Venezuelan Elections Will Put Chávez to the Test

As if his post were at stake, Venezuela's left-wing President Hugo Chávez is showing up all over the country at election rallies, caravans, public works inaugurations, nationally televised public events and highly publicised midnight calls to his party's local offices in remote towns.

CARACAS, Nov 14 (IPS) – As if his post were at
stake, Venezuela's left-wing President Hugo Chávez is showing up all
over the country at election rallies, caravans, public works
inaugurations, nationally televised public events and highly publicised
midnight calls to his party's local offices in remote towns.

on Nov. 23, the almost 17 million Venezuelans registered to vote will
not be going to the polls to elect a new president or decide an issue
put to referendum. They will be voting to renew 22 of the country's 23
state governors and 328 of its 335 mayors.

In the last regional elections, held four years ago, Chávez
supporters secured 21 state governments and around 300 city
governments, but opinion polls and analysts are forecasting a slightly
modified political map after the coming election.

"The opposition has a sure chance of winning four states,
including the oil state of Zulia (in the northwest) and the industrial
state of Carabobo (in central Venezuela), and it is has strong
candidates in four others," Luis León, director of the Datanálisis
polling firm, told IPS.

Oscar Schémel, of the pollster company Hinterlaces, pointed
out to IPS that "in eight of the 14 states where we've carried out
polls there is a clear tendency in favour of candidates opposed to

For his part, Saúl Cabrera said that his firm, Consultores 21,
estimated that opposition or dissident candidates could win up to 10
state governments, and Nelson Merentes, a former finance minister of
the Chávez administration and currently director of the opinion polling
company Gis-XXI, said that official candidates have "high" chances of
winning in 16 states, "medium" chances in four, and "low" probabilities
in only two.

"If you want to know what the weak states are for the
government, just check and see which places Chávez is visiting,"
analyst Eduardo Semtei, a former member of the National Electoral
Council, commented to IPS.

Semtei predicts that the coming elections will "correct the
statistics, as the opposition, backed by 40 percent of voters, has only
eight to 10 percent of state and municipal governments."

"With his tours, Chávez is going to leave us all out of a job,
because he's making our voting projections redundant," León joked, "as
in a way he's clearly marking what is happening in terms of numbers
around the country."

The same pattern is repeated in the most hotly disputed
states: in the morning or at noon Chávez inaugurates some public work
or grants scholarships or loans, and the ceremony is broadcast
nationwide, and in the afternoon he climbs on a platform truck to lead
a demonstration or rally for one of the candidates for governor or
mayor that he supports.

"If you're with me, vote for…" and he mentions the name of his
candidate. "Because what's at stake here is the future of the
revolution, of socialism, of Venezuela, of the government and the
future of Hugo Chávez himself," he repeats to crowds of ecstatic
supporters in red t-shirts, who cheer him on with shouts of "Hey, ho,
Chávez won't go!"

Chávez "has been trying to polarise and radicalise the
process, and he knows he's the catalysing element in that
radicalization — that is, he acts as if he were the only candidate in
the states and municipalities," León said.

"People distinguish Chávez from Chavism. Which is why the
president is focusing this campaign on himself and wants to turn the
election into a referendum. Without that support, his candidates would
lose by a landslide," Semtei observed.

Support with a Hidden Agenda

Why is the president making these regional elections out to be
so critical when he still has four of the six years of his second term
to go? IPS asked political analyst Fausto Masó.

"Because Chávez wants to be able to be re-elected indefinitely, and
these elections are crucial to achieving that goal," he responded.

"If Chávez wins, for example, 20 of the states at stake and
the opposition is reduced, then he will immediately call for an
amendment of the constitution that will allow him to run for president
again in 2012," said Masó.

According to Semtei, the government's strategists have already prepared the referendum for such a reform.

"If, instead, the opposition wins in eight or nine states,
including several of the most populous states, and secures the most
important cities, then not only will that complicate Chávez's goal, but
also, once his presidency has a definite expiration date, he will face
more and more contenders and dissidents within his own party," Masó

After he was re-elected in 2006 with 63 percent of the vote,
Chávez tried to push through a broad constitutional reform that
included the possibility of running for re-election indefinitely. The
reforms, however, were rejected by 51 percent of the voters in a
referendum last year — Chávez's first electoral setback in a total of
12 elections and referendums held since 1998.

Dissident Voices

Between the two extremes — government and opposition — that
have faced off over the last decade, certain dissenting voices have
emerged in the regional and municipal elections, presenting
alternatives that move away from Chavism, and which have added greater
complexity and variety to the race, as well as opening up possibilities
to trace a more diverse political map.

Dissent was first sparked when the governing United Socialist
Party of Venezuela (PSUV) held internal elections, and several regional
leaders broke away from the party, hurling accusations of favouritism
or fraud committed to secure positions for the candidates backed by

Chávez, the party's president, had, in fact, reserved the
right to accept the candidates and select his favourite out of the
three that took the most votes.

These skirmishes led the president to break with two small
leftwing parties that had been supporting him for a decade, the
Communist Party (PCV) and Patria Para Todos (Fatherland for All – PPT).

Recent polls indicate that several of the dissidents have a
clear chance of winning. One of them is Julio César Reyes, mayor of
Barinas, capital of the state of the same name located in Venezuela's
southwest plains. Barinas is Chavez's home state, and his brother, Adán
Chávez (PSUV) is running for governor there, hoping to succeed their
father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez.

In Portuguesa, also in the southwest plains, the PPT
candidate, Bella Petrizzio, has a chance of beating PSUV candidate
Wilmar Castro.

And in Guárico, in the central plains, Lenny Manuitt, the
daughter of Governor Eduardo Manuitt, who had left the PPT to join the
PSUV, returned to her old party and, according to the polls, is giving
the PSUV candidate Willian Lara a good fight.

In the small state of Trujillo, in the western Andean region,
Octaviano Mejías won the PSUV internal elections, but Chávez appointed
Hugo Cabezas, who had come in second. That led Mejías to run under a
combined PPT and PCV ticket, and he is doing well in the polls.

Chávez, who has called several dissidents "filthy traitors,"
"sell-outs" and "counterrevolutionaries," and the opposition
"conspirators," "vile" or "imbeciles," has threatened to throw in jail
anyone who questions the victory of his candidates, as he says his
adversaries "are getting ready to yell ‘fraud!' and spur violence and

If that were to happen, he reiterated that "this revolution is
a peaceful revolution, but it is armed," and warned that he will not
hesitate to bring out the tanks in the streets of Carabobo or deploy a
military operation in Zulia if the opposition stages an uprising to
reject the results.

Dissidents and opposition candidates have responded by saying
that these declarations are a clear sign that Chávez is closely
following the polls.

More accommodating, the president said at a rally Wednesday
that "if the opposition wins in any state, I'll be the first person to
acknowledge" the victory. (END/2008)