Supporters and opponents of Venezuela’s
Bolivarian revolution have come out with differing assessments post the
November 23 regional elections, which Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
had defined as the most important electoral contest yet for the process
In the lead-up to the poll, which involved 22 governorships, 328 mayors
and 233 legislative council positions, Chavez presented the vote as a
virtual referendum on his government’s socialist project —
and goal of deepening the revolutionary process that has succeeded in
significantly reducing poverty, but is facing increasing pressures with
huge amounts of power still in the hands of the corporate elite.
Echoed by the international media, the opposition — whose
traditional support is drawn from the upper and middle classes —
claimed it stood on the verge of delivering a significant blow to the
Chavista movement that has drawn its support from the poor majority,
while continuing its attempts to paint the government as dictatorial.
However, as with the previous 12 national polls held since Chavez
was first elected in 1998 (11 won by pro-Chavez forces), the vote was
free and fair, as noted by the more than 130 international observers.
The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), led by Chavez, has
highlighted to its victories in 17 governor races, as well as winning
81% of all mayoral positions and a national PSUV vote that surpassed
that of the counter-revolutionary opposition by 1.5 million.
The PSUV, with almost 5 million votes on its own, far surpassed its
next contender, the opposition A New Time (UNT) party, which scored
just over 1 million.
The US-backed right-wing opposition has highlighted the fact that
it won the three largest states — Zulia, Carabobo and Miranda — and the
Greater Caracas mayorality.
It now has control of five states.
In the last regional elections, held in October 2004, the
pro-Chavez forces were riding the wave of their crushing victory in the
August 2004 recall referendum on Chavez’s mandate. Against a
demoralised opposition, who — following unproven claims of fraud by
their leaders in the referendum — largely abstained, the Chavistas won
all but two states.
In elections traditionally marked by low turnouts, only 46% of
registered voters participated. This time, on top of an increase in the
number of registered voters, a massive 65% voted — reflecting the
increased political participation that has occurred as part of the
These elections occurred one year after the first electoral defeat
suffered by the Chavista forces. On December 2 last year, voters
narrowly rejected the government’s proposals for a wide-ranging, and at
times confusing, package of constitutional reforms that in large part
were aimed at opening the path to deepening the revolution.
After a record vote for Chavez in excess of 7 million in the
December 2006 presidential elections, some 3 million abstained in the
constitutional reform referendum, allowing the opposition — whose vote
was only slightly larger than the 4.3 million it received in the
presidential poll — its first electoral victory since 1998.
The opposition parties and the 95% of media outlets aligned with
the counter-revolution immediately announced the beginning of the end
for Chavismo. The private media talked up the possibility of the
opposition winning 12-15 governorships.
The right wing hoped that some of the factors that contributed to
the referendum defeat — dissatisfaction with the bureaucracy and
corruption, the poor performance of a lot of Chavista officials and
ongoing problems such as crime and housing — would pave the way for
significant gains based on making inroads into Chavez’s impoverished
However, far from focusing on individual candidates, the campaign
became in large part a referendum on the direction of Venezuela —
between accelerating towards socialism or else ratifying the decline of
support for Chavez and opening up important spaces from which the
opposition could launch a frontal attack on the revolution.
Given this scenario, what do the results mean?
The Chavista vote rose from just over 4 million last year to more
than 5.5 million this year, a reflection of an important recuperation
of support although only half way to the 7 million votes for Chavez in
Especially signficant is the nearly 5 million votes cast for the
PSUV, consolidating it as the primary political force in Venezuela less
than a year after it was formally constituted.
Chavez had called for the formation of the PSUV after his 2006
victory as a way of uniting the often dispersed revolutionary forces
and creating a badly needed political tool to lead the process towards
Only properly formed this year, the lack of such a tool to lead the
constitutional reform campaign contributed to the campaign’s defeat.
