It is no secret that in today’s corporate-dominated media landscape, Venezuela appears almost ubiquitously as a synonym of “dictatorship”.
This is why many may be surprised that Venezuela will hold its 23rd election in 18 years on December 10 when Venezuelans go to the polls to elect local mayors.
While previously Caracas voters have had to choose between the governing United Socialist Party (PSUV) and the opposition, this time around the field is wide open in light of the decision by the largest opposition parties to boycott the vote.
Residents of the nation’s largest municipality of El Libertador (which covers central and west Caracas) will have a choice of five candidates for mayor, including three from the leftist PSUV-led Great Patriotic Pole (GPP) coalition.
Absent any real electoral threat from the right, the election opens a space for social movements and smaller leftist parties to contest the hegemony of the PSUV, reigniting long-muted debates about inner-movement democracy and socialist strategy.
The frontrunner in the race is prominent PSUV leader Erika Farias, who hopes to succeed two-term incumbent Jorge Rodriguez to become Caracas’ first-ever woman mayor.
Forty-five-year-old Afro-Venezuelan Farias has served in a plethora of high-level government posts, including Communes Minister, Minister of Urban Agriculture, Food Minister, Cojedes state governor and chief of staff to former President Hugo Chavez and most recently to President Nicolas Maduro.
Challenging the PSUV frontrunner is former Commerce Minister and consumer protection czar Eduardo Saman, who is backed by the Homeland for All (PPT) party and the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV).
During his tenure in government, Saman made powerful enemies among transnational and domestic capitalist interests as well as corrupt elements within the Venezuelan state, which many believe led to his 2011 sacking by Chavez as well as a 2013 assassination attempt.
The final GPP contender is Oswaldo Rivero, alias “Cabeza e Mango” (“mango head”), a host of the popular youth-oriented public television program Zurda Konducta.
Born and raised in the militant working-class 23 de Enero neighbourhood of Caracas, Rivero is a member of the ex-guerrilla Tupamaros Revolutionary Movement, which gave up armed struggle to become a legal political party in 2004.
In addition to the three GPP candidates is self-described “dissident Chavista” politician Nicmer Evans of the independent New Vision for My Country (NUVIPA) party.
Presenting himself as an “alternative” to the “polarisation” between the government and the opposition, Evans is a political scientist and ex-member of the Trotskyist Socialist Tide organisation, which split from the PSUV in 2014.
Centre-right New Era Party (UNT) Libertador councillor Kadary Rondon has also reportedly registered as a candidate in the race, though she has given little indication that she is actively campaigning for the municipal office.
‘Sectarianism’ or ‘revolutionary diversity’?
Just like the October 15 regional races – which was assumed by Chavismo and the opposition as a strategic skirmish in anticipation of next year’s presidential elections – December 10’s elections are no ordinary municipal contests.
Given the boycott by a majority of opposition parties, the upcoming elections will serve as an indiction of the correlation of forces, not between Chavismo and the opposition, but within the Bolivarian movement itself.
Coming off its surprise October 15 victory, the Maduro government views the local elections as an opportunity to seize upon its current momentum and exploit the opposition’s recent sectarian meltdown.
To this end, the PSUV – ever the centralised political war machine – justified forgoing primaries in the interest of rapidly consolidating local candidacies to face the few opposition parties willing to take part.
While perhaps a correct assessment of the balance of forces vis-a-vis the opposition, the move betrayed a gross misreading of Chavismo’s current internal dynamics.
Many allied leftist parties and popular movements see the opposition boycott as a historic opportunity to challenge the hegemony of the PSUV and deepen the process of radicalisation begun with the July 30 National Constituent Assembly (ANC) elections, which saw 16,000 candidates participate.
Parties like the PPT have insisted on fielding challengers to PSUV candidates, citing the need for “revolutionary diversity” to strengthen “the model of revolutionary democracy”.
The leftist party has said it is launching its own candidates in 334 of the nation’s 335 municipalities, though it says it is open to negotiating agreements with the PSUV and other parties
The PCV has said it will back PSUV candidates “where there are no questions of an ethical and moral nature”.
