Leftist Electoral Victories in Latin America

In nearly simultaneous elections in Uruguay, Venezuela, and Chile, leftist forces won the vote, signaling the continuation of a strong leftward shift in Latin American politics. In Brazil, however, leftist PT lost.

By Humberto Marquez, Gustavo Gonzalez, and Mario Osava - IPS
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MONTEVIDEO, Nov 1 (IPS) - In Brazil, however, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's left-leaning Workers' Party lost important cities to the centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), although small centre-left parties were considerably strengthened in the second round of municipal elections Sunday.

Socialist Tabaré Vázquez, the candidate of Uruguay's left-wing Broad Front coalition, won the elections by taking at least 51 percent of the vote, thus avoiding a November runoff.

Vázquez will be the country's first leftist president, and the Broad Front will hold a majority in both houses of Congress.

In Venezuela, meanwhile, left-leaning President Hugo Chávez chalked up a new victory when candidates from the parties that support him won 20 of the 22 states up for grabs (out of a total of 23), according to the partial returns announced Monday.

And although the results for the country's 333 city governments are not yet in, opposition leaders acknowledged that a majority went to the "Chavistas".

Once again, it became clear that six out of 10 voters in Venezuela support Chávez, while four back the increasingly divided opposition alliance.

In the Aug. 15 presidential recall referendum organised by the Democratic Coordinator opposition coalition, 59 percent of voters came out in favour of Chávez completing his term, compared to 41 percent who wanted him to step down.

Chávez won the 1998 presidential election with 56 percent of the vote, and in 2000 he was re-elected with 60 percent support in polls held under the newly rewritten constitution.

According to the partial results from Sunday's regional elections, Chavistas took 60 percent of the vote.

"Actually we have had practically the same election in Venezuela since 1998, with different questions," Germán Campos, a political science professor at Venezuela's Central University, told IPS. "The people's reactions to the elections have been the same" each time.

The statements of political leaders Monday indicate that the results of the August referendum and Sunday's regional elections have brought to an end the years of efforts by the opposition to remove Chávez from power before the end of his term in January 2007.

Since late 2001, the opposition alliance of traditional parties, business and labour associations and private media outlets organised dozens of mass marches, a short-lived coup d'etat that ousted Chávez for two days in April 2002, and a two-month business shutdown and oil industry freeze in December 2002 and January 2003 that caused 10 billion dollars in losses.

On Monday, Chávez, who said in his campaign that he would deepen the "social revolution" in favour of the poor, extended his hand to the opposition and invited all of the new governors and mayors to work together to fight poverty, because "the revolution is here to stay, and Venezuela has changed forever."

Henry Ramos, the secretary-general of the Democratic Action (social democratic) party that governed Venezuela several times between 1945 and 1993, said his party would analyse the results and the new political reality in the country without illusions.

Democratic Action is now the country's second-strongest political party, after Chávez's Fifth Republic Movement.

Ramos said he lamented that his party had distanced itself from the "popular sectors" that traditionally supported it, "and for the sake of unity in the efforts to remove Chávez, we accompanied those who 'do politics' essentially for the middle and upper classes, without building a strategy of our own, and leaving the people to Chávez."

Julio Borges, the leader of a new centre-right party, Justice First, said "a stage was brought to a close on Sunday for many of the traditional opposition parties and leaders, and the country will now set out on the search for alternative leaders."

Farther south, in Chile, the centre-left coalition that has governed since the end of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet also emerged victorious from the municipal elections.

At the same time, small left-wing parties that are not represented in parliament made an unexpectedly strong showing, taking over nine percent of the votes for city councillors and nearly six percent for mayors.

With these results, Juntos Podemos (Together We Can), the electoral alliance created by the Communist and Humanist parties along with smaller left-wing forces that do not legally exist as parties is shaping up to play a key role in deciding the outcome of the December 2005 presidential elections.

