The 2008 regional elections in Venezuela
have received significant coverage globally. Mainstream reporting has
repeatedly asserted that the elections are seen as "a critical test for Mr
However, the explanation of this "importance" specifically in regards to the
Bolivarian participatory project and its relationship with representative
democratic procedure is generally lacking. This means that little can be made
of the effect that the significant opposition victories and yet solid PSUV win
in the popular vote will have. What will be the relationship between municipal
government and participatory projects in this new climate? Indeed what is the
relationship between elections for municipal government and more participatory
Municipal elections are uniquely important
to the Bolivarian project. Representative institutions such as mayoralties
currently co-exist with between 20,000 and 30,000 community councils
(depending on inclusion of those in formation) found in Venezuela and their
corresponding higher participatory institutions, the Local Councils of Public
Planning. These form an integral part of the Venezuelan process as central
government and the population at large seek to create the "participatory" and
popularly "protagonistic" state envisioned in the constitution.
It is in this context that the elections must be analyzed.
This co-existence creates opportunities for
great cooperation between communities and their elected officials concerning
power in local governance, as seen in Torres Municipality, Lara,
where Mayor Julio Chávez and the communities convoked a constituent assembly
and transferred power over 100% of the municipal budget to the community
As James Petras notes,
the continuation and increase of this cooperation is vital given the inept and
often corrupt nature of the state in a context of falling oil prices, as
reserves can only provide a temporary cushion against the effects of the
ongoing global financial crisis. Such cooperation also holds out the prospect
of an effective strategy to combat soaring homicide rates in urban centres via
police force and community coordination, though admittedly this has been much
discussed in Venezuela and rarely effectively or comprehensively implemented.
Likewise, however, the co-existence of these institutions creates opportunity
for conflict as mayors resist the demands of their communities directly,
or through obstruction of higher participatory institutions.
The reasons for such obstruction may vary
widely, but chiefly stem from the instinct of institutional self-preservation.
Quite simply transfer of resources and power to communities does, generally
speaking, imply a loss of resources and power for mayors.
It is in this context that we must analyze
the results. The clear victory of the PSUV in the popular vote, victory in 81%
of mayoralties (even winning six of eleven mayoralties in the conservative
bastion of Nueva Esparta), and rapid growth in the numbers of communal councils
since the 2006 law seem to ratify the ideological vision and indicates
increasing pressure for power transfer to communities.
Yet all too often PSUV mayors themselves
have failed to precipitate this the transfer of power, which was often an
important reason for their original electoral success. Carlos Leon's term in
Municipio Libertador Merida for example was neatly summed up by a rival
candidate as the hosting of "the bull fights, the parties, the drunken
festivities" and a complete failure to carry forward a participatory agenda.
This is indicative of a failure in the democratic processes internal to the
PSUV, that candidates have won primaries without adhering to popular priorities
or party ideology, a failure worrying in its own right. Furthermore, when
combined with victory of other parties in 62 mayoralties, mostly less
ideologically committed to popular participation, in a context of rising
pressure and clear demands for further transfer it means the number of
municipalities tending to conflict will most likely increase.
As such conflicts become more common we can
expect the expansion of institutions such as the Local Presidential Commission
for Popular Power, as the national executive tries to overcome resistance from
newly elected mayors in the face of their communities. We can also expect new
legislative initiatives in this theatre of conflict comprised of communities
and the highest political institutions on one side, and an obstructive local
government on the other. Along with these expectations we can hope that such
conflicts will precipitate further democratization of the PSUV's internal
mechanics, as the party's leadership relies on and empowers its activist base
to ensure future fulfilment of a participatory agenda.
Given the importance of these elections to
this central tenet of Bolivarian ideology, itself perhaps opposed to the
existence of these municipal representative institutions, one may have worried
about the fairness and freedom of the electoral process.
One may also worry upon hearing a common
sentiment in the Venezuelan participatory initiatives, neatly summed up by
Marlene Moreno when she told me, "Well yes, we want to have a better [system of
government], overcome the system that is always the same, the same, the same,
that is repetitive. We only want to do something new and something for the
community," and that this is why her community is forming a communal council.
In light of the combination of political
importance, potential ideological opposition, and widespread exasperation with
municipal representative institutions, such worries in fact appear justified.
However, not only Chávez's calm acceptance
of the results, but the manner in which the elections were conducted should
help reassure many that a free and fair procedure of representative elections
is not being sacrificed at the alter of popular participation. Though at 4pm on
election day leaders from the opposition claimed
"generalised fraud" as a number of polling stations stayed open after the closing
time, such claims can be safely disregarded. Venezuelan law requires that
polling booths remain open until all who are in line have had the chance to
vote; the OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza
deemed the elections "peaceful and exemplary". In addition, the high turnout
reveals that despite popular sentiments of exasperation with local government
and its failings, in terms of rubbish collection and rising crime rates, the
institutions are still seen as important, if not always effective.
As a monitor stationed in ward 8, Municipio
Libertador in Merida, I saw first hand that despite the intense competition for
the mayoralty, voting was both orderly and rapid. All but one of the voters I
spoke to described the election as calm and completed the process in under an
hour. This is quite a feat in a developing country where each citizen had to
place 5 votes (one for state governor, one for mayor, and three for the state
legislators), in a largely new electronic voting system that also creates a
paper vote receipt, and where each voter is then marked with indelible ink. I
only observed one instance of disorder in the neighboring
ward where blows were exchanged as members of the PSUV tried to stop the
illegal distribution of election material at the gates of a polling station and
illegal conduct of exit polls, where people were questioned before they had
voted. The police arrived rapidly and dispersed both the groups.
These elections do not serve to prove the
possible co-existence of participatory and representative institutions, as the
current Venezuelan situation cannot be said to be a state of equilibrium. Yet
they do seem to suggest that a population generally enthused about the creation
of a participatory society does not see this as in conflict with the electoral
procedures of representative institutions. As one voter, Ermina Rivas Rangel
told me, "the movement is going a bit slowly, but truly we are using the legal
process". Whether such a conflict must exist between the participatory
initiative and those institutions themselves will continue to be explored in
the coming year.
As such, despite the high stakes of the
election it seems that the procedures of representative democracy in Venezuela
remain firmly uncompromised. Though vigilance is clearly vital where such
procedures are concerned, putting this debate behind us for the time being will
enable a better analysis of the effects of the result, particularly of how the
changed map of Venezuelan power will interact with the participatory elements
of Bolivarian ideology, given the widespread popularity of the community
councils among almost all sectors of Venezuelan society
and the situational importance of the councils in the current context. For
those interested in the promotion and deepening of democracy, this is clearly a
 See articles 62 and 70 in particular
 Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, pg 56-59 - Gregory
 the anatomy of such support is to my knowledge under researched,
though it is likely reflected in the unusually high levels of support for and
satisfaction with democracy found in Venezuela by Latinobarometro, see