Last Sunday’s gubernatorial elections in Venezuela represented a critical victory for President Nicolas Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
Taking 18 of the country’s 23 states, Chavismo demonstrated in no uncertain terms that it remains a majoritarian political force, despite nearly two years of obituaries proclaiming the end of the Bolivarian Revolution.
The PSUV-led alliance, the Great Patriotic Pole (GPP), won a total of 5,817,344 votes, increasing its vote share by 652,967 votes relative to December 6, 2015 (6D) when it suffered a landslide defeat in parliamentary elections.
Winning back tens of thousands of votes in state after state, nowhere were Chavismo’s October 15 (15-O) gains more evident than in supposed opposition strongholds of Miranda and Lara, where the GPP increased its vote by more than 95k and 82k, respectively. These gains were similarly decisive in a great many of Venezuela’s small, sparsely populated rural states, where a 20-30k vote advantage can make all the difference. Even in states where the opposition won, Chavismo still managed to increase its numbers, including by 36,235 in Merida, 30,482 in Anzoategui, 13,951 in Nueva Esparta, 25,914 in Zulia, and 6,502 in Tachira. (See graph at bottom of article)
All of this is more impressive considering that last Sunday’s election took place in the midst of the country’s worst economic crisis decades – precipitated by a 50% drop in global oil prices since 2013 – which has been exacerbated by US economic sanctions and an opposition-led destabilization campaign.
Indeed, it is safe to say that few democratic governments have had to contend with the array of challenges the Maduro administration has faced and have still come out on top electorally.
What explains Chavismo’s comeback?
Last Sunday’s socialist win came as a shock in Washington and other imperial capitals where elites and their mainstream media gatekeepers were confident in a MUD victory, as predicted by countless opposition-linked polls.
As usual, they drank their own kool-aid, and when reality proved otherwise, out came the foreign ministry statements screaming “fraud” and demanding increased intervention in the South American country.
Of course, for those willing to do away with their ideological blinders, the outcome of 15-O is perfectly explainable.
The key contextual factor in accounting for the PSUV victory is the Maduro government’s success in bringing an end to four months of violent opposition protests by way of a National Constituent Assembly.
From April through the end of July, Venezuela’s right-wing opposition coalition, the MUD, spearheaded a campaign of violent anti-government street mobilizations demanding the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro via early presidential elections.
Over 125 people were killed in the unrest, which saw opposition militants set up deadly street barricades, firebomb health clinics and food distribution centers, and assassinate those perceived to be Chavistas, including by burning them alive.
Refusing to surrender or enact brutal repression, President Maduro mobilized the Chavista grassroots in a constituent process of redrafting the country’s constitution, facing down the escalating right-wing insurrection and stepped-up US intervention.
Once elected on July 30 (30-J), the National Constituent Assembly had the almost immediate effect of demobilizing and dividing the opposition, coaxing its main parties to participate in regional elections and even return to the dialogue table in September.
The impact of this political victory on the October 15 vote should not be underestimated.
In the July 5th neighborhood of Petare in eastern Caracas, residents told Venezuelanalysis they were voting against the MUD’s incumbent governor his perceived support for the violent right-wing protests, known as guarimbas.
“We are tired of the governor that we have had this entire time,” says Carmen Bello, referring to Miranda Governor and former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.
“We have had multiple deficiencies, which he has done nothing to resolve. On the contrary, with the disaster that they caused with the guarimbas… they ended up destroying many communities, and this is what characterizes this governor: total destruction,” she continued.
Another factor behind Chavismo’s triumph was the blowback from escalating US aggression.
As the date for Venezuela’s ANC elections neared, the Trump administration ratcheted up its interventionist maneuvers, sanctioning top officials involved with organizing the constituent process and threatening “strong and swift economic actions”.
The message was clear: Venezuela will pay dearly for defying the hegemon.
In response to the July 30 election, the Trump administration immediately slapped sanctions on President Maduro and subsequently issued threats of military intervention against South American nation. In late August, Washington targeted Venezuela with financial sanctions, barring US banks from new dealings in Venezuelan debt.
Both US economic sanctions and threats of military intervention have proven highly unpopular among the Venezuelan population, with 61.4 and 86 percent of Venezuelans rejecting the measures respectively, according to center-right pollster Datanalisis and independent think tank Hinterlaces.
Taken together, these two elements of intensified US aggression and the ending of guarimba protests may partly explain both Maduro’s nearly six point bump in popularity in the weeks preceding the election, and, in turn, increased Chavista turnout last Sunday.
Unlike in 2015, Chavistas now perceive US sanctions and right-wing terror as much more immediate threats, which may have motivated them to vote in spite of their disappointment at the national government’s continuing inaction on the economic front.
