Chavez Forces Set to Win Regional Vote in Venezuela

The voting for Governors, Mayors, and local councils will probably give the pro-Chavez forces a solid majority of governorships and mayor positions. The opposition's internal divisions and some calls for abstention hurt the opposition badly (again).

For the second time in just over two months, Venezuelans woke to the sounds of election.  While the bugling that gently roused Caracas voters for last August’s Presidential referendum was notably absent, at 4am this morning a series of loud percussive bursts took its place to let the populace know the time had come.

The sound of the regional election was not the only difference, the atmosphere this time round was tinged by none of the uncertainty, doomsayers, or political theatrics—none of the adventure—of the referendum.  The referendum victory of President Hugo Chávez’ by a margin of 59.1% (‘No’) to 40.6% (‘Yes’) set the tone for these elections, and suggests that candidates allied to Chávez stand to gain ground.

Voter approaching fingerprint scanning table in Los Palos Grandes, Caracas.
Credit: Gregory Wilpert

Governors, mayors, and councilors are on the ballot in 22 of Venezuelas 23 states,[1] 335 municipalities, and the Federal District.  Including regional legislative councils, there are 7,904 candidates for 609 spots: 178 prospective governors; 2,816 mayoral hopefuls; and 4,910 aspiring councilors.

In the 2000 elections, Chávista candidates were highly successful at the state level, winning in 17 of 24 states; but much less successful at the municipal level where they took only 125 of 335 municipalities.[2]  However, many analysts from both sides have predicted the Chavistas will make considerable gains, particularly at the municipal level.

Practice Makes Perfect

During the referendum, nightmarishly long lines meant that many Venezuelans were still voting at midnight, or even later.  While higher abstention in the regionals was widely predicted, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) added 459 new voting centers, bringing the total to 8,853 and increased the number of electronic voting machines to a total of 23,595.

The voting machines consisted of the touch screen computer and up to four touch-sensitive panels where voters could select their candidates. They then printed out a ballot in the computer and dropped the paper ballot into a ballot box.
Credit: Jonah Gindin

As a result, voting lines are a fraction of the length they were last August, and wait times have gone from the 6-14 hour average of the referendum, to approximately 1-2 hours, with the exception of certain voting centers experiencing technical difficulties.  In both middle to upper class, and working class neighborhoods officials and voters alike noted considerably higher abstention rates.  “It’s not immediately apparent right now,” said Beatrice Reverol, a volunteer at a voting centre in the wealthy Caracas neighbourhood of El Bosque, “but by afternoon you’ll see the numbers dwindling.”  “We’ll probably be out of here by 4 or 5 o’clock,” she added, noting that during the referendum people where still voting at 1am.

Far to the East of El Bosque, the poor barrio of Petare also noted decreased voter density.  “They’ve added two new voting centers in this area,” observed limo driver Luis Benitez, “but mostly, many people do not appreciate the importance of this election.”  “The regional elections don’t have the emotional charge that the referendum had,” added Carlos Barrios, a local bar-owner.

A voter dips her finger in indelible ink after voting.
Credit: Gregory Wilpert

Lessons from the Past

Yet the historic participation that characterized the referendum has not entirely disappeared.  In Barrio Union, high up in the hills surrounding Caracas’ east-side, Wilfredo Jiménez and Luis Eloy Useche talk about the difference between recent elections and those of the past.  “I had never even registered to vote until this year,” says Useche matter of factly.  “I never wanted to,” he continues, “because I knew my vote didn’t count—they wouldn’t have counted it, and it wouldn’t have changed anything anyway.”

“The old parties shared power back and forth anyways,” adds Jiménez, “but now we have a government that’s actually done something, that’s actually taken the poor into consideration.”  This is a common sentiment among the inhabitants of the hill-side ranchos that surround the Venezuelan capital.  Social programs providing free health-care, accessible education, and subsidized food all situated in the poorest neighborhoods have convinced many of the value in voting.

Whether Jiménez and Useche’s experiences are representative remain to be seen.  Regional elections in Venezuela historically have high abstention, compared to Presidential elections where the turnout is usually quite high.  In the last five regional elections, between 1984 and 2000, abstention averaged 45%.  Conversely, average abstention in Presidential races over the same period was only 27%.

