Following the December 2 constitutional reform referendum defeat — the first for the forces of the Bolivarian revolution since the election of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 1998 — and facing popular discontent at the problems holding back the advance of the process of change, the pro-revolution forces face a big challenge in securing an overwhelming victory in the November regional elections in order not to lose ground to the US-backed opposition.
Chavez, who described the upcoming regional elections as "the most important in Venezuelan history", outlined what is at stake: "Imagine if the opposition groups managed to win the mayor of the Capital District, the mayor of Caracas, the state of Miranda, the state of Carabobo, Zulia, Tachira, Anzoategui ... the next step would be war, because they would come for me, once again we would be in the same situation as April 11\" he said in reference to the April 2002 US-backed coup against the Chavez government.
Chavez's list was no coincidence. Apart from being some of the most strategic states in terms of population and economic strength, they are also. along with Aragua, Lara, Merida and Nueva Esparta, states where the opposition won a majority in the constitutional reform referendum. If repeated in November, it could see the number of Chavista governors reduced from 21 out of 23 to 14.
Such a result would provide a strengthened opposition with a launching pad to intensify its campaign to remove Chavez through a recall referendum in 2010 — or through more violent means.
In this context, the democratic primaries held by the 5.7-million-strong United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) on June 1, to choose candidates for the November 23 regional elections for mayors and governors, are crucial for re-engaging and revitalising the grassroots of the Chavista movement to push the revolution forward .
In the 2004 regional elections the Chavista alliance — at that time predominately comprised of the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR — Chavez's then-party that has dissolved into the PSUV), Homeland For All (PPT), Podemos and the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) along with smaller organisations — won 20 of the 22 governorships up for election along with the mayor of the Capital District.
The Chavistas also won an overwhelming majority of the municipalities, as commentators talked of an electoral map painted red.
Opposition forces, demoralised by their crushing loss in the recall referendum on Chavez's presidency in August 2004 and claiming fraud (although there was no evidence) and in large part abstained from the regional elections in November.
This time the situation is not as favourable for the revolutionary forces. Boosted by its victory in the December referendum, a recycled opposition — presenting itself as removed from the old, discredited parties — is attempting to run a united campaign (although public clashes over seats in opposition strongholds are increasing) and can count on a re-mobilised and confident supporter base.
They will also count on more moderate sectors from the Chavista camp that have broken with the revolution since 2004 as the process of change has radicalised — such as the social democratic Podemos. In 2004, Podemos was won two governorships.
The revolutionary forces were then in a period of ascendancy, having defeated three attempts to depose Chavez — April 2002 coup, December 2002-January 2003 bosses lockout and the 2004 recall referendum. Today the mood is different.
Discontent, demoralisation and demobilisation have impacted on the popular forces, as many blame bureaucracy and corruption for sabotaging the revolutionary process — undermining both the social gains and blocking genuine popular power.
Venezuela's elite opposition, backed by US imperialism, has been increasing its orientation toward the poor majority that make up Chavez's support base — adopting a populist discourse, such as "we want to improve the missoins" (the government-funded social programs that are helping solve the problems of the poor) and "build more houses for the poor".
It is seeking to take advantage of discontent to infiltrate the barrios through what it calls "popular networks", which according to US-Venezuelan lawyer Eva Golinger, recieve money from the US government-funded USAID. These networks work to spread rumours, promote divisions among Chavistas and mobilise people against the government.
It can be expected that the opposition will employ the same tactics in the lead up to the elections that worked for them in the constitutional reform referendum, such as extra-parliamentary destabilisation — including violent protests and economic sabotage — combined with a virulent campaign of media manipulation and lies to create a climate of crisis and ungovernability.
A renewed offensive by US imperialism to isolate the Chavez government internationally is adding to the internal pressure. The US has attempted to link the Chavez government with "terrorism" based on the supposed documents found on the laptops retrieved from the site of the illegal military assault by Colombia (the US's key ally in the region)on a camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Venezuela has categorically rejected the allegations.
Despite claims by the US and Colombian governments that an Interpol investigation into the laptop backs up the charges, the Interpol report states on page 9 that, "The verification of the eight seized FARC computer exhibits by Interpol does not imply the validation of the accuracy of the user files, the validation of any country's interpretation of the user files or the validation of the source of the user files."