But there were also positive factors driving last Sunday’s Chavista victory.
In contrast to the opposition’s social media-centered strategy, Chavismo waged a grassroots campaign, mobilizing its base from the bottom up.
In the lead up to the election, local PSUV activists and communal council members tirelessly dedicated themselves to the grinding political work of engaging their neighbors in discussion and debate, “house by house”.
“We mobilized the people in their houses, house by house, we handed out pamphlets, we spoke with each and every person, we raised their consciousness,” explains Zoraira Aponte of the July 5th Patriots Communal Council in Petare.
Come election day, Chavista activists were in overdrive, working from 3am to ferry residents in need of assistance to voting centers and otherwise get out the vote via community media, Twitter, and plain word of mouth.
This grassroots approach was epitomized by the candidacy of Hector Rodriguez, a young Afro-Venezuelan socialist politician, who campaigned tirelessly throughout Miranda, embracing every opportunity to connect with the working people of Venezuela’s second most populous state.
This paid off massively in semi-rural areas on the outskirts of Miranda, such as Yare, Filas de Mariche and Cua, where Rodriguez won with 63-78% of the vote on a 64%-77% turnout. In short, this grassroots-driven campaign managed to mobilise the working class sectors of Miranda long ignored by the right-wing Capriles administration and reverse the upper-middle class control exerted over local politics from areas such as El Hatillo, Chacao and Baruta.
In these efforts, the PSUV’s unified and disciplined electoral war machine played a crucial role, mobilizing local electoral committees known as Chavez-Bolivar Battle Units, in marked contrast to the MUD’s top-down and internally divided campaign.
Furthermore, the bottom-up effervescence of the ANC election campaign breathed new life into Chavismo in the lead up to 15-O, washing away the apathy born of 2015’s crushing defeat in order to open new horizons of political possibility.
“Turnout is going to be the same as July 30, it will be massive,” predicted Eduardo Jose Bolivar of the occupied land movement shortly after dawn on election day.
While Chavismo’s vote total did not reach the eight million it achieved on 30-J – which included opposition supporters and independents (ni-nis) – last Sunday’s 61 percent turnout was nonetheless massive by the standard of gubernatorial elections, second only to the state-level elections of 2008.
It was precisely this increased Chavista turnout that explains the PSUV’s victory, while it was opposition abstention, as we shall see, that sealed the MUD’s defeat.
Why the MUD lost so badly
If the Maduro government succeeded in firing up its base, the opposition ended up giving itself the proverbial harakiri with its discourse of abstention and extra-democratic violence, as MUD politician Jose Guerra himself admitted.
“I would be very careful in speaking of fraud… we defeated ourselves, we gave ourselves the harakiri, we lost 14 points with respect to the 2015 parliamentary elections… in reality it was abstention,” the Justice First party leader stated Monday.
Just as Chavismo was routed on 6-D due to the abstention of approximately 1.5 million of its voters, this time around it was the MUD that failed to mobilize 2.05 million of its 2015 voters.
There are several reasons for this, the principal being the opposition leadership’s championing of the guarimbas, together with its subsequent 180-degree electoral turn.
As the months progressed, the insurrectionary protests proved increasingly unpopular with the vast majority of Venezuelans, including opposition supporters, who had become tired of the burning barricades of trash barring them from leaving their communities.
Despite the loss of popular backing, the MUD pushed ahead, mobilizing its supporters to make Venezuela “ungovernable” in a last ditch bid to prevent the ANC elections from taking place.
However, following the ANC election, all of the main opposition parties turned around and registered in regional elections despite the races being organized by the same National Electoral Council that they had just denounced as “fraudulent” on 30-J.
This effectively amounted to asking their followers to participate in a political system they had just spent the last two years since their 2015 parliamentary victory excoriating as a “dictatorship”.
Despite regional elections being a consistent opposition demand since last year, the electoral pivot split the opposition, deeply alienating its more radical factions who unsuccessfully called for boycotting the elections in order to continue in the streets.
Maria Corina Machado of the ultra-right Vente Venezuela party publicly broke with the MUD and openly declared her intention to abstain just days before the crucial election.
The MUD fracture had a devastating impact, with large swathes of the opposition’s traditional white upper middle class base abstaining en masse.
This trend was painfully evident in Miranda, where the wealthy opposition strongholds of metropolitan Caracas saw double-digit abstention, despite a slight statewide increase in turnout relative to 2012.
Meanwhile, if the MUD’s electoral turn disillusioned its hardline middle class base, the coalition’s campaign strategy utterly failed to appeal to more moderate opposition voters and ni-nis, who supported them in 2015.
That is, on top of having alienated large swathes of more middle-of-the-road opposition supporters with their four-month long anti-government insurrection, all of the MUD candidates ran on a protest vote ticket.
