the possibility that radical and moderate wings could openly compete with each other in the future, if internal contradictions and problems, particularly in the PSUV, are not resolved.
In a press conference following the results, PCV general secretary Oscar Figuera called for “popular revolutionary unity” and at the same time advocated developing the pro-Chavez Great Patriotic Pole coalition “to continue advancing in the formation of spaces of collective construction and debate”.
However the PSUV’s leadership has since warned the PCV over the fielding of alternative candidates in the regional elections, especially in Bolivar where the PCV vote very nearly cost the PSUV’s Francisco Rangel his job. Maduro stated that the PCV and other allied parties had “put the victory of the revolution in danger” in those states where alternative candidates had been launched. He called for universal “reflection” and “reunification” and stated, “Let’s turn the page from the problems that brought us to have parallel candidates and, for the love of the people, for the love of Chavez, let’s unite forces for the battles to come in the building of the nation”.
However, if the PSUV want to avoid divisions with allies in the future, rather than simply calling for unity, they will need to address the factors that caused the, albeit minor, rift during the regional elections; including the way in which PSUV candidates are chosen for election, and other perceived problems with the party’s mode of operation.
Opposition leaders reacted bitterly to the result. Those members of the opposition less prone to reflection blamed the defeat on Chavez, the government and the PSUV. Reasons put forward ranged from the PSUV taking advantage of Chavez’s illness to garner votes, to the use of state funding and inauguration of public works to support the PSUV campaign.
However, as noted, it appears that the opposition’s defeat had more to do with abstention within their own ranks, particularly within opposition strongholds, than a dazzling turnout for the PSUV. It is worth repeating, in three of the four “classic” opposition states taken by the PSUV last Sunday, if the opposition had maintained its 2008 support, it would have withstood the increased PSUV vote to hold on to the state. This was noted by the director of private pollster Consultores 30.11, German Campos, who in reaction to the state election results said, “Due to the particular circumstances of each state, the behaviour of abstention in Zulia and Carabobo should be looked at, for example. In both states [the key] was the way in which different sectors decided to abstain from voting more [than others]. [Analysing] this will allow us to understand electoral behaviour in Venezuela society”.
Other opposition leaders admitted that the opposition’s own problems may have had something to do with the result. The kinds of comments made after the opposition’s defeat in the presidential election were repeated, with MUD head Ramon Aveledo stating that, “We have to make profound changes”.
One reason for the opposition’s poor turnout in the regional election was that supporters had still not recovered from the demoralising effect of the October presidential election. This demoralisation was made greater because the MUD’s leadership and allied media had gone a long way to convincing themselves and many opposition supporters that they were in with a real chance of toppling Chavez in October. Ignoring polling and other evidence to the contrary, opposition supporters were buoyant before the election, seriously referring to Capriles as “the next president of Venezuela”. When Chavez beat Capriles by over 1.6 million votes (over 10%), many opposition supporters were unprepared for the scale of the defeat, and unable to accept that they continue being the minority in Venezuelan politics. On the ground, opposition people complained of everything from fraud, to a phantom pro-Chavez vote by one million Cuban doctors (there are around 30,000 in Venezuela, and are unable to vote), to explain away the result, but underneath they were bitterly disappointed at the reality of the situation. This meant that in the regional elections ten weeks later, many simply did not bother to vote.
The national situation with Chavez’s health was a factor for the opposition too. The opposition’s peak vote in October was based on unified opposition to and hatred of the figure of Chavez, the main glue which holds the opposition together. In the regional election, Chavez wasn’t even present on the national scene, but rather away in Cuba for treatment. Thus, rather than opposition voters being called to vote ‘against’ a universal hate figure, they were being called upon to vote ‘for’ one of their gubernatorial candidates, a prospect that motivated far less of them.
A lack of support among ordinary opposition voters for their own candidates appears to have been a key factor in the “classic” opposition states mentioned earlier, where opposition supporters seemed less than enthusiastic about re-electing their own representatives. However, this also holds true in many PSUV states. For example, in Merida, opposition support fell away for MUD candidate Lester Rodriguez, whose record as local mayor and lacklustre campaign did not inspire a mass vote for him on election day.
One exception to the rule was in Miranda, where wealthier opposition supporters knew that they were not only voting to re-elect a governor, but to maintain in power their probable future presidential candidate. A study by Venezuelan daily Ciudad CCS highlighted that of the 21 voting districts in Miranda, 15 gave a majority vote to PSUV candidate Elias Jaua, including the great barrio of Petare. However, in four voting districts, covering middle and upper class areas of eastern Caracas, the vote went massively to Capriles. This included the wealthy Baruta district, where Capriles was once mayor, which voted 82% in favour of the opposition leader, giving him almost one fifth of his total vote for Miranda state. As a result, Capriles managed to avoid the drop in support experienced by many of his political colleagues in other states.
Finally, related to problems with opposition candidates, another factor behind the opposition defeat was the lack of a coherent national strategy and message by the MUD. Unlike the PSUV, which had a clear national message and could rally behind the slogans of support for Chavez, the revolution, better performance, and the national Socialist Plan, the opposition effort seems to have atomised into differing local battles with little overall vision behind the campaign to motivate opposition voters. This in part has to do with the nature of the MUD, which due to the hodge – podge collection of organisations that form the coalition, is much better at campaigning ‘against’ Chavez than ‘for’ a particularly proposal.
