Chavez Allies Dominate Venezuela Governor Elections

PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles greets supporters who congratulate him for his victory in Miranda State on Sunday. Capriles was one of just three opposition candidates who were not defeated by Chavez allies on Sunday.

Fernando Llano/AP Photo

Allies of President Hugo Chavez comfortably defeated opposition candidates throughout much of Venezuela, as the South American country held elections for state governors and local legislators on Sunday.

According to results issued by Venezuela's National Electoral Council late on Sunday night, 20 out of Venezuela's 23 states will have Chavista governors for the next four years, while the opposition managed to hang on to governorships in just three states.

The results are somewhat of a setback for the Venezuelan opposition, which previously controlled seven states in the country, and had come relatively close to defeating Chavez in presidential elections held just two months ago.

But the opposition did manage to win one of the most crucial races on Sunday, as former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, was re-elected to the governorship of Miranda state with a 5 percentage point victory margin over Chavez associate Elías Jaua.

For many analysts, the victory in Miranda was a must if Capriles was to maintain any hope of once again running for president of Venezuela.

The 40-year-old lawyer, who has governed Miranda State since 2008, lost to Chavez in October's presidential elections by 10 percent of the vote, the closest that any opposition candidate has come to Chavez since he took office in 1999.

David Smilde, a sociologist and political analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, said that results elsewhere in the country on Sunday have turned Capriles into "undisputed leader" of the opposition.

In the oil-producing state of Zulia, which is also Venezuela's most populous state, opposition governor Pablo Perez failed to get re-elected, losing to Chavista candidate Francisco Arias Cardenas. Perez had been Capriles toughest challenger in the opposition's presidential primaries earlier this year.

In Tachira, a conservative state in the Andes mountains where Chavez failed to win the popular vote in October, incumbent governor Cesar Perez lost to Chavista candidate Jose Gregorio Vielma by 7 percent of the vote. Perez represented the Christian Democrat Party, COPEI, and was one of several politicians from Venezuela's traditional parties, who was swept away on Sunday.

The elections took place without the presence of president Chavez, who is currently recovering from a delicate cancer operation in Cuba and has not appeared in public for a week.

Venezuelan officials said on Sunday that Chavez was slowly recovering, and was already seeing family members and giving out instructions to his subordinates. But this is the fourth cancer operation for the Venezuelan president in the past 18 months, and there are doubts on whether he will be able to serve out his upcoming six year term. Before heading to Cuba last week, Chavez himself urged voters to back Vice President Nicolas Maduro if "something happened" to him and a new presidential election had to take place.

Although turnout in this election was low, hovering around 50 percent, Smilde argues that news of Chavez's precarious health prompted his supporters to turn out in higher numbers on Sunday, as they attempted to show their support for the Venezuelan president and his socialist revolution.

"The president's illness…provided a margin that pushed [Chavez's] candidates over the top in a number of key races," Smilde said.

He added that Chavista candidates profited from empathy with Chavez and his Bolivarian project. "This ended up being basically a national election. In each of these individual races, it was much more a national election about Chavez than about the local candidates," Smilde said.

Other analysts say that Chavista candidates also won key races because they had more resources to mobilize voters than opposition candidates, who do not count with the support of the national government for things like busing people to voting stations, and get out the vote campaigns.

Francisco Toro directs the Venezuelan politics blog Caracas Chronicles. He said that the opposition lost partly because its supporters were "demoralized" after losing the October presidential elections, and may have not turned out in such large numbers. But Toro also provided the following hypothesis for the opposition's defeat in the crucial Zulia state.

"[Chavista candidate] Arias Cárdenas has been running a virtual parallel governorship there for years," Toro wrote in a Gchat conversation. "It's called CorpoZulia and while it's technically a regional development agency it was far better funded than the actual governorship. So there are clientelist networks already in place there."

Toro noted that in rural states like Trujillo and Cojedes, Chavista candidates won with huge margins of 30 percent and more. He said that these results could've occurred because a large portion of the residents of those states have come to depend on the Venezuelan government for their jobs and their livelihoods.

"People in rural states always tend to be more dependent on public spending than in urban areas, where there are some alternative livelihood strategies. In such [rural] areas it takes a lot to mobilize people to vote against the incumbent," Toro wrote.

The Venezuelan constitution says that if Chavez is unable to start his fourth term in office on January 10th, elections must be held within 30 days. If he starts his term but dies within the first four years of this six-year term, elections must also be held within a month.

According to Toro and Smilde, Sunday's results suggest that a Chavista candidate like Vice President Nicolas Maduro would enter presidential elections as the favorite, specially if they are held soon.

But both analysts said that in the scenario of Chavez passing, there are too many variables to say who would win for sure.

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Analysts were also quick to point out that while government allies obtained a majority of votes, opposition candidates won mayorships in most of Venezuela's big cities, including the capital city, Caracas, and Maracaibo and Valencia, which are the second and third largest cities in the country.