Venezuela’s Regional Elections: An Indication for Change or Continuation?

Ten years of the same government may have aroused a sense of ‘Chávez fatigue' for some voters. At the same time, democratic developments in society have helped the PSUV maintain its strong support base.

November 24, 2008. Merida, Venezuela — The Venezuelan local elections were a highly anticipated event in Venezuela.
PSUV activists and candidates and opposition party candidates (with
notably fewer activists) fought hard during the month preceding the
elections. In Merida, the capital of Merida
state, the PSUV (The United Socialist Party of Venezuela) fielded
Governor and Mayoral candidates much in the same way as the rest of Venezuela and with the same seemingly bottomless budget to use in their campaign.

There were slightly less than 17 million people registered to vote across the 22 states of Venezuela with a huge turn out of approximately 65% of the population and is historically the largest local election turnout in Venezuela
to date. The PSUV lost three more states than in the last elections in
2004. These losses could have been protest votes or a lack of
confidence in Chávez in the states of Zulia, Tachira, (Distrito
Capital), Carabobo, Nueva Esparta and Miranda. Two of these states are
the most populated in Venezuela.
The loss of the Capital District of Caracas is incredibly difficult for
the Chávistas alongside the loss of three out of five municipalities in
Greater Caracas.

other states were won by the PSUV signifying a substantial vote of
confidence by many but there are also causes for concern for the Chávez
administration. This warning shows that on the one hand, the opposition
are gaining strength for the first time since 1998, however on the
other hand the PSUV has lost some of its supporters due to unresolved
problems within the country. It has been noted that some voters who
originally supported Chávez have ‘jumped ship' and are now in favour of
the opposition due to a loss of faith in the PSUV and issues such as
rising crime rates across the country. Ten years of the same government
may also have aroused a sense of ‘Chávez fatigue' for some voters. At
the same time, democratic developments in society have helped the PSUV
maintain its strong support base. Particularly evident are the Missions
and the Communal Council movement that has empowered citizens to make
local decisions democratically regarding community issues.

The Communal Councils have existed for over three years and have produced many progressive social changes. In Merida,
the development of several blocks of social housing planned and built
by the Communal Council ‘Hecheceria Tibisay' used inter-changes of
skills and expertise within the community. The PSUV hopes that the
ideology at this stage of revolutionary socialism is to have grass
roots led policy that is influenced by the ideas of these local groups.
Another Communal Council in the parroquial or parish of Belen in Merida is currently building a Mercal
that aims to provide cheap basic food to poorer residents. On weekends,
the Belen Communal Council use the PDVAL initiative in association with
PDVSA, the state oil company, in order to provide local farm produce
that is far cheaper than supermarket prices.

most impressive outcome of the Communal Councils is that meetings have
served as a basis for educating participants about local and national
politics. In addition, through discussing and prioritising issues in
the local community the bond between people has grown and interchanges
of skills and products has expanded. The idea for the Communal Councils
as stated in the new ‘April 13th' Mission is to create
networks of Communal Councils or Communes that collectively manage
local politics in their area. This is certainly a long way off but the
aim is clear, protagonist led local communities instead of corrupt
local politics. Unfortunately, the latter element hinders the Communal
Council movement especially as some politicians are unwilling to give
up their power.

It is clear that the Communal Councils have not gone without several problems. Corrupt mayors across Venezuela
have not directed all of the funds to the Communal Councils as they
should have. Decision making within some Communal Councils has been
sabotaged by some opposition members. They have joined groups to make
progress slower, and to keep an eye on where money is spent. Due to the
slow process of change in some Communal Councils, members have become
disillusioned and have even left the groups. The double standards of
opposition members who decry Chávez but willingly reap the associated
benefits have become problematic for the movement. Corruption in
Venezuela is still widespread as are the patron-client relationships
between mayors and citizens that filter through to the Communal
Councils. A recent example of corruption in Zulia state is involving
ex-Presidential candidate Manuel Rosales. He is under investigation by
the Public Prosecutor for alleged fraudulent overpriced public works
and work that never happened equating to an unprecedented 18.6 Million

drops in oil prices could also create large problems for the PSUV who
largely depend on oil rents to finance the social projects and Missions
as recently stated by President Chávez.

the PSUV suffered some major losses in the elections yesterday, it
would be foolish to suggest that the socialist determination of the
party and supporters has been exhausted. The socialist project is still
a high priority particularly because of the aforementioned benefits
people have gained through participation and direct democracy.

will happen once the PSUV loses its figurehead? Only time will tell.
Like him or not, Chávez has been a visionary for the process of change
and is certainly more agreeable than many heads of state around the
world especially in terms of his approaches to social justice.

who support the PSUV do so with unparalleled passion and determination.
The historic turnout for the elections is clearly a positive symbol for
an active participatory democracy. As Chávez said himself, this is a
progressive development for democracy and participation as so many
people were able to vote in Venezuela. The run up to the elections
highlighted just how many people were willing to fight for the party
and the ideology of change in order to benefit the people. Political
competition may be new for Chávez but it should serve as a shake up for
the PSUV in order to realise some of its recent errors. The process of
change and support for the development of Socialism may seem to have
started to unravel for some as opposition members have now won three
more states. Although there are many factors standing against the
progressive changes in Venezuela, the determination of the supportive
population has the potential to override these problems as was seen
with the huge turn out in yesterdays elections. As Chávez encapsulated
yesterday: it appears that we have now lost some states, "por ahora".

Gill is a PhD researcher at the Institute of Latin American Studies,
University of Liverpool, UK. His research focuses on direct democracy
in Venezuela, especially on the Communal Council movement.  [email protected]