Venezuela: Between assassination plots and abstention
Talk of assassination plots and rising concerns about a high abstention rate have marked the beginning of the November 23 regional elections race.
Formally at stake are 23 governorships, more than 300 mayorships and hundreds of representatives on the state legislative councils. However, the result of these elections could also have an important impact on the future of the Bolivarian revolution led by the Chavez government.
During the November 2004 regional elections, the pro-Chavez forces, on the back of the thumping victory in the August 2004 recall referendum on Chavez's mandate, painted the electoral map red as they swept into 21 of the 23 governorships up for election (they later rewon the governership of Amazonas to make it 22 out of 24 all up).
This time, Chavismo comes into the elections on the back of its first electoral defeat. Last December, Chavez's proposed constitutional reforms, aimed at increasing popular power and introducing progressive measures such as a six-hour workday, along with some feature criticised by Chavistas and all wrapped up in a confusing package of 69 changes were narrowly defeated at the polls as a result of significant abstention from Chavez's support base.
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While in the 2004 elections, the right-wing US-backed opposition in large part abstained, this time the opposition is united and urging participation.
A lacklustre campaign, however, seems to indicate an opposition that will be unable to fully capitalise on the momentum it built up last year, when earlier this year it seemed they could win as many as eight governorships.
Today, they may possibly win more states, but potentially stand to lose control of the strategic oil-rich state of Zulia.
During a PSUV campaign rally in Zulia on October 12, security authorities detained three men who breached the security perimeter. According to an October 13 Venezuelanalysis.com article, "the men told interrogators that they were paid by Fabian Masias, a campaign manager for … A New Time", the party of current Zulia governor Manuel Rosales.
Following the incident, PSUV leader Jorge Rodriguez stated that Rosales confessed to being linked to the men, saying they belonged to a "group that attends all political activities to take photos and evaluate the activity", Venezuelanalysis.com reported.
At the rally, Chavez denounced Rosales as "a coup monger" and accused him of ties with paramilitary groups and the CIA. Chavez declared he had documents in his possession that point to a conspiracy to overthrow his government, with Maracaibo, the capital of Zulia, as the coup plot's "epicentre".
The accusations follow on from the revelation in September of a coup plot involving retired and standing military officials. A number of caches of illegal arms have since also been uncovered.
The threat of assassination against Chavez is a very real one. As the leader of a revolutionary process, backed by the mobilisation of millions of the poor, which provides inspiration for millions more around the globe, US imperialism and the domestic opposition are desperate to get rid off him and the socialist revolution he leads.
Counter-revolutionary forces have already attempted a military coup, economic sabotage, political destabilisation and an international campaign to discredit and isolate the Chavez government. Today, sections of the opposition believe the only way to get rid of Chavez is to kill him.
Chavez continues to have tremendous mass support — a 75% approval rating according to an IVAD poll in early October — reducing the possibilities of removing him electorally to a distant dream.
However, asked if elections were held today for president, while Chavez would clearly win, his support dropped to 51.4%, while 32.3% said they would vote for the opposition.
When asked which party respondents supported, the PSUV came out on top with 37% — less than half Chavez's approval rating. The other pro-revolution parties that, with the PSUV, comprise the Chavista Patriotic Alliance, got around 6% combined.
The opposition combined support only mustered up 24%. Meanwhile, 31% stated that they supported "independent candidates".
Asked how they felt about the general situation in the country, 49.6% believe it has improved and 44.3% believe it has worsened, while 56.5% believe it will improve, as opposed to 31.3% who think it will worsen.
In relation to the recent denunciations of a possible assassination attempt, 24.1% responded that the statements were used to cover up the scandal involving allegations that the government sought to help fund Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner's election campaign, while 18.9% said it was just simply a lie by Chavez.
Only 37.7% said Chavez was speaking the truth — including 2.8% who said not only did they believe it was true but supported the attempt to kill Chavez!
Analysing these results, Ultimas Noticias editor Eleazar Diaz Rangel wrote on October 20: "Who led the majority of Venezuelans (43%) to believe that this denunciation was a lie by the government? Well, without a doubt, the media."
Rangel when onto argue that the power of the media, more so than the opposition parties or any other factor, helps explain why the opposition has been able to maintain some 40% support since Chavez was first elected in 1998.
The polls do seem to coincide with a reality in which the real threat to the revolution in these elections is not from the opposition votes but from abstention.