While successful in 2015 National Assembly elections, this approach epically flopped in regional races where local issues matter and the opposition offered few concrete proposals.
This of course points to one of the central contradictions of the Venezuelan opposition, namely its genetic disposition to neoliberalism, which is deeply unpopular and can never be openly campaigned on in the Venezuelan context.
Consequently, the opposition can do little more than uncomfortably oscillate between desperate mimicry of Chavismo and nakedly opportunistic appeals to popular discontent.
In this context, the MUD’s vague pledges to improve the economy – juxtaposed with virulent railings against “the regime” – were largely unconvincing, especially given these promises were coming from the same people actively promoting international economic sanctions against Venezuela.
In addition to its tonedeaf messaging, the MUD campaign was undermined by internecine infighting.
Despite holding primaries to choose unified candidates in each state, the coalition’s hodgepodge of diverse parties – united only by their hatred of Chavismo – remained fractured.
In states like Zulia, Aragua, and Bolivar where primaries were marred by fraud accusations and even violence, defeated parties were often reluctant to lend their support to the “unity” candidate and in some cases worked to actively sabotage the local MUD campaign.
Here the case of Zulia is striking: New Era party rank and file publicly refused to support MUD nominee Juan Pablo Guanipa, vowing to campaign for his Chavista rival, Francisco Arias Cardenas in a move that contributed to the opposition’s loss of 329,289 votes.
In short, any objective reading of the facts will show that the opposition dug its own grave on 15-O, a conclusion the MUD hysterically seeks to block out with its latest round of fraud allegations.
The extent to which Chavismo’s victory came as a surprise to the Venezuelan opposition and its imperial masters in Washington cannot be understated.
For them, the result is explicable only in terms of fraud, because to assert otherwise would violate all their dearly held neoliberal conventional wisdoms about human behavior: namely that a people faced with economic asphyxiation would persist in its collective project of resistance and revolution in lieu of dissolving into atomized, market-driven cannibalism.
15-O broke all these supposed laws of political physics, vindicating the political consciousness of the Venezuelan people, which had the revolutionary maturity to comprehend the stakes of this election.
Notwithstanding their anger at the government for its reformist inaction in the face of a five-year counter-revolutionary offensive, the Venezuelan masses understood that the fate of their revolution lay in the balance and voted to continue the fight, despite the high costs.
While October 15 represents a decisive defeat for the electoral trojan horse strategy of the right-wing opposition, the moment remains fraught with peril.
The opposition’s loss of its electoral majority provides a strong incentive for once again abandoning the institutional democratic game in favor of a short-termist insurrectionary strategy. They will undoubtedly redouble their appeals to the US, EU, and Canada for more devastating sanctions as well as military intervention. The refusal by Washington, Ottawa, and Paris to recognize the election result should be taken as further indication of this trend.
In this context, the MUD’s victory in the western border states of Zulia, Tachira, and Merida presents dangerous openings for imperialist intervention. Back in 2008, then President Hugo Chavez warned that this mineral-rich frontier region – long an entry point for Colombian paramilitaries – constituted a “Venezuelan half moon” where the local bourgeoisie could spearhead a secessionist movement, just like in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands. Moreover, given that these states were epicenters of opposition political violence earlier this year, the reality of the MUD holding state power in this region is truly terrifying.
Now however, Chavismo’s victory opens up a short strategic window for going on the offensive to resolve the current economic crisis on revolutionary terms. This can only mean radicalizing the class struggle by mobilizing the masses of people behind a series of radical measures, including fixing the foreign exchange system (either through unification and a controlled float or transparent control of preferential dollars), a strategic moratorium on foreign debt payments, intensifying the anti-corruption drive, taxing large fortunes, among other steps.
There are, no doubt, counter-revolutionary forces within the state, party, and government – the “endogenous right-wing” as it used to be called – that will fight these measures tooth and nail, opting instead for further economic restructuring along the lines of mutant neoliberalism.
The stakes have never been higher and, as Javier Biardeau points out, failure to seize upon this favorable correlation of forces – with the opposition in disarray and Chavismo holding the National Constituent Assembly and 18 governorships – could be fatal for the revolutionary process.
Under these conditions, the temptation to bring forward municipal and even presidential elections to take advantage of the opposition’s electoral weakness is dangerous, for it could justify further inertia on the economic front.
As Iraida Morocoima told Venezuelanalysis, this is indeed the Bolivarian Revolution’s “last breath”: it must lunge towards the surface or suffocate beneath the imperialist tide.
Comparison of 2015 National Assembly Results & 2017 Regional Elections
With additional contributions and input from Rachael Boothroyd Rojas.
Venezuelanalysis will provide a separate analysis addressing opposition claims of fraud shortly.