Venezuela: After Chavista local elections' landslide, internal struggles comes to the fore

Supporters of Simon Planas mayoral candidate Angel Prado protest electoral authorities' decision to swear in his defeated PSUV revival, Jean Ortiz. Photo from Comuna El Maizal/Venezuelanlaysis.com.
January 4, 2018

Venezuela’s socialists scored an overwhelming victory in mayoral elections on December 10, taking over 90% of the country's municipalities. 

President Nicolas Maduro’s United Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV), along with its allies, have secured victory in 308 of Venezuela’s 335 municipalities. According to preliminary results, the governing socialist party managed to take 21 out of the country’s 23 state capitals as well as the Caracas Capital District.

Meanwhile, the only state capitals to remain in opposition hands are Tachira’s San Cristobal and the Libertador municipality of Merida, which were won by the Movement Towards Socialism and Christian Democrat (COPEI) parties, respectively. 

Limited grassroots victories, conflict

With large opposition parties boycotting, grassroots movements to the left of the PSUV leadership decided to launch candidacies in several municipalities in a bid for greater diversity within the revolutionary process. 

In Apure, Jose Maria "Chema" Romero from the Bolivar and Zamora Revolutionary Current won the Paez municipality in alliance with the ruling socialists. Thirty-eight-year-old Romero has pledged to institutionalise the power of communes and social movements in the municipality as well as promote a local productive economy.

Elsewhere, however, local movements launched their own challenges to PSUV candidates, sometimes viewed as an imposition by the party machine.

In one such case, local commune leader Augusto Espinoza defeated his PSUV rival to become the mayor of Sucre state’s Cajigal municipality. 

 Nonetheless, several grassroots Chavista candidacies have sparked conflict with Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE).

In Lara state, commune leader and Simon Planas candidate Angel Prado accused electoral authorities of refusing to recognise his victory. Despite his Homeland for All (PPT) party ticket securing over 57% of the Simon Planas vote, Prado said the CNE refused to acknowledge his candidacy and instead handed his votes to the PSUV. The CNE had previously blocked Prado's candidacy on the grounds that as a delegate to the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), he did not have the permission of the body to run. 

Prado's El Maizal commune took to the streets in response and occuypied the Simon Planas central plaza, and has vowed to remain there until their candidate's victory is recognised. 

View image on TwitterView image on TwitterView image on Twitter

 

A tweet from the commune's offical account read: "The people of Simon Planas organized a rally-march in Sanare demanding that the votes that gave Angel Prado his victory be reocgnised."  

Meanwhile, Education Minister and former Vice-President Elias Jaua took to social media to defend Prado, calling for "differences in Chavismo to be resolved politically".

"In Simon Planas there is a desire for popular sovereignty being expressed that must be heard,” he said.

Prado has also been endorsed by former Electricity Minister Jesse Chacon and ex-Communes Minister Reinaldo Iturriza, who both called for the outcome of the vote to be respected. 

In another high profile race in the Capital District’s Libertador municipality, Eduardo Saman conceded defeat to his PSUV rival Erika Farias. Having previously served as commerce minister and consumer protection czar, Saman had been a favoured candidate among critical Chavistas, though he accused the government – including electoral authorities – of “blackballing” him.

Saman has slammed the National Electoral Council (CNE) for failing to put his name on the ballot, meaning that his supporters had to cast their votes for electoral tickets bearing the names of other candidates, who were withdrawn by their parties in order to back him. According to the ex-minister, the CNE had to publish in all voting centers a "statement of error" alerting voters that they can still vote for him despite his name not appearing on the ballot. 

"[The CNE] did not release the statement of error, nor did it even publish it, which is a serious vice in the process," Saman told VA on election day. 

Saman has also denounced a "blockade" by state and private media outlets, who he said had refused to cover his campaign. 

After the preliminary results came in, Saman tweeted, “The struggle doesn't end here, it's barely beginning.”

Libertador municipality in southern Monagas state was likewise the scene of controversy the day after elections, where supporters of Communist Party (PCV) candidate Regulo Reyna took to the streets to protest an error by the CNE.

Though Reyna beat PSUV incumbent Jose Figuera with more than 62% of the vote, the CNE handed the election to Miguel Presilla, who was the PCV candidate before he was withdrawn in favor of Reyna. Local CNE head Irainidy Gonzalez has refused to sign off on the result, which she called an "inconsistency", opting to wait for state and national electoral authorities to resolve the issue. 

Speaking on the evening on December 10, Maduro declared the preliminary results a victory, and called for “the unity of all Venezuelans”.

“We have triumphed, now we advance towards the triumph of national unity, the triumph of the renewal of hope,” he said.

