Could Venezuela's socialists lose the coming elections?

Queue to vote in United Socialist Party of Venezuela primaries in August. Photo via TeleSUR English.

When it comes to elections in Venezuela, there are at least three things you can usually count on. The upcoming December 6 elections for the National Assembly are no different — even if the result is far from certain.

The first is that much is at stake.

In a country where the poor majority has sought to advance radical change through popular mobilisations and votes, every election since Hugo Chavez’s successful 1998 bid for president has been transformed into a referendum on the future of the country’s “Bolivarian revolution”.

Before Chavez's rise, elections were dominated for four decades by two big parties of the wealthy elite. With both parties backing the same basic anti-poor program, elections were more akin to popularity contests.

Now, nearly two decades into the process of pro-poor revolutionary transformation, elections in Venezuela are heavily polarised and politicised battles. Elections pit supporters of the Bolivarian revolution (known as Chavistas) against candidates from the US-backed counter-revolutionary opposition.

In December's elections these two sides will face of to see who wins the parliamentary majority now held by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its allies.

But the importance of this vote goes beyond the government's potential loss of its majority, and with it the ability to pass radical laws.

A victory for the right wing would no doubt lead the opposition to try to use its newly-acquired majority to impeach President Nicolas Maduro, or possibly rally supporters behind a push for a presidential recall referendum next year.

Although Chavistas have won every national election since 1998 bar a 2007 constitutional referendum, there is a sombre mood among revolution supporters leading up to December. This is largely due to the impact of a second common factor of Venezuelan elections.

War by other means

Each election period has involved intensified destabilisation tactics, which have increasingly born fruit.

It is not just the domestic opposition pushing these tactics. The lead-up to this year’s election has involved greater external pressure applied to Venezuela.

This year, US President Barack Obama announced his government was placing sanctions on several Venezuelan state officials and declared the country to be a threat to US national security. In the face of international outrage, with Latin American governments uniting to condemn the moves, the Obama administration retracted its declaration. However, the sanctions remain in place.

More recently, tensions escalated between Venezuela and its eastern neighbour Guyana. These tensions centre on an unresolved, century-old dispute over the territory of Essequibo.

In June, the newly elected Guyanese government of President David Granger announced it would allow Exxon Mobil to drill for oil after the discovery of a huge deposit in the disputed territory.

The US government was quick to strongly back Guyana and the US oil giant. It campaigned for Caribbean nations - many of whom enjoy good relations with Venezuela and benefit from cheap oil deals with the South American country – to do the same.

Venezuela objected to Guyana's announcement and called on the United Nations to mediate the dispute.

Maduro said Exxon Mobil - which successful sued Venezuela for US$1.6 billion in the World Bank tribunal after Venezuela nationalised some of its assets - was trying to stoke a conflict that could “bring war to our border”.

On the other side of the country, Maduro announced the closure of the border between Colombia and the state of Tachira on August 20. The move came after Colombian paramilitaries attacked three Venezuelan soldiers involved in operations against contraband smuggling.

Within Venezuela, Maduro has had to contend with what his government has dubbed “an economic war” waged by powerful business interests allied with the opposition.

Recent moves to reign in Venezuela’s crime problem — including police and military operations as part of “Operation Liberation and Protection of the People” — have caused crime to drop down the list of citizen’s most pressing concerns. But economic issues remain, by far, the biggest priority for most.

Spiralling inflation, combined with increasingly bare shelves and long queues at supermarkets, have had a big impact on peoples’ support for the government.

The situation has reached such a critical point that, in reaction to rising prices, riots and looting broke out on August 3 in San Felix, a city in Venezuela’s south-eastern state of Bolivar.

So far, this has remained an isolated incident. But as with every other election period, the problems of shortages and rising prices are likely to worsen as election day approaches.

Faced with this scenario, the Maduro government has tried to crack down on hoarding and contraband. However, it has not been able to turn the situation around nor stem its declining support. Falling oil prices have also cut state funds, limiting its room for manoeuvre.

Perhaps most importantly, the Maduro government has struggled to regain the political initiative and set the terms of national political debate as Chavez had done. Some former Chavez ministers have referred to this as a “loss of hegamony”.

Abstention

Some government supporters fear that this situation could lead to a defeat for the government in December. This would probably not be due to a rise in votes for the right, but because sections of Chavismo will abstain from voting.

Abstention, which brought Chavismo its only electoral loss in 2007, has become a third recurring feature of elections in Venezuela. There are several reasons to indicate this could be a big factor once more.

Pro-government websites such as Aporrea have been filled with articles warning of declining enthusiasm among Chavistas. They warn that popular sectors have been worn down by the opposition's constant campaign of economic sabotage and the seeming inability of the Maduro government to adequately respond.

These views have been echoed by several former high profile government officials and PSUV leaders.

Perhaps most revealing, however, were statements made by Colonel Jose Martin Raga Garavito in an August 17 Newsweek article.

Raga Garavito was at pains to point out that “I am Chavista, I believe in the project”. But the serving officer publicly raised many of the same concerns — corruption, inefficiency, lack of new faces in the government — that many others have expressed in political discussions and online forums.

In response, many took to the internet to express their support for Raga's comments, with the hashtag “I am Chavista, I support Raga” trending on Twitter.

“The economic war exists, it’s a reality, but part of the economic war is a result of our own inefficiencies,” the colonel said. “We as the military are part of this war … Who is responsible for the country’s borders? The military.

“[Yet] the basic produce we need is crossing over to Colombia … As long as we are unwilling to accept our reality, our internal corruption, our weaknesses; as long as we don’t tighten our disciple and sanction those responsible this thing is going to become a disaster.”

When asked if the upcoming elections could provide a way out of the situation, Raga Garavito said: “Look at the PSUV internal elections [in which over 3 million participated on June 28], the people showed they still believe in the process.

“Look at the march of the opposition [on August 8], it is evident that they [represent little] in this country.

“The way forward will emerge from within the Chavista people. We need emergent leaders to come forward and take the reins of the institutions.”

In the hands of the people

With more than three months to go until the elections, a lot can — and will — happen. Only a month out from the 2013 municipal elections many, including some PSUV leaders, were raising the real possibility that the opposition could win the popular vote.

In the end, the PSUV and its allies won almost 10% more votes than the opposition Democratic Roundtable of Unity (MUD) coalition on the back of an extensive series of co-ordinated raids on shops involved in price gouging. For many voters, this demonstrated the government's willingness and ability to fight back against the counter-revolution's sabotage.

It is unlikely that Maduro will be able to rely on oil money or short-term measures this time to turn around an extremely difficult situation. The election result, and with it the future of the revolution, is — more than ever — in the hands of the people.

Although some Chavistas seem to think they have already lost the vote, there are signs that the popular sectors will not go down without a fight.

Speaking on public television, Maduro said on July 28 that communes minister Elias Jaua had phoned him, crying, the day of the PSUV primaries, saying: “We underestimated the people.”

Jaua was referring to the impressive turnout for the primaries, in which a large number of women and youth were elected to stand as PSUV candidates for the first time.

The PSUV had set out fewer voting tables than in the past, expecting a low turn-out — leading to long queues at voting booths. Jaua told Maduro that at one booth, a 40-year-old man grabbed him by the arm and said: “Don’t underestimate us again, tell President Maduro to not underestimate us.

“We are here, we might be pissed off about something, but we are here with the revolution.”

[Federico Fuentes is co-author, with Roger Burbach and Michael Fox, of Latin America's Turbulent Transitions (2013). He lived in Venezuela from 2007-2010, serving as a Green Left Weekly correspondent.]

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