Venezuela’s Presidential Elections: An Imperfect Victory
Last night we were squashed and pushed as the crowd surged into the Miraflores Palace to hear Chavez’s victory speech. People were so happy, they didn’t mind their feet being trodden on, the humidity of the air and the sweat of bodies and all the standing up, they were exuberant and they shouted and danced and jumped up and down and yelled out to strangers and threw beer up in the air, and even a few shoes. Yet, among them, I felt a bit down, because the results were quite close, because over six million people supported, by voting for Capriles, selfishness (he had focused his campaign on Venezuela ending its solidarity with other countries) and the destruction and sale of their country.
With most votes counted, Chavez won with 8,044,106 votes, or 55.11% to Capriles’ 6,461,612 (44.27%) for a difference of 1,582,494 votes, or almost 11%. Chavez also won (according to the results as they are today) in 21 states and the Capital District (Caracas), and lost to Capriles in Merida and Tachira states. He won in Zulia and Carabobo - where there are currently opposition governors. No one voted for the other candidates, with third place going to Reina Sequera with 0.47% of the vote.
The election then was about Chavez, and the candidate-against-Chavez. Although 11% is a huge lead by global standards, compared to the 2006 presidentials (when Chavez got 62.9% of the vote, and Manuel Rosales 36.9%; a difference of 26%) it's quite narrow, and its worrying because Chavez tends to garner many more votes on his own than PSUV candidates running in national assembly or regional elections.
Due to high voter turnout, both sides received a record number of votes, but the opposition’s 6.5 million was a good 20-50% more than what has been its standard 4 to 5 million over the last 13 years. The Chavista vote of 8 million was also significantly higher than its standard 6 or so million in elections, though the increase is somewhat less in proportionate terms. Further, poll companies- private and public, were almost consistently giving Capriles around 35% of the vote, from February when he was preselected as a candidate until September. That means a large proportion of the undecided vote went to the opposition.
Nevertheless, the outcome is a clear mandate for Chavez, and for Venezuela’s socialism.
Loving democracy: massive voter turnout
80.9% of Venezuelans, despite rains in some parts of the country, voluntarily voted yesterday; a historic record for Venezuela and a remarkable number compared to voluntary elections in other parts of the world. In the 2006 Venezuelan presidential elections, 75% turned out to vote.
This is significant for many reasons. It shows that Venezuela’s elections have enough real consequences in the minds of the people that they feel motivated to vote, and that Venezuela is quite the opposite of the dictatorship the mainstream media portrays it as. Rather, and in contrast to most other countries, voting day is anticipated, enjoyed, taken seriously, and ends in passionate celebration.
Venezuela is building participatory democracy, and people’s understanding and concern for democracy is much higher than most countries. Venezuela’s electoral system, for the umpteenth time, and despite media characterisations to the contrary, has been proven again to be open, fair, and trusted. That’s a big blow to sectors of the opposition who, in accumulated desperation, had planned to call fraud and including Capriles, spent months trying to cast doubt on the impartiality and honesty of the National Electoral Council (CNE). Their strategy did not work, their supporters on the whole did not buy it, because they voted anyway. There were no major disturbances yesterday, such strategies are not supported by opposition voters, so the opposition is in a hard place because it can’t win in elections, nor by using undemocratic methods.
Why a narrowing gap then between the opposition and Chavez?
There are concrete and legitimate reasons and also invalid and ridiculous ones why people voted against Chavez. To go into the concrete reasons would be a separate article on the problems within the revolution, but in brief I would argue that there is discontent with the perpetual bureaucracy and corruption within the ranks of the PSUV and government institutions, and with the slowness in really addressing the issue of the malfunctioning justice system and of crime rates. There is a layer of Chavista leadership with a low level of consciousness and which doesn’t do its job, and people can see that and are frequently directly affected by it.
Many who voted against Chavez however, did so as a result of the national private media’s intense campaign of lies against the revolution, with comfortable middle class people who have cars, wide screen televisions, and huge daily meals complaining about Venezuela being a “disaster”, there being “scarcity” of food, the economy a “wreck” and so on. The massive international media campaign also helped boost Capriles.
Other voters felt Chavez had taken the socialist project “too far”, beyond progressive social policies and into radical territory, while others had “third term phenomenon”; that belief that a president shouldn’t be in power for “too long” and that any kind of alternative, even if it is a sexist, ignorant, and incompetent person like Capriles, is a “necessary change”. In fact, for a candidate running for a third term, Chavez’s lead was quite huge.
Consequences of the electoral result and next steps
Nevertheless, the opposition will come out of these elections emboldened. Had they received the predicted result of 35%, combined with their already existing disunity, they would have gone to the December regional state elections and the April mayoral elections confused, disorientated, and fighting amongst each other. But a vote of 45% and a narrowing gap gives them optimism. Also, in a number of states, although they lost, the result was close enough that with a strong campaign, or a bad candidate representing the Chavistas, the opposition would have a chance. Those states include Capital District, Amazonas, Anzoategui, Bolivar, Carabobo, Lara, Nueva Esparta, and Zulia, as well as the two states where Capriles won.
A narrower victory also means that the revolution can’t lie down and relax for a while. There will be reflection and self criticism, which is positive, but there will also be a danger for some sectors of the population, including Chavez, to feel somewhat defeated and to try to water down the revolution’s politics in order to accommodate opposition supporters. It’s also likely that, going into the December elections, the grassroots will focus on electoral campaigning, instead of holding the much needed debate and submitting proposals around Chavez’s draft governmental plan for 2013-2019. Such debate could deepen consciousness and radicalise, as well as pave the way for even greater and more informed involvement in the next period. Unfortunately, the PSUV governmental candidates have been chosen by its national executive and Chavez, people who are removed from local realities and unaware of the discontent with many of the candidates they have already selected. This means December is likely to be a much closer battle than the presidential one.
Chavez has said that the next six years should take Venezuela into socialism “beyond the point of no return”. The foundations have been laid, but it’s time now to make community councils and worker councils the norm, it’s time to talk about the hard issues that have been avoided (by the PSUV leadership) in order to avoid losing votes, such as gay rights, abortion and sexism, democratising the PSUV, and consumerism. If we don’t beat corruption and bureaucracy in the next period, we could lose this revolution. Now that the presidential elections are over, we have two main questions: How will we deepen the revolution, and will it survive?
One thing we felt yesterday, in the words of VA journalist Ewan Robertson, is “just how precious this revolution is, how much is at stake...and realising the need to fight even harder”.