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Chavismo in decline?

Results from the local elections in Venezuela show that Maduro's electoral triumph needs to be revisited.

Last updated: 15 Dec 2013 12:12
Maryhen Jimenez Morales

Maryhen Jimenez Morales is a graduate student in Latin American Studies at St Antony's College, University of Oxford.
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The ruling party used public funds and policies to get an advantage at the local elections, writes the author [EPA]

Few countries have political debates as polarised as Venezuela. Both chavistas and their opponents are willing to defend their political position with any shred of evidence. We see this polarisation in the media, academia and of course, in the political arena. A closer look at the local election's results is more revealing about what is happening in the "revolutionary" country.

Conventional wisdom goes that the occurrence of elections is tantamount to democracy, and so Venezuela qualifies as such. However, the fact that elections are part of political life does not necessarily mean that the country has a solid representative democracy. Under Chavez, the political system was dramatically transformed, to the point that political scientists call it a "hybrid system"; neither fully democratic nor autocratic. While remaining electorally competitive, he spurred a process of gradual political closure. Chavez, and now Maduro, ironically depend on non-democratic practices to secure electoral majorities.

Reinterpreting electoral results

A glance at the electoral results of the local elections on the December 8 in Venezuela would suggest that Maduro and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) have overwhelmed the opposition leaders and voters. Indeed, the absolute figures [Es] tell us that "the revolution" secured the majority of the voters with a 49 percent in total. They won more than 250 out of 335 municipalities comprising a total of more than 70 percent. In turn, the opposition won only 77 municipalities, a 20 percent of municipal territory.  While 58 percent of all Venezuelans participated in the electoral process, 42 percent chose not to go to the polls. And Only 42 percent of the voters have chosen the oppositional MUD.Do these figures paint the whole picture of political winners and losers? I suggest not.

Listening Post - Venezuela: Maduro's media war

By disaggregating the figures and comparing them to former local elections in 2008, we see that support for opposition has increased, and has become a feasible political alternative to Chavismo. It is crucial to understand that the number of municipalities is not directly proportional [Es] to the number of votes, but rather depends on the geographical distribution of voters. Logically a mayor of a larger city needs many more votes than a mayor of a smaller village to be elected. The more towns a party wins, the more mayors it gets, that is why Venezuela becomes red one more time.

Although it is important to acknowledge that the PSUV got a larger number of mayors, it is also important to understand that it has also lost some relevant municipalities [Es]. Among them six major cities, Maracaibo, Valencia, Barquisimeto, San Cristobal, Maturin, Merida and Caracas. These cities are the most populated ones and share the highest political and economic significance [Es] for the country. The most  important loss symbolically was surely Chavez's hometown, Barinas [Es], in the state governed by his brother Adan. Whereas Chavismo maintains its control over the more rural areas in the west and east of the country, precisely where subsistence depends on state intervention, the opposition has increased its political presence nationwide by 4.6 percent [Es] since the last regional elections in 2012.

A kidnapped electoral system

Electoral malpractices are nothing new in Latin America. Since the introduction of elections in the 19th century in most Latin American nations, powerful elites have struggled to control electoral outcomes and stay in power. The "socialist revolution" is no exception [Es].

As for the municipal elections, Vicente Diaz, the only opposition-leaning member of the five-strong board of the National Electoral Council (CNE), stated that, "this was the most unfair election in modern Venezuelan history". Many actions, for instance the reduction of oppositional participation on radio and TV, mobilisation of pro-government voters in elections, use of social policy as a vote-buying mechanism, and use of public funds to finance an extremely expensive "revolutionary campaign" are expressions [Es] of electoral abuses that the electoral body has been tolerating. Declaring the December 8 the "Day of loyalty to Chavez" [Es] was probably one of the most visible violations of electoral norms.

Maduro's regime mobilised all possible resources to impede the opposition from winning in some key municipalities, like Sucre - which encompasses Petare, one of the largest slums in Latin America - the Capital Caracas and Valencia. In the latter case, the now elected mayor was accused of being a "thief" and threatened with detention through Interpol [Es], as the government accused him of escaping [Es] the country. Cocchiola confirmed via Twitter he was visiting his newborn grandchild in the US.

For now, whether Maduro likes it or not, Venezuela remains a democracy, albeit a deteriorated one, and he will need to deal with dissent.

Maduro, also, largely funded former baseball player El Potro's campaign to win Sucre and the former Minister of Information Ernesto Villegas's efforts to win the mayoral municipality of Caracas. Despite all possible impediments and distortion of information, Cocchiola was elected, while both Villegas and El Potro lost.

Even after the elections, the government was ignoring democratic rules. Maduro's first reaction towards his defeat in several important municipalities was the establishment of the outvoted socialist leaders, Villegas and El Potro, as parallel mayors [Es] to secure the revolution in the respective sectors. If democracy is a system where parties lose elections, Maduro will need to admit his defeat in the 77 municipalities and govern with opposition leaders.

Polarisation as the main challenge

An analysis of these local elections reaffirms the national split accelerated with the presidential elections on April 14. If Venezuelan leaders take representation as a key feature of democracy, both the PSUV and the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) will have to recognise the will of the people and accept this polarised political landscape. Given the numbers, both the PSUV and the MUD need to acknowledge that they cannot wipe out the other half of the country.

The electoral results did not consolidate the "socialist revolution" nor proved Maduro's strengthening in Venezuela. Chavismo is in decline. His most recent aggressive economic actions - such as the DAKA scandal -  consisted of forcing businessmen to reduce prices, arresting several dozen retailers and limiting Latin America's highest inflation. Even such measures were not sufficient to win more supporters.

While it is true that the opposition's resistance is present and has conquered new spaces to govern in the following years, it will also need to rethink its slogan of "We are the majority", as there is no clear basis for this proclamation. Oppositional leader Capriles's proposal of using the elections as a plebiscite clearly failed.

Both parties will have future opportunities to revise their strategies to keep their electorate or even win new voters. Electoral abstention, a symptom of political discontent, must also be addressed. It seems that both the Revolution and the opposition rely on their most confident supporters. However, they must also attempt to win the support of all those Venezuelans who have apparently lost faith in the process.

For now, whether Maduro likes it or not, Venezuela remains a democracy, albeit a deteriorated one, and he will need to deal with dissent. The "winner takes all" principle must be revised. In such a divided country, representation must be part of democracy if it is to be meaningful. Venezuela needs reconciliation and cooperation between the two political camps, since the country has neither clear winners nor clear losers.

Maryhen Jimenez Morales is a graduate student in Latin American Studies at St Antony's College, University of Oxford.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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