Elections in Venezuela: Strengthen the President while His Government Weakens

by Rafael Uzcátegui
translation by Nick Cooper

On October 7 Hugo Chavez won his reelection with the most votes in his 13 years in power — more than 8 million. This result was not a surprise.  Consistently, different pollsters had predicted a comfortable victory over his opponent, Henrique Capriles, who got 6.5 million votes.  However, the apparent strengthening of the Bolivarian project is illusory. These same polls say that the next Venezuelan elections for regional power — mayors and governors — will go to the coalition of political parties opposed to Chavez, the “Table of Democratic Unity” (MUD in Spanish).  How can we explain this duality?

The Bolivarian project is based on the promotion of the cult of personality of Hugo Chavez, as well as a gradual concentration of state powers on his person.  Recent results confirm his popularity within major sectors of the population. However, the charisma of Hugo Chavez doesn’t seem to transfer to his own government team.  Since 2002, Venezuela has experienced yearly increases in the number of peaceful demonstrations, most of them made by “Chavista” men and women who decry the government failure to meet promises and expectations. They blame the corruption and inefficiency on the inter-governmental bureaucracy, but never on the president himself.  Many think that “if Hugo Chavez only knew” the reality of their problems, everything would be quickly fixed. This unique relationship of the people with the president has created a strong political identity within the popular sectors, which some analysts say has religious characteristics — people consider themselves as “Chavistas” and not as “socialist,” despite international propaganda to the contrary.

All predictions suggest that in the next regional elections, there will be a significant increase in abstention by those who voted for  Chavez in October.  The prediction that they won’t come out to vote in the regional elections are based on levels of apathy and disinterest, as the staying power of the old lieutenant colonel is at stake, but also is seen as a punishment of weak candidates seen as responsible for corruption and stagnating Bolivarian social policies.  This discontent is fueled by voter disenfranchisement in the selection of the mayoral and gubernatorial candidates, which had been requested by the grassroots since 2011.  It is a paradox that the MUD, though often called “fascist” and “counterrevolutionary,” has implemented more democracy than the Chavistas — it had the people choose all its candidates in primary elections earlier this year. The choice of the “Bolivarian” candidates was made by Hugo Chavez himself, who makes all policy decisions of importance within their movement.  Nominations were granted based on political loyalty rather than on demonstrating regional leadership. There are dozens of examples of corrupt candidates, some who haven’t lived in the regions where they are running, and even human rights violations. The most scandalous case is that of Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, mastermind of one of the most serious cases of human rights violations in Venezuela in the early 80’s: The Slaughter of El Amparo.

While the figure of Hugo Chavez has historically maintained a high popularity, since 2007, his governmental project has been falling apart with the loss of regional power positions by popular vote.  The past few regional Bolivarian victories were only possible when Hugo Chavez himself led the campaign for his candidates. Now, due to his health problems, this will no longer be possible.

So, the results of the two elections reflect a strengthening of the figure of Hugo Chavez, but a weakening of his government, which contradicts, to say the least, the expansion of a the collective revolutionary process in Venezuela.  Chavez can develop “communal statism” — the name of a program announced for the future — only with the support of his ministers and parliament, exactly as he did in his second presidential term. Since it is based solely on his person, any future political or physical absence of Hugo Chavez will mean the end of the call for “Bolivarian revolution”.

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