Previously, the process had to rely on the amorphous electoral
machine of the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR), viewed by much of
the ranks as a vehicle for opportunists, and a number of smaller
Significantly, the PSUV held primary elections for its candidates,
involving 2.5 million people — the first time this has occurred in
On top of the PSUV vote, a further 500,000 votes were obtained by
candidates from other parties that are part of the of the pro-Chavez
Patriotic Alliance that involves the PSUV, while a number of “dissident
Chavista” candidates that stood against PSUV candidates garnering just
over 400,000 votes.
These originated either as candidates that didn’t win PSUV
pre-selection or else were proposed by the Communist Party of Venezuela
or the Homeland For All party — both of whom have declined to join the
PUSV, but formed part of the Patriotic Alliance.
This comparatively low vote indicates the general rejection of
those from within Chavismo who attempted to pose as alternatives to the
While in some cases such candidates expressed discontent from the
left with the PSUV candidates, but in most cases they were candidates
whose political positions were counter-posed to the revolutionary
The vote for opposition candidates nationally tallied up to just
over 4.1 million, a drop of almost 10% from their vote in the 2007
Much has been made in the Western media of the fact that the
opposition won five states, as opposed to the two it secured in 2004.
However, before the latest poll five governors elected as pro-Chavez
candidates in 2004 had broken with the government.
Two of the governors who broke with Chavez — in Aragua and Sucre —
were aligned with the social-democratic party Podemos that left the
pro-Chavez camp in 2007. This time, Podemos candidates were supported
by the opposition and vice versa.
Three other governors — in Carabobo, Guarico and Trujillo — openly
broke with the process this year, standing candidates against the PSUV.
This means from 16 states previously controlled by Chavista forces, the PSUV no hold 17.
While the PSUV did not win the two states the opposition won in
2004 (Zulia and Nueva Esparta), they regained control of Aragua and
Sucre — destroying Podemos on the way — as well as Guarico and
In Carabobo, the opposition candidate won a narrow victory — with
the votes won by the right-wing Chavista “dissident” almost certainly
preventing the PSUV candidate from winning.
Having narrowly won Tachira, which borders with Colombia, in 2004, the Chavistas lost it this time.
Furthermore, the PSUV won 264 municipalities, up from the 226 the
Chavistas won in 2004, including 80 of the 100 most populated
municipalities. The opposition dropped from 70 to 56 mayoral offices.
The biggest upsets, however, came with the opposition victories in
the state of Miranda — which includes part of Caracas — and the Greater
The first thing to note when drawing up a balance sheet is the
partial revival of the Chavista vote. This can be explained primarily
by three factors.
Firstly, some decisive government measures this year to combat
widespread problems causing dissatisfaction among the population had an
This includes the nationalisation of strategic industries such as
cement, steel and milk production, together with policies that helped
overcome food shortages, increase the construction of housing and, in
part, improvements in combatting crime.
Secondly, the non-stop political campaigning by Chavez, who remains
hugely popular, ensured that each time he visited a state and raised
the hand of a PSUV candidate, their standing in the polls rose several
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, was the eruption of the
PSUV. Together with Chavez, it was the grassroots units of the PSUV
that drove the election campaign.
This dynamic relationship between Chavez and the grassroots,
revived after a certain weakening in 2007, was for the first time
expressed in an organic manner through PSUV structures.
This was crucial for overcoming some of the discontent among the popular sectors.
This relationship was ratified on election day when internal PSUV
exit polls looked bleak around midday. The PSUV moved into action and
mobilised the popular sectors that recognised the danger.
This helps explain not only the fact that voting booths in many
areas remained open well past the official closing time of 4pm, but
also why the opposition tried to pressure the National Electoral
Commission to close the polling booths after that time — despite
Venezuelan law stating that as long as there are people waiting to
vote, a booth cannot be closed.
In the other direction, it also explains the surprising losses in Miranda and Greater Caracas.
While an important turnaround in voting trends occurred, with many
of the last polling booths to close being in impoverished neighbourhood
of Petare, this was not enough to secure victory in the Sucre
municipality, handing the opposition victory in Miranda and Greater
The mismanagement and corruption of the previous mayor of Greater
Caracas, Miranda governor and Sucre mayor — all Chavistas and all with
jurisdiction over Petare — meant that many in poorer areas of Petare
refused to vote for Chavista candidates.