Government Minister Francisco Vidal said Monday that the ruling Concertación por la Democracia coalition won 199 mayoral positions, two times the total (98) that will be in the hands of the right-wing alliance. Juntos Podemos, meanwhile, took three or four city governments, according to the partial returns based on 94 percent of the vote.

The Concertación, made up of the Christian Democratic, Socialist, For Democracy and Radical Social Democratic parties, garnered just under 45 percent of the votes for mayors and 48 percent for town councillors.

For its part, the right-wing Alliance for Chile, comprised of the Independent Democratic Union and National Renovation Party, won nearly 39 percent of the votes for mayors and 38 percent for city councillors, far below the 45 and 47 percent it expected to take.

"This triumph guarantees that there should be a man or a woman from the Concertación right here after March 2006," President Ricardo Lagos, a moderate socialist, enthused Sunday night.

Vidal admitted that the support for the Concertación exceeded the government's expectations.

The outcome of the municipal elections opens the door to a definite possibility that the governing alliance will still be in power after Lagos' term ends in March 2006.

And the Juntos Podemos alliance of tiny parties is likely to once again play a crucial role in determining the outcome of a presidential runoff, as occurred in January 2000. At that time, with less influence at the polls, the communists and their allies tipped the balance in favour of Lagos over right-wing candidate Joaquín Lavín in the second round of voting.

Two of the main aspirants for the Concertación's presidential candidacy are women -- former foreign minister Soledad Alvear, of the Christian Democrats, and former defence minister Michelle Bachelet, a socialist.

"Without a doubt, within the 'karma' of the Chilean left of having to support the lesser evil, we would find it less difficult to vote for Michelle Bachelet in a second round against Lavín than to vote for Soledad Alvear" or the other possible contenders, Hortensia López, a long-time supporter of the Communist Party, told IPS Monday.

But Brazil's governing Workers Party (PT), which has gradually moved towards the centre over the years and took power in January 2003, did not share the success enjoyed by the leftist Broad Front in Uruguay, the Chavistas in Venezuela and the governing coalition in Chile.

In fact the president of the PT, José Genoino, recognised the loss of the southern cities Sao Paulo (Brazil's biggest) and Porto Alegre as "significant, heavy defeats."

The party, which took the greatest number of votes in the first round of the municipal elections on Oct. 3, suffered other losses as well in the 44 large cities where runoff votes were held.

Besides Sao Paulo, which it lost to the PSDB, the PT will have to hand over the city governments of two important state capitals, Cuiabá and Curitiba, to the same party.

In addition, it will no longer be governing rich, populous cities in the state of Sao Paulo, like Santos, Brazil's main port, and the industrial university town of Campinas.

And although the PT gained an unexpected triumph in Fortaleza, the capital of the northeastern state of Ceará, it did so with a dissident candidate, Luizianne Lins. In the first round of voting she was rejected by the party leadership, who backed Inacio Arruda of the Communist Party, which supports the PT.

Lins' triumph in a city with a population of over two million as well as the defeats of some of the PT's candidates strengthen currents within the party that criticise the conservative economic policy followed by President Lula.

Raul Pont, the PT candidate in Porto Alegre, blamed the party's poor performance this time around largely on unpopular measures taken by the federal government, like reforms of the social security system that created difficulties for pensioners and the tiny rise in the minimum salary.

Porto Alegre has a special symbolic value for the PT, which has governed it for 16 years. The city was the birthplace of a number of successful experiments like participatory budgeting that gave the party experience in governing and showed that it was capable of putting its progressive ideas into practice.

But Porto Alegre was one of the cities where the growing strength of small centre-left parties was seen. José Fogaça, the candidate of the Popular Socialist Party (former communists), won the post of mayor there. That party also took Boa Vista, the capital of the northern state of Roraima, as well as several other large cities.

The Democratic Labourist Party, which abandoned Lula last year, took three state capitals, as did the Brazilian Socialist Party, which still forms part of the alliance led by the PT.

* [With reporting from Humberto Márquez in Venezuela, Gustavo González in Chile and Mario Osava in Brazil]

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