The fact that it is local candidates, not Chavez, that the voters have to choose will only increase this tendency.
Some in the PSUV national leadership are becoming concerned about internal polling figures indicating that they do not have as many secure votes as they had figured.
In response, special election campaign commissions have been established in various strategic states, while regular meetings in the presidential palace are closely analysing how to reverse this trend.
Chavismo's internal problems
Behind this phenomena is continued discontent with what many feel as the lack of resolution of some of their most urgently felt needs. In most cases, it is a discontent directed at local mayors and governors whom many feel are not working with, but rather against, community attempts to organise and resolve these problems.
Meanwhile, the lack of resolution of a rising number of labour conflicts — particular in the state sector — has fuelled disenchantment among workers. Two states that have Chavista forces worried are precisely the two states where the industrial working class is strongest.
In many of these cases, it is hard to avoid the obvious conclusion that some in the government and state bureaucracy — at all levels — are consciously working to stoke this dissatisfaction.
Moreover, in fighting to defend their privileges, candidates in a number of places have actively excluded other forces within the PSUV from being part of their election campaign.
In the states of Lara, Merida and Tachira, PSUV militants have raised alarm over the fact that the PSUV candidate is supporting candidates for mayors and legislative councils that are aligned with them, but standing against the PSUV.
Lara state provides an example of why even many PSUV members are planning to abstain. Earlier this year, the PSUV leadership announced the expulsion of now-PSUV candidate Henry Falcon for initiating his election campaign before having been preselected.
Announcing he would stand on another ticket, the PSUV backflipped and claimed he had never been expelled, most likely due to his high showings in some polls.
Instead, a manoeuvre occurred to drop popular left-wing Carora mayor, Julio Chavez, from the list of candidates for preselection. A rank and file rebellion forced the reappearance of his name of on the ballot paper.
Having won internal preselection, Falcon moved to exclude Julio and other opponents from his campaign team and set up another party on which he is now running candidates for the state legislature — against the PSUV.
And as the opposition puts the finishing touches to its unity agreements for the key positions up for election, the Patriotic Alliance seems more divided that ever.
Both the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) and the Homeland for All Party (PPT), part of the alliance, have launched rival candidates against the PSUV in at least six states — in some cases supporting candidates that failed to win preselection in the PSUV internal elections.
With very little chance of winning, the most these candidates could achieve is ensuring an opposition victory due to a split Chavista vote.
Reinvigoration of the base?
Despite the problems, the campaign has generated some positive features.
Through the process of elections for the PSUV national leadership, and even more so with the participation of almost 2.5 million people in Venezuela's first ever internal pre-selection vote for candidates, an important re-engagement occurred between the PSUV ranks and a leadership that seemed increasingly disconnected during 2007 and early 2008.
The election campaign has also breathed new life into the PSUV as the party starts to move into action, bringing with it an important core of activists that have been part of its construction.
In a number of places, the campaign has involved continuous meetings between PSUV militants and activists from social movements and community organisations to help design a plan for a "socialist" municipal or state government.
This is not just occurring in the electoral sphere, either. With the coup plot revelations, important mass meetings of the coordinators of territorial defence commissions from each battalions were convened, and an important mobilisation of the battalions occurred to discuss how to prepare for a coup scenario.
A certain reinvigoration of the "hard" Chavista base seems to be taking place — against the trend that developing in the recent period and accelerated last year. However, this has not yet transformed into a galvanising, cohering force capable of turning around the broader situation of discontent and relative demobilisation and pushing the election campaign forward towards a definitive victory.
It is likely that the "hard" Chavista vote, if fully mobilised, would be enough to secure an important victory, with just a tiny number of governorships falling into the hands of the opposition.
Once again forced to take the reins of the campaign to attempt to turn the situation around, Chavez stated to a PSUV election campaign launch, "what we are dealing with is not just a question of making gains in the elections, it is about making gains at the level of organisation — in the capacity for mobilisation, it is about increasing revolutionary and socialist consciousness".
Such a victory could create "the necessary revolutionary acceleration, a revolution within the revolution … a battle that we need to have against deviations that still survive, a battle to the death against corruption … against inefficiency, against bureaucratism, a battle to give shape to the spirit of socialism."
Unfortunately, with less than a month to go in the campaign, numerous signals seem to point away from such an outcome.