Venezuela: Chavistas score big win in regional polls

The political map of Venezuela’s regions turned even further red after the PSUV took 20 of 23 states in the 2012 regional elec

Venezuelans went to the polls for the second time this year on December 16, and delivered another overwhelming victory to President Hugo Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

Chavez is leading a process of social change, known as the Bolivarian revolution, that has halved poverty in the oil-rich nation and promoted participatory democracy.

After presidential elections returned Chavez with more than 55% of the vote, the PSUV increased its majority of state governorships and legislatures.

With 4.8 million votes nationwide, the PSUV won the governorship of 20 of 23 states. The PSUV not only kept every state they already held, they took Tachira, Carabobo, Nueva Esparta and Zulia.

The opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) held on to just three states: Miranda, Lara and Amazonas. Lara's governor Henri Falcón and Amazonas' Liborio Guarulla both left the PSUV during their previous terms, joining the MUD.

The PSUV has also gained majority control of 22 out of 23 of the state legislative councils; Amazonas being the only remaining state with an opposition majority.

Although the elections were generally peaceful, in Bolivar state, MUD candidate Andres Velasquez disputed the official results, which saw him lose to the PSUV's Francisco Rangel Gomez.

Velasquez has called on his supporters to rally in the streets, alleging irregularities in the vote count.

Despite the absence of President Hugo Chavez from the PSUV campaigns, the party made considerable gains over the 2008 regional elections, when the PSUV won 17 states.

In the final week of campaigning, Chavez again underwent cancer treatment. For the first time in his 14 year presidency, was unable to actively campaign for his party’s candidates.

On December 17, the Venezuelan government said that Chavez, who was still recovering from surgery in Havana, Cuba, was making “gradual” improvements. Chavez has been battling cancer, and in the final weeks of the regional campaign, during his absence in Cuba, he named vice-president Nicolas Maduro has his chosen “successor”, should worsening health require fresh elections.

PSUV leader Jorge Rodriguez has described the results as a “gift to Chavez”.

Although the opposition has lost considerable ground, the elections were not quite the “perfect victory” that the PSUV’s governor-elect in Zulia Francisco Arias Cárdenas described the results.

Voter turnout was significantly lower than expected; 54% nationwide, compared to 65.45% in 2008. However, Rodriguez told Venezuelan media that there was a higher voter turnout in poorer areas.

The fall in voter participation is even starker when compared to the presidential elections in October, when more than 80% of registered voters participated.

Venezuela Analysis's Tamara Pearson told Green Left Weekly that low turnout in some states may have been due to “disillusionment on both sides”.

“The voting was very efficient, transparent, and peaceful, as it always is. But there was also a slight difference in the mood compared to other elections; people weren't as joyful as usual, there was more apathy,” Pearson told GLW.

“At least in Merida, where I live, people on both sides didn't feel like they had a decent choice.”

Hand-picked by Chavez and the national PSUV executive, some of the party's candidates were heavily criticised by grassroots supporters, and allies such as the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV). The PCV ran its own candidates in Merida, Amazonas, Portuguesa and Bolivar the PCV, leading to speculation that the PSUV may suffer at the polls in these states.

Nationally, the PCV is the second-largest party aligned with Chavez, although much smaller than the PSUV.

Also, the PSUV's candidate from the Miranda governorship, former vice-President Elias Jaua, failed to unseat opposition governor and failed presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski from the Miranda governorship by 4%.

However, Capriles’s victory was slimmer than expected. With 50% of the vote, he did not perform as well as some MUD aligned pollsters predicted.

In his next term, Capriles will have to contend with a PSUV-dominated state legislative council in Miranda.

Capriles remains the most likely MUD candidate in the next presidential elections. If Chavez’s health worsens and he is unable to fill the presidential post, these could occur sooner, rather than later.

Although the National Assembly could extend Chavez's temporary absence for months, if he is found to be unable to complete his presidency, then likely-PSUV candidate Maduro will face off against the opposition candidate, likely to be Capriles, sometime next year.