Despite securing a comfortable victory in October's presidential elections, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is set for a harder struggle in crucial regional elections on December 16.
However, even opposition polls show PSUV is likely to keepcontrol of most governorships. The issue is whether the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) can win or hold key seats, or the PSUV can build on the momentum from the presidential vote and important social gains.
Chavez easily won the October 7 president elections after impressive social gains for the poor majority as a result of the Bolivian revolution his government leads. Chavez won the popular vote over the right-wing opposition in 22 out of 24 states, but many of the votes for governorships, mayors and municipal candidates look set to be closely fought on December 16.
The high support for Chavez does not necessarily extend to others in his party. Participatory grassroots democracy is one of the principles of the revolution, championed by Chavez, but some pro-Chavez office-bearers have been criticised being bureaucratic, isolated from the grassroots or hostile to the goal of popular democracy. The candidates for December 16 were hand-picked by PSUV leaders, and not all candidates are trusted or supported by the ranks of the Chavista movement.
The US-backed opposition has sought to exploit frustrations at inefficiency, corruption and bureaucracy that have undermined the revolution's popular programs.
The PSUV won 17 governorships in the 2008 election, but the opposition won some key states.
However, since then, the revolution has advanced on a range of fronts ― such as housing, efficiency in the social missions and land reform. Crime and the judicial system remain a source of popular frustration.
Many of the 23 state governor positions and 229 positions in state legislative councils are hotly contested between the PSUV and opposition, particularly in states such as Miranda, Zulia and Merida.
Polls remain split on the outcome in the key battleground state of Miranda, where former PSUV vice-president Elias Jaua will go up against incumbent governor Henrique Capriles Radonski.
Miranda is the second most populous state, and includes key sections of the capital Caracas. Opposition candidate Radonski defeated Chavista incumbent Diosdado Cabello, the PSUV vice president often identified by grassroots Chavistas as a figurehead for more right-wing, bureaucratic forces in the party.
In recent weeks, Jaua's campaign has been focused on crime ― a key focus of Capriles' failed presidential bid in October.
Jaua has proposed more cooperation between the state and national governments in tackling Miranda's severe crime rates, an initiative opposed by Capriles during his time as governor.
Meanwhile, in the states of Merida, Amazonas, Portuguesa and Bolivar, the PSUV will not only face MUD and independents, but also its ally, the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV). Although far smaller than the PSUV, the PCV is the second largest party that supports Chavez.
PCV leader Douglas Gomez has told Venezuelan media that PCV candidates in these states are not “candidates of Chavez, but they are candidates of the revolutionary process...”
Venezuela Analysis said in the state of Merida, PSUV candidate Alexis Ramirez is “relatively unknown”. But the candidate supported by the PCV, Florencio Porras, has also been criticised. Venezuela Analysis said the two offer revolutionaries a “choice between two bads” for the left.
In Bolivar, the PCV has responded to widespread criticism of the PSUV candidate by registering their own, Manuel Arciniega.
The PSUV governor of Bolivar and candidate for December 16, Francisco Rangel Gomez, has been criticised for anti-worker policies, including working against the development of workers' control in the state, in conflict with government policy.
In 2008, Rangel Gomez backed the management of the Sidor steel firm against striking workers – and used National Guard and local police to attack protesting workers. The dispute ended when Chavez intervened on the side of workers and nationalised the steel plant.
Gomez runs a powerful political machine and enjoys support in the polls. But his PCV opponent has gained ground since coming fourth in the 2008 regional elections in Bolivar.
Critics also claim Gomez is allied with reformists and members of the old union bureaucracy who oppose progressive labour measures supported by the PSUV nationally.
Unlike in Bolivar, in Trujillo state, grassroots dissatisfaction with PSUV candidate Hugo Cabezas resulted in the PSUV switching from Cabezas to defence minister Henry Rangel Silva.
Despite some tensions over candidates, Chavez publicly expressed confidence that “the revolution will triumph in the vast majority of states in Venezuela”.
The election comes amid a national discussion and debate initiated by the PSUV of the government's proposed Socialist Plan of the Nation for 2013-19. Mass assemblies and other forums have been taking place nationwide to discuss radical proposals for the socialist transition.
The results will have an impact ― a strengthening of the pro-Chavez forces will be a further endorsement of the socialist path the government is setting out. A further strengthening of the opposition, however, will make it harder to implement progressive, pro-people measures, giving greater institutional weight to those who oppose them.
Venezuela Analysis said on November 20 that polls showed PSUV candidates in the lead in most states. Private company Consultores VOP gave PSUV candidates strong leads in 11 states.
Pro-government polling company GIS XXI predicted the PSUV would win more positions than in 2008. Pro-opposition polling Datanalisis also predicted most governorships would stay with Chavistas, but that for the opposition, the key battle was winning key states, especially Miranda.