Abstention rates for regional and presidential votes, 1978-2000. Click here for full-size image.

An important factor that affects the abstention rate in this election, as it did in the referendum, is the historically high number of Venezuelans registered to vote.  Whereas between 1979-2000 the average percentage of the population registered to vote was 45%, that figure has jumped to 54.5%.  This increase is the direct result of an aggressive registration drive conducted by the government in 2004, which added approximately 2.5 million voters.

A Fractured Opposition

Leading up to the referendum, the opposition was able to maintain a considerable degree of unity due to their mutual dislike of Chávez.  But the moment the goal became 3-dimensional, in that it involved proposing candidates not only rejecting them, they imploded.  The Democratic Coordinator ruptured, spewing out mostly-inconsequential parties screaming “Abstention!” over their shoulders.  The reason for abstaining was the supposed fraud that took place during the recall referendum. Unfortunately for the opposition, many of its supporters have been convinced that there indeed was fraud and thus see no point in voting as long as Chavez is in office. The few parties that have called for abstention can safely do so because they have little or no base to begin with.  The political impact of such a posture, thus, benefits Chavez, not the opposition.

Voters waiting in line to vote in the middle class neighborhood of El Bosque, in Caracas.
Credit: Jonah Gindin

The major opposition parties: the traditional parties Acción Democratica and Copei; MAS, and the recently created Primero Justicia are all participating—but that is not to say cooperating.  The Chavistas, for their part, have had more success unifying their candidacies, despite a rocky start.[3]  Thus, the Chavistas stand to gain from the opposition’s failure to present unified candidates.

In only two of the 22 contested states has the opposition managed to unite behind one candidate.  These states are Miranda and Monagas, where the Chavistas have also presented a united front, making them the only states with just 2 candidates.  At the other end of the spectrum, there are 20 candidates vying to be governor of Vargas.

Key Battles, Last Minute Predictions

The most important contested sites between Chavismo and the opposition will be in the main industrial centers, the Capital, and the strategic border states.  Interestingly, nearly all are currently in the hands of the opposition.  Of the four states that border Colombia: Amazonas, Apure, Tachira, and Zulia, two are opposition (Apure and Zulia); of the seven states where a majority of Venezuela’s non-oil industry is concentrated: Anzoategui, Aragua, Bolívar, Carabobo, Falcón, Miranda, and Monagas, only 2 have governors allied with Chávez (Aragua and Falcón); and Alfredo Peña, the Metropolitan Mayor, is opposition.

Predictions:  The Chavistas will lose Zulia by a considerable margin, and Anzoategui by slightly less.  Táchira, Miranda, and Carabobo are all too close to call, but I’ll call them anyway: Tachira to the opposition, Miranda and Carabobo to the Chavistas.  Monagas and Bolívar will also go Chavista, and Falcón and Aragua will remain so.  As for municipalities, Chavista candidate for Metropolitan Caracas Juan Barreto will just scrape by Acción Democrática’s Claudia Fermín, and about 200 other municipalities will go to the Chavistas.

[1] The South-Western state of Amazonas held a gubernatorial election two years ago.

[2] This number is approximate for two reasons.  First, because many candidates in actual fact were elected on independent platforms and, hence, cannot accurately be said to belong to chavismo or the opposition.  Yet in the last 4 years it has become much harder to maintain an independent political position in Venezuela; thus, for the sake of argument independent candidates have been added to one side or the other based on the political positions of parties that supported them.  Secondly, many candidates have switched their allegiance mid-term.  Two prominent examples are Alfredo Peña, the Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas elected on a Chavista platform, only to become a key player in the coup that temporarily toppled Chávez; and Gian Carlo Di Martino, mayor of the oil-town Maracaibo, elected as an independent who has since been seen to be close to the Chávez camp.

[3] See, “From Chavismo to Revolution,” and “Possible Faces of Venezuelan Democracy,” for discussions of criticism leveled at the Chávez government by sectors of the Chavista base for the undemocratic appointment of candidates.