This has been observed by both pro- and anti-government polling pundits. For example, director of private polling firm Hinterlaces, Oscar Schemel, said after Sunday’s vote that, “We have insisted that the opposition lacks identity, vision and a proposal. Chavismo, on the other hand, is an emotional community, an identity of (social) classes, and a political culture”. Meanwhile German Campos of pollster Consultores 30.11 suggested that the opposition had not correctly understood the reasons for their defeat in October, and should “make a revision” of their leadership.
Little of this is good news for the opposition going into 2013. In 2012, the opposition strategy of building up support through primaries in February and then trying to capitalise upon problems within Chavismo to capture the presidency faced the hard reality that a majority of the country wishes to continue with Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution, and that a majority of ordinary Venezuelans still do not trust the right-wing opposition. The resulting demoralisation among opposition supporters, coupled with the lack of a clear vision for the country or a coherent campaign, cost the opposition dearly in the state elections, reducing them to the margins of Venezuela’s regional balance of power. The opposition’s silver lining is the re-election of Capriles against PSUV big-hitter Elias Jaua, which keeps their hope alive of having a viable candidate in possible new presidential elections.
Meanwhile, the PSUV and supporters of the Bolivarian process have more cause to celebrate. In Chavez’s absence (albeit still through using Chavez’s name as a common rallying cry), the PSUV has shown it still commands greater support than the opposition and can deliver stinging electoral victories. The momentum from this victory will be important for the continued development of the Bolivarian process if Chavez is able to assume his presidency in January, including for implementing the Socialist Plan of the Nation and for mayoral elections next April. The result also bodes well for the electoral chances of the Bolivarian movement in the case of fresh presidential elections and a possible Maduro vs. Capriles presidential race, although of course at present nothing is certain.
However, not everything is rosy. There are serious internal contradictions and problems within the Bolivarian movement which must be addressed if the process is not to reach a crisis in the future. Although the opposition suffered worse, the Chavista bases also went into the regional election with a degree of apathy and in some cases disenchantment, and overall Chavista turnout was down on the 2008 regional election. Problems in the way politics are done within the PSUV are not conducive to a deepening of the Bolivarian revolution and galvanising grassroots support, and in this election the PCV was prompted to launch a few alternative candidates in criticism of this.
Elections in Venezuela are, ultimately, snapshot expressions of the ever-changing social and political struggle on the ground, including the advances and setbacks of the daily effort to push forward the Bolivarian revolution. In the current situation, if the opposition are able to newly rally its support base in a way seen earlier this year, and the PSUV does not look to its own internal problems and criticisms, the PSUV may enter future electoral contests against the opposition in less favourable circumstances. To avoid this, looking forward to 2013, the PSUV will need to address criticisms such as a lack of internal democracy, careerism, bureaucracy, and the priority of electoralism over revolution, sooner rather than later.
[i] Most statistics reported here are taken directly from the National Electoral Council (CNE). The rest are taken from CNE reports published in the Venezuelan press, and this article by La Plataforma Bolivariana de Solidaridad con Venezuela de Madrid.
[ii] There were, of course, variations in turnout between states, with below average turnout in those states where the re-election of pro-Chavez governors by a large majority seemed likely, such as in Trujillo (45%), Portuguesa (44%), Delta Amacuro (45%) and Barinas (48.5%). Turnout was also lower where candidates for the PSUV or the opposition were perceived as less popular and generated little enthusiasm, such as in Bolivar (41.5%), and to an extent Merida (53%), particularly for the opposition in the latter case.
Conversely, turnout was generally higher in states where the opposition was incumbent and trying to hold the state government, such as in Zulia (62%), Nueva Esparta (63%), Tachira (57.5%), Miranda (58%), and Lara (56.5%).
[iii] Calculations of percentage differences between the two sides are taken from an electoral map of the 2012 regional election based on “first bulletin”election results, and this article. The calculation of the overall votes for each side is a calculation of all parties considered "pro-Chavez" or "anti-Chavez", in line with the methodology of previous studies. Thus the "pro-Chavez" number includes not just PSUV votes, but also the votes for the PCV and Tupamaro alternative candidates in 4 states. Likewise, the "anti-Chavez" number includes the 120,000 votes for Jose Briceño in Monagas, even though he stood against the official MUD candidate. The totals calculated for each side, of 4.5 to 3.5 million, are based on the "first bulletin" results of 95% of the vote counted, and have likely both risen slightly with all votes now tallied.
[iv] These five states are analysed because they represent the five states won in 2008 by “real” opposition candidates, all of whom stood for re-election in 2012. Meanwhile the other states classed as “opposition” before the 2012 regional election, Amazonas, Monagas and Lara, were all states where pro-Chavez candidates were originally elected who since changed sides to the opposition, giving those candidates a different relationship to PSUV/opposition voters. In those cases, the PSUV recovered Monagas, but not Amazonas or Lara.
[v] Within the variety of local contests there are of course exceptions to the trends described above. In Bolivar state, the PSUV’s Francisco Rangel saw a near collapse in his vote and almost lost to the opposition candidate. However in most cases of existing PSUV states, where the PSUV vote was down, the opposition vote was either down, static, or only slightly higher than 2008, meaning that the opposition did not threaten taking the state. There are also many cases of “safe” PSUV states where the PSUV vote was in fact higher than 2008, while the opposition vote reduced. Thus apart from a few exceptions, such as Bolivar, the opposition vote did not turn out aggressively to try and topple PSUV governors or defend existing power bases.
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