A non-partisan journal of the left.

Venezuelan Local Elections: Change or Continuity?

Fri 5th Dec 2008

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 turnout of approximately 65% of the population, this was 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 reflective of 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 heavily 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.

Seventeen other states were won by the PSUV, signifying a substantial vote of confidence by many. However, 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; on the other hand the PSUV has lost some of its supporters due to unresolved problems within the country. It has been observed 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 concern over 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 Venezuelan 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 grassroots-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.

The 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 have expanded. The long-term agenda for the Communal Councils, as stated in the new ‘April 13th’ Mission, involves the creation of 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 project has not been without its 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, some 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 involves ex-Presidential candidate Manuel Rosales. He is under investigation by the Public Prosecutor for alleged fraudulent overpricing of public works, he is believed to have siphoned off an estimated 18.6 Million US Dollars in this way.

Recent drops in oil prices could also create large problems for the PSUV, who largely depend on oil rents to finance their social projects and Missions.

Although the PSUV suffered some major losses in the elections this week, 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.

What 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 approach to social justice.

Those who continue to 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 its 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, for some, appear to be unravelling, as opposition members have now won three more states. Although there are many powerful forces 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”.

Adam 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.
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