Venezuela Votes: Chavez Opposition Makes Inroads
November 25, 2008 7:00 PM ET
Venezuela’s opposition cut into President Hugo Chvez’s majority during local elections on Nov. 23, setting the stage for increased political tensions as the South American country struggles with a free fall in oil revenue and soaring inflation.
The opposition, a fractious coalition of more than a dozen political parties united only by their dislike of Chavez, won five of the country’s 22 contested governorships, including those for the country’s three most populous states, as well as the Caracas mayor’s office. Candidates of Chavez’s new United Socialist Party of Venezuela won the remaining 17, largely in the country’s less populated rural areas. Before the vote, the opposition held only two statehouses.
Both sides claimed victory.
“With these results, the people have reaffirmed our road to socialism,” Chavez told cheering red-clad supporters after the national election board released preliminary results in the early morning. “No one can say there is a dictatorship here.”
“What is important is that the map of Venezuela is starting to change,” said Manuel Rosales, the opposition leader who ran against Chavez in the 2006 Presidential elections and whom the President has repeatedly threatened to jail for alleged corruption.
Venezuela, the fourth-largest oil supplier to the U.S., is facing a difficult 2009, especially in the face of falling oil prices. Revenue from oil makes up more than 90% of the country’s exports and provides the government with 50% of its money. Prices for Venezuelan crude, which is tilted toward less costly heavy oils, have fallen more than 70% since they topped $132 a barrel in July. Last week, the price closed at $40.68.
Analysts have estimated that Chavez needs oil at a price of at least $80 a barrel to cover current expenditures.
Fears of a worsening economic picture have sent the black market rate of the country’s currency soaring, while braking corporate investment and hammering the price of the country’s bonds. Analysts predict that Chavez, who has served as President since 1999, will either have to cut expenditures or devalue the currency to make ends meet next year.
Both steps could erode “El Commandante’s” popularity. Cuts in social spending could alienate the country’s poor, who are Chavez’s main supporters. But a devaluation would lead to higher prices and spur inflation, especially as the country imports about 70% of its food.
The country’s inflation rate was 36% for the 12-month period ended in September, the highest in the region.
“With Chavez, economic decisions are taken on a short-term, ad hoc, and pragmatic basis,” says Julia Buxton, a political science professor at Britain’s University of Bradford who follows Venezuelan politics. “The worry is that the economic situation is going to get worse.”
Rejecting Term Limits?
Chavez will be reluctant to antagonize his core supporters, especially as he is expected to seek voter approval next year to abolish Presidential term limits. That would allow him to run for reelection in 2012. Voters rejected last year a similar attempt by Chavez to rewrite the constitution to give him broader powers and allow him to serve indefinitely.
“Without the support of the poor, Chavez can’t do anything,” says Robert Bottome, an analyst with Caracas-based Veneconomia.
Chvez survived a coup attempt in 2002 and a nationwide strike later that year to force him from office. He also turned back a referendum to force him from office in 2004.
In the latest election results, opposition candidates did well in urban areas, sweeping aside some of Chavez’s most trusted lieutenants. In the populous state of Miranda, former vice-president and close Chavez adviser Diosdado Cabello was defeated by Henrique Capriles, while former Interior and Justice Minister Jesse Chacon lost his bid to be mayor of the Sucre division of Caracas, home to some of the capital city’s worst slums.
Opposition candidates took five of the 22 state houses up for grabs, including the three most populous states: the oil-rich western states of Zulia, Miranda, and Carabobo. They also carried the states of Nueva Esparta and Tachira. Before the vote, some pollsters had said the opposition could carry up to 10 states.
“In this election, there was something for everyone,” says Bottome. “The opposition showed that they could gain ground by doing well in the cities. Chvez, after nine years of office, did well in holding down his losses.”
The President, who campaigned almost daily for his supporters, had earlier predicted his party would sweep the gubernatorial races and had threatened to put tanks in the streets in case the opposition won.
Long Lines at the Polls
Full results for all of the country’s races, including more than 300 mayoral contests, were expected later Monday. More than 65% of the country’s 16.8 million voters went to the polls. The country’s next scheduled election is for the National Assembly in 2010.
Long lines at some voting centers forced the election agency to extend voting hours to accommodate all voters. In the eastern state of Anzoategui, a power shortage left electors unable to cast their ballots on voting machines. Opposition leaders also charged that the government kept voting centers open even when there were no electors in line, increasing the possibility of fraud.
Venezuela’s divided opposition, spanning a wide range of parties, agreed to field single candidates in most states in a bid to win. However, the government spent heavily before the vote, and in a further obstacle, the country’s comptroller banned hundreds of people, including some of Chvez’s most popular opponents, from running on alleged corruption, even though few have been judged guilty.
Opposition winners were quick to pledge to work with Chavez to help solve the country’s problems. New Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma said he called Chavez after winning the vote, promising to work hand in hand with the Venezuelan leader to improve life in the country’s capital.
“The government knows we haven’t come to fight,” said Capriles.
Still, Chavez may decide to sidestep opposition governors and mayors. In July the President decreed a law, giving himself the right to appoint regional leaders who could supersede elected officials. If he follows through, the chances for greater conflict could grow.