He also welcomed the outcome of a gubernatorial re-run election in Zulia, where the PSUV’s Omar Prieto won with 57% of the vote.

“Today we can officially say that we have won 19 governorates, including Zulia, which is the most populous state in the country,” Maduro said.

According to the preliminary results of the municipal vote, turnout was at 47.32%.

"These elections saw the participation of 9,139,564 voters," said Sandra Oblitas, vice-president of the National Electoral Council (CNE). The figure is more than 1 million voters lower than the last municipal vote in 2013, when over 10,665 Venezuelans went to the polls.

Nonetheless, Maduro described the level of participation as “extraordinary”.

“I want to thank the people of Venezuela who have come to the voting centres to exercise their right to vote,” he said.

Opposition responds

Venezuela’s opposition went into the vote divided. The three largest member parties in the country’s largest opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) boycotted the election. These parties included Popular Will, Justice First and Democratic Action. Smaller parties including COPEI took part, though the MUD leadership dismissed the vote as “fraudulent”.

“Credible elections are characterised by inclusion, transparency and equality,” the MUD said in a December 10 statement. “None of those attributes were present today in Venezuela.”

Opposition figures have also disputed the level of turnout.

"Nobody believes in that 47%,” said Luis Florido, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly’s Foreign Policy Commission.

Notwithstanding the fraud allegations, an international observer mission led by the Council of Latin American Electoral Experts (CEELA) ratified the CNE’s results as credible.

“We believe totally and absolutely in the results offered by the National Electoral Council because all the guarantees offered throughout the process were given,” said CEELA President Nicanor Moscoso.

“It's a very good [turnout] and it is within the average that exist in the region,” he added.

Aside from several high-profile cases including Libertador and Simon Planas, no widespread voting irregularities have been reported. Authorities in Tachira said three people had been detained after at least two separate incidents at voting centres. A military spokesperson said at least one of the detainees allegedly destroyed their ballot, while in another incident a voting machine may have been damaged.

Looking ahead

Prominent Venezuelan opposition-aligned pollster Luis Vicente Leon said the results could be a heavy blow to the MUD’s hopes for presidential elections slated for next year.

“This is the worst result for the opposition in any election during the Chavista era,” he told Reuters.

“They don't delegitimise the [electoral] process and they’ve abandoned municipalities, which are fundamental for the support base of the opposition.”

Meanwhile, Maduro welcomed the vote as a positive sign for his party’s ambitions to retain control of the presidency in 2018.

“We’re ready to compete!” he told supporters during a rally in Caracas.

Just weeks ago, the PSUV announced Maduro would run for re-election in 2018 and campaign posters bearing the president's image already dot the streets of Caracas. 

In another surprise move the night of the local elections, Maduro said he would support a proposal to suspend parties from running if they boycotted previous elections. (Editor's note: The ANC subsequently passed a motion that did not ban parties, but required any party that boycotted a previous election to reapply for their legal status, in line with requirements that each party must register before each election, unless they recieved more than 1% of the vote in the preceeding election, in which case the requirements are waived -- as explained in this article).

“Popular Will, Justice First, have disappeared from the Venezuelan political map,” Maduro said. In the past, Maduro allies have accused these parties of endorsing elections when they win, while crying foul when the polls go against them.

In response to international media reports claiming that the ban was already in place, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert published a tweet lambasting Venezuela as an "authoritarian dictatorship". 

Heather Nauert@statedeptspox

’s attempt to ban opposition parties from presidential elections is yet another extreme measure to close the democratic space in  & consolidate power in his authoritarian dictatorship. We stand with the Venezuelan people as they seek to restore their democracy.

3:15 AM - Dec 12, 2017

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza fired back at Washington, dismissing the statement as "ridiculous".

"The ridiculous statements by the State Department spokesperson about the municipal elections denote the impotence and desperation of the supremacist government of Donald Trump in the face of the successive victories of Venezuela's democracy and Bolivarian people," he declared via Twitter, referring to the Maduro government's back-to-back successes in National Constituent Assembly and regional elections in recent months. 

During his late-night speech, Maduro vowed to reinvigorate the political movement started under his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. He told supporters he plans to prioritise revitalising the country’s ailing economy.

“2018 belongs to Chavistas,” he said.

However, according to a poll by Venebarometro released in December, Maduro could very well lose if presidential elections were held that week. When asked which candidate they would support, just 28.6% of respondents said they'd vote for Maduro.

The opposition is yet to coalesce around a single candidacy, but the pollsters suggested a generic opposition candidate could command at least 46.3% of the vote. A full quarter of respondents said they were undecided. 

[Slightly abridged from Venezuelanylsis.com.]

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