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Venezuela’s Municipal Elections Equate to Presidential Referendum

By: María Teresa Romero - @mt_romero - Nov 29, 2013, 3:55 pm

EspañolNovember 18 was the official start of the campaign for Venezuela’s municipal elections on December 8, and these elections will close the Latin-American electoral calendar for 2013. While municipal elections are not usually considered of great importance in the region, on this occasion they hold great significance in the oil-rich country, for both Venezuelans and for citizens and governments throughout the Americas.

On one hand, the dubious government of President Nicolás Maduro and the democratic opposition forces — all grouped under the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) — will battle for legitimacy and political survival. The presidential elections on April 14, after the death of President Hugo Chávez, revealed some questionable results and a narrow margin of victory. A difference of 224,742 votes — equivalent to 1.49 percent of the vote — separated Maduro and the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski (MUD).

The National Electoral Council (CNE), predominantly Chavistas, claimed a premature victory for Chávez’s pupil, while the opposition contested the elections. The upcoming election will serve both to demonstrate which of the two political forces holds the country’s national majority, and to re-legitimize or not, at least symbolically, the Maduro government.

The municipal elections will be, therefore, a form of presidential referendum, voicing approval or disapproval towards Maduro’s time in office. If he does not get a significant majority of the popular vote and a great number of mayoral and municipal councils across the country, the increasing deterioration of Chavismo-Madurismo and his Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) will be unstoppable, although not necessarily immediate.

If Maduro wins, on the other hand, the leadership of Capriles and the MUD will crumble. Not only because the oppressive acts by the current government will deepen — prosecution and arrest of activists and military personnel, hate campaigns against leaders with a greater chance of electoral triumph, financial siege, and others — but because the opposition will be very discontent and disillusioned. Opposition leaders who currently disagree with the strategies taken by MUD will support new leadership and new forms of opposition.

Moreover, these elections are important because in them lies the survival of state models that have been struggling to develop in the country for the past 15 years: the neo-communist socialism, of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution, and representative democracy, pluralist yet free from the opposition. For Chavismo-Madurismo, these elections represent a critical step in advancing the “revolutionary” process, as established by several basic laws already adopted, including the Government Plan and the National Simon Bolivar Project (2013-2019). That is, in order to fully achieve a communal state.

Through communes, not municipalities, controlled by the central government, they will try to implement a new political-territorial system of central planning. It will feature collective and social property with supervised and directed participation, restricting the popular vote and excluding social organizations not following Chávez’s ideologies.

For the opposition, however, it represents the neutralization of the anti-democratic totalitarian model and the start of a democratic reconstruction of the country. As pointed out by Miguel González Marregot, vice-president of the Local Public Planning Council of Baruta, “A communal state overrides democracy, decentralization and free participation, the effective exercise of popular sovereignty through free participation, independence and equality in respect to decisions on matters of public good.” These take a back seat to “the setting up of targets for economic and social development, preserving the territorial and constitutional integrity of the Republic; and, achieving guaranteed economic, social and cultural rights under the concurrent jurisdiction where public authorities are required to ensure that all citizens achieve an adequate standard of living” (emphasis added).

Similarly, these municipal elections are essential for Latin-American and inter-American policies following Chávez’s doctrine. At stake are center-right democratic, center-left democratic, and radical left, anti-democratic governments. The majority, unfortunately, are plagued by populism and statism. A landslide victory for Chavismo-Madurismo would re-energize, even if only for a limited time, a radical leftist segment of ALBA, which has been in its decline in terms of influence and prestige in the Latin-American region. In particular, it would help Raúl Castro’s government in Cuba ensure his survival, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua change the constitution of that country, and Evo Morales seek his reelection in December of 2014.

Further, Maduro’s re-legitimization would allow him to continue his projects for solidarity within that alliance — through political favors, non-transparent business ventures, and massive commercial imports — and assist with the re-election of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil in October 2014. Possible victories also beckon for Chavista candidates in many presidential elections to be held next year in the region. Such will be held in El Salvador (February 2014), Costa Rica (February 2014), Panamá (May 2014), and Uruguay (October 2014).

All this explains why this race for municipal elections should be seen in terms of a zero-sum game. Each of the opponents is going all in, even though the results may not shed clear victories, given the large number of municipal positions being disputed.

No doubt Chavismo has an advantage over the allied opposition in the MUD. This is because today, more than on previous occasions, the government has leverage to its advantage — all of their power, institutions, media, and state resources (and some foreign governments and actors) without legal and moral restrictions, and without being accountable to its citizens. Simultaneously, it has launched an unprecedented offensive, with persecutions, arrests, interventions, and controls over all sectors and leading representatives of the independent and pluralistic civil society, particularly politicians, businessmen, traders, union leaders, and journalists still fighting in and out of Venezuela.

This disproportionate opportunism, of which the international democratic community remains silent about, is now concentrated in the recently achieved powers of Maduro, granted by the fraudulent passing by the National Assembly of the Enabling Act, and in the newly created government agency: the Alto Mando Cívico Militar de la Revolución (“Civic Military High Command of the Revolution”), which is committed to “consolidate Venezuela under the Bolivarian ideals of Commander Hugo Chávez.”

As shown by several opinion polls, dissatisfaction with Maduro is increasing. For example, Datanálisis reported that, according to a survey conducted in early November, 72.6 percent of Venezuelans negatively assess the country’s situation, and 54.9 percent do the same with respect to the way the president is leading the country. Indeed, the democratic opposition hopes that this growing anger and disappointment of the Venezuelan people towards the government, causes a massive turnout on December 8. They also hope that Venezuelans are willing to look after their vote and defend its victory in the streets.

María Teresa Romero María Teresa Romero

Romero is a journalist with a PhD in political science, specializing in international politics. She's a professor at the Central University of Venezuela, a columnist in several Venezuelan and international newspapers, and the author of several books. Follow her at @MT_romero.