In addition, the US navy has decided to reactivate, after 58 years, its Fourth Fleet to patrol Latin American waters, and on May 16, Colombian troops were intercepted inside the Venezuelan border. On May 17, a US warplane was caught violating Venezuelan airspace.
On top of all this, internal divisions between the "endogenous" (internal) right-wing of Chavismo, which doesn't want to break with capitalism, and the more radical grassroots pushing the deepen the process of change and especially extend direct democracy to empower the poor are becoming increasingly exposed.
Since its was launched last year, the PSUV has become a battleground between these sectors, reflecting the conflicting class interests within the Bolivarian movement. This dynamic is playing out in the primary elections.
While the June 1 internal elections, which are open to all members of the PSUV, represent an historic landmark in the Bolivarian revolution — for the first time allowing the grassroots to participate in the selection of candidates — struggles over the form and content of this process have not been absent.
Sources within the PSUV told Green Left Weekly that it was the rank and file, who in a general assembly on May 9, forced the national leadership to back down from an initial proposal whereby the local PSUV battalions would be able to suggest names that would then be tallied in order to come up with a list of 15, from which the national leadership would select the final candidate.
Under the alternative compromise proposal, which was approved, if no candidates receives either 50% plus one votes or a margin of more than 15% above the next candidate, then the national leadership, in consultation with Chavez, will select the candidate from the top three.
Importantly, Chavez announced that all the results of the internal elections will be made publicly available in order to allow greater transparency, and in doing so reversed a previous decision by the national leadership to keep the results secret.
A key example of the internal struggle is the controversy that erupted following the exclusion of the popular mayor of Torres Municipality, Julio Chavez (no relation to the president), from the list of pre-candidate nominations for governor of the state of Lara.
Sections of the national leadership had attempted to pressure Julio to stand down in favour of more conservative candidate Henri Falcon. Even though the mayor rejected the proposal, he was excluded from the list of pre-candidates released by the national leadership.
This prompted a rebellion among rank-and-file PSUV members in Lara, who saw Julio's exclusion as a bureaucratic attempt by the national executive to override internal democracy and impose a candidate from above.
Hundreds of PSUV members mobilised spontaneously and surrounded the party's regional headquarters on May 29 and 30, and in a play on Julio's surname, chanted the famous slogan celebrating the defeat of the coup; "Uh ah, Chavez no se va! (Chavez is not going).
The PSUV national executive was forced to back down and reincorporated Julio onto the list of pre-candidates for governor of Lara. The president, who has repeatedly called for candidates to be selected democratically, telephoned the mayor directly to assure him that the situation had been corrected
Julio, loathed by opposition sectors and particularly local business elites, is extremely popular among the poor for being the only mayor in Venezuela to have transferred control of the majority of the municipal budget directly to organised communities, and for implementing a process of radical transformation and democratisation of the entire governance system of his municipality.
The intervention by Chavez in defence of democracy, like his decision to nationalise the Sidor steel plant on April 9 after a long workers struggle there and the subsequent sacking of the right-wing labour minister, has boosted the morale of the rank-and-file.
Chavez has also pressured sectors tempted to flout the democratic decision of the party and stand as candidates outside of the PSUV: "Those that do not accept the results will be morally pulverised by the Bolivarian people."
"What is important" Chavez argued, "is that we come out more united after June 1." For this to happen, the mass participation of the ranks in the elections will be vital for consolidating the pro-revolution forces in the lead up to the regional elections.
Also key to the success of the Chavista forces is the strengthening of the Patriotic Alliance, which unites the PSUV with smaller pro-Chavez groups that haven't joined the new party, such as the PPT and PCV.
However, frictions have emerged as the smaller parties have raised concerns about their exclusion from discussions on candidates and the platform on which to contest the elections.
With the PSUV still in formation and with important internal divisions, a yet to be solidified alliance with other groups and a significant layer of revolutionary activists who for a variety of reasons chose to remain outside the parties, there will be a serious need to push forward mobilise the broadest layers of the popular sectors.
Chavez has already called on each active member of the PSUV to work at mobilising a further five people — recalling the successful grassroots mobilising strategy used to win the 2004 recall referendum.
[Kiraz Janicke and Federico Fuentes are members of the Green Left Weekly Caracas bureau. They are both featured speakers at the Resistance national conference in Sydney, June 27-29. Visit http://resistance.org.au& for more information and to register.]