In these areas, abstention averaged between 40-45%.
Another factor was popular rejection of candidates like incumbent
Miranda governor Diosdado Cabello — widely viewed as a leader of the
Chavista right wing.
The opposition vote overall stayed solid at around 40%. While such
a vote is not enough to win national elections, a process that aims to
move towards socialism — which requires the support and mobilisation of
the great majority to defeat the capitalist elite — has to break down
This consistent vote can be explained more by the corporate media
monopoly than the policies of a divided opposition, which is only
capable of uniting around the goal of removing Chavez.
Another important factor is US intervention. On the border states
of Zulia and Tachira, right-wing Colombian paramilitaries played a
significant role in ensuring opposition victories, while the US
government agency USAID funded opposition-run “popular networks” that
built a base of support among discontented sectors of the poor in
The election outcome and reactions to it seem to point in the
direction of growing confrontation, and a possible return to the
turbulent period of 2002-2003.
While the opposition secured control of some crucial posts, it is
clear there remains strong support for Chavez and the revolutionary
At the same time, the revolution needs to resolve some internal questions.
The rejection by the revolution’s support base among the working
people of right-wing Chavista candidates, and the possibility of newly
elected Chavista governors jumping ship — potentially in Lara where the
new PSUV governor previously expressed his willingness to run on an
opposition ticket and formed his own party during the campaign —
demonstrates the need to carry out the “revolution within the
revolution” that Chavez has spoken about.
Crucial will be building on the momentum to develop the PSUV into
not simply a powerful electoral machine, but a real political
instrument at the service of working people and the revolution.
Chavez has stated that the election results are a mandate for
accelerating the pace towards socialism. This will require dealing with
the domination of the corporate media, US subversion and capitalist
Chavez has openly warned the opposition governors that any
destabilising activity will be met by the full weight of the law. A
number of opposition governors were openly involved in the 2002
military coup that briefly overthrew Chavez, and will undoubtedly seek
to use the institutions they control against the national government.
Already, disturbing reports have emerged of opposition thugs in the
newly opposition-run areas in Miranda, Tachira and Caracas, as well as
other places, violently attacking activists involved in communal
councils, social missions and other popular organisations.
In some places, violent street battles broke out, while in others
activists were violently ejected from buildings that house the popular
projects that have helped tackle the needs of the poor.
Addressing supporters on November 28, Chavez read for eight minutes
straight examples of attacks on the pro-poor social missions that have
occurred, without completing the list. He declared: “They want
confrontation. Venezuelan people, Venezuelan soldiers, we are ready to
defend the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution!… We are willing to die
for the Bolivarian revolution, for the spaces that the people have
recuperated and the path we have chosen to take.
“Where a civil or military functionary tries to interfere in the
process of the recuperation of the property that belongs to the people,
they need to singled out by the people … and we need to apply the full
weight of the law against this functionary, no matter who they are.
“This is part of what I call a revolution within the revolution.”
That day, thousands of people marched in defence of the social
missions in the capital of Miranda, Los Teques, and against the newly
elected opposition governor, Henrique Capriles Radonski, who has been
accused of orchestrating violent attacks.
The march was led by Chavista mayor-elect of the Guaicaipuro
municipality, Alirio Mendoza, who stated: “We are here today supporting
the people in defense of their constitutional rights. We can not allow
the representative of capitalism, of fascism to violently seize the
spaces that we have won with struggle and revolutionary committment.”
In this new political context, the PSUV will have to develop a
strategy to directly confront any coup-plotting activity in Miranda,
Caracas, Zulia and other regions, which can only occur by
simultaneously confronting the powerful righ-wing within the PSUV.
The next year looms as decisive for the Bolivarian revolution, as
the process faces the pressure of likely lower oil prices, internal
battles over direction and the newly secured control over important
positions by the counter-revolution.
On the other hand, the important gains in 2008, as well as the
still-high popular support for the process, indicate the potential for