In Barinas, for example, the PCV will launch its own contenders in four municipalities unless the PSUV replaces those candidates that the party considers “corrupt”.
Indeed, corruption has long been an elephant in the room for the PSUV. Its decision to run candidates with questionable track records in some municipalities has alienated sections of its base.
The PSUV national leadership’s decision to forgo primaries and designate candidates from above has also irked not only its fellow GPP parties but many among its own rank and file, who consider the practice an imposition.
Nonetheless, calls for greater diversity within the GPP have fallen on deaf ears, with Maduro and other top PSUV leaders urging their allies to close ranks.
Maduro recently criticised other GPP parties’ decisions to launch their own candidates as “sectarianism” and called on them to “reach an agreement and unify candidates” throughout the country.
“We can’t allow any party or political group of the revolution to launch candidates on their own without thinking, in a sort of anarchy, chaos,” he warned.
Saman has, however, rejected such calls for him to stand down, pointing out that in Libertador, “the opposition is not a threat because the strongest opposition parties are not participating”.
“The different currents within the revolutionary movement have to contest each other because there has to be diversity in socialism, in democracy, we can’t line up behind a single form of thought,” he told Union Radio.
Chavismo’s political crisis
The PSUV’s calls for closing ranks around its candidates in the name of “loyalty” is symptomatic of what former Communes Minister Reinaldo Iturriza terms a “crisis of political mediation” within the Chavista camp.
Unable to win votes on the basis of revolutionary proposals as Chavez did, PSUV leaders have been on the defensive since 2013, campaigning on prior social achievements and on the threat posed by the US-backed right-wing opposition.
As a result, the PSUV lost more than 2.5 million votes between Chavez’s 2012 re-election and the GPP’s devastating 2015 parliamentary defeat.
Part of this is explicable in terms of the collapse of the Bolivarian government’s two fundamental pillars: the loss of Chavez as agent of the Venezuelan popular movements within the state and the historic fall in oil prices.
Nevertheless, there is also a structural dimension behind the PSUV’s reformist inertia, namely that it is a poly-class party that, from its inception, filled its top leadership positions with bureaucrats long positioned within the state apparatus, effectively foreclosing any possibility of political autonomy.
In this respect, it is ministers, governors, and mayors who control the party at every level – and not vice-versa – meaning that the PSUV is effectively fused at the hip with the state apparatus.
Taken together, these factors have meant that PSUV leaders are often unwilling to bet their money on grassroots candidates chosen through inclusive local primaries, preferring to parachute in candidates from the party machine who are viewed as “safer” on account of name recognition and long trajectories in public administration.
While the ANC elections undoubtedly breathed new life into Chavismo, opening up spaces for bottom-up candidates and proposals, it served to further sharpen the contradictions within the Bolivarian bloc.
As a result of the opposition boycott, the election pitted PSUV candidates against those from popular movements and other left-wing parties.
Most emblematic of this second tendency was the revolutionary platform of “Chavismo Untamed” (Chavismo Bravio), which defends the ANC as a historic opportunity to accumulate popular forces to push through radical measures aimed at resolving the current crisis in the direction of socialism.
What is at stake in this struggle is not just an ideological orientation or political program, but a way of doing politics.
Taking up Chavez’s call to “rule by obeying”, Chavismo Bravio stands for the possibility of breaking with bourgeois representative democracy to build a radical, grassroots, and thoroughly participatory democracy centred in the commune.
In this sense, the El Libertador mayoral race is not really about which candidate would be better for Caracas from a narrow public policy angle.
It is a question of underlying political logic, of how the “contradictions among the people” are correctly handled to prevent a rupture between the popular movements and the party – an imminent danger given the declining support for the PSUV and the government born of their lack of decisive response to the country's severe economic crisis.
As such, December 10, despite its seeming strategic insignificance, represents a historic crossroads for the Bolivarian movement: will Chavismo deepen its internal democracy so indispensable for defeating the imperialist enemy, or will the rot of bureaucratic depoliticisation continue to erode its social base?
The fate of the revolution depends on the answer to this question.
[Abridged from Venezuela Analysis.]