This 8 December Venezuelans will choose the mayors and local councillors for the country’s 335 municipalities, electing a total of 2,792 offices. Local elections in Venezuela are usually low profile affairs compared with presidential or parliamentary contests, enjoying less media attention and lower voter turnout. Yet in the context of Venezuela’s current difficult economic situation and the National Assembly handing President Nicolas Maduro decree powers to address this, the election results could have a significant impact on national politics, with some analysts even suggesting that the elections will be a “referendum” on the Maduro presidency. So what are the stakes for both Chavismo and the opposition, and is it accurate to see the upcoming elections as a type of “plebiscite” on the government?
The opposition’s plebiscitary campaign
The municipal elections come as Venezuela experiences one of the most difficult economic situations in several years. While the economy grew in the first half of 2013 and unemployment remains relatively low, the country currently faces shortages in several basic foodstuffs, annual inflation of 54%, and a value of the dollar on the black market worth almost ten times the official rate. The government argues this situation is the result of an “economic war” being waged by business sectors aligned with the conservative opposition, while the opposition claims that “government mismanagement” and interventionist economic policies are to blame.
The de facto leader of the opposition’s Democratic Unity Table coalition (MUD), Henrique Capriles, is campaigning hard to turn the municipal elections into a national plebiscite on the Maduro government. While the opposition may not be able to win a majority of the 335 mayoralties at stake (they currently hold 56), as their electoral support is mainly concentrated in big cities, they are focusing on trying to win more votes than the government overall.
“The government wants us to remain in crisis, but the people have to say on 8 December that they don’t want crisis any more. They [the government] have the country submerged in crisis and they don’t offer solutions. They also have the people queuing to buy food. They say there are shortages because the people eat a lot and that toilet paper runs out because [the people] go to the bathroom a lot. They say the power cuts out because Capriles presses a button…every day things are more expensive, power cuts continue, communities without water, streets destroyed, [while] those who earn minimum wage don’t have enough…we need change” – Capriles to supporters, 2 November.
The opposition’s campaign is strikingly similar to the April presidential election, attempting to whip up as much anger as possible over economic problems and government shortcomings and then convert this anger into votes.
“We need to turn 8 December into a protest vote, to express our discontent with the situation that the country is experiencing,” Capriles told supporters at a rally earlier this month, while also calling on people to vote against “Maduro’s candidates”. Many opposition mayoral candidates are repeating this message rather than focusing on issues of municipal management. For example the opposition candidate for the Liberator municipality in the centre of the city of Merida is calling for voters to elect him to “disconnect” the “corrupt ones” even though he is campaigning for a mayoralty already held by the opposition.
The campaign to make the municipal elections a “plebiscite” responds to several strategic goals. The opposition hopes that if it can win the “popular vote” the government will be undermined and the opposition bolstered on the national level, which could also possibly hamper the government’s efforts to deal with economic problems. A spectacular result for the opposition, such as winning a majority of votes or around half of mayoralties, could also be used as a base from which to launch an electoral challenge to the government in the coming period, such as trying to win a parliamentary majority in 2015 or organising a recall referendum on the Maduro presidency in 2016.
The plebiscite strategy also seeks to avoid low turnout and election fatigue among opposition voters: this is the fifth national election in under two years. As these are municipal elections, gaining control of more municipalities is also an important consideration to try and erode Chavismo’s political dominance in local government and expand the opposition’s regional influence.
Further, while not a candidate himself, Henrique Capriles appears to have assumed the municipal elections as a personal test of his leadership, criss-crossing the country to spread his message and raise support for the MUD’s mayoral candidates. A good result would strengthen his position as the opposition’s main political figure, necessary for the state governor’s hopes of one day being Venezuelan president. It seems that Capriles also wants to use the elections to settle scores with Maduro after narrowly losing the presidential election to Chavez’s political successor in April.
The opposition’s municipal election campaign is very different from the state governor elections last December when the opposition did not run a national campaign and each candidate was essentially left to fend for themselves. On that occasion the opposition failed to adequately mobilise its support base and only won three of 23 governorships, a disastrous result for them. The lesson seems to have been learned. In fact the opposition is now repeating Hugo Chavez’s electoral strategy by using Capriles as a central leader to raise the profile of local candidates, and encouraging turnout with a message that can appeal to both opposition voters and disaffected government supporters. However this campaign to exacerbate discontent has been criticised by some voices within the opposition as seeking to sharpen political polarisation, with Capriles using inflammatory discourse and purposeful mischaracterisation of the government to try and maximise the protest vote he seeks to generate.
Capriles has also changed his discourse toward the Venezuelan electoral system. While he still claims that the result in April’s presidential election was fraudulent, he now argues that the voting system itself accurately reflects votes cast, however that fraud was created by other “abuses” by electoral authorities and the government. Voting to protest against these “abuses” has thus become one more mechanism to galvanise opposition voters to turn out.
Doubts and division
Not all forces within the Venezuelan opposition agree with this strategy, arguing that such an approach could cause false expectations of national change among opposition supporters, leading to fresh demoralisation after the election.
Opposition groupings such as the centre-left Movement to Socialism party (MAS) and the conservative Christian Democratic Party (COPEI) also argue against imposing a national political divide on an election in which local considerations should be used to select the best municipal representatives.
“The candidates aren’t Maduro and Capriles; it would be a monumental error to try and turn the elections into a competition of that nature, when each municipality has its mayoral and local councillor candidates,” said MAS general secretary Felipe Mujica in a recent interview.
In part these views reflect the hostility of some groups within the Venezuelan opposition toward Capriles’ political ascendency and the dominance of the MUD by parties associated with him such as Justice First and Popular Will. The opposition’s divided nature further suggests the municipal elections will not be a straight opposition vs. government clash. In almost half of municipalities parties from within the MUD coalition are putting forward alternative candidates to the MUD’s official representative.
Some observers have also cast doubt on the notion that the municipal elections will be a plebiscite on the government. According to a recent survey of voter intention by polling firm Hinterlaces, only 6% of voters feel they are going to participate in the municipal elections “to vote against Maduro”.
“The people have differentiated very well between these elections…the plebiscitary campaign isn’t perceived as such by the population, [who] are going to vote for the [local] candidate that they feel is going to solve problems in the short term,” said the vice president of Hinterlaces, Federico Schemel, while reporting the survey’s findings.
Even if this is the case, many analysts argue the results will still be interpreted in terms of their implications for national politics. “The implications of the municipal elections are of great importance, they go beyond the local results,” said political scientist John Magdaleno to AFP. He further warned, “If Chavismo’s vote share decreases and the opposition gets a majority, it will mean a deterioration of the government and its allies’ support base, and the consequences will be alarm bells sounding for Maduro”.
The PSUV and Great Patriotic Pole campaign
The government initially played down the national aspect of the municipal elections, focusing instead on mobilising the machinery of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to get the core Chavista vote out and ensure victory in around two thirds of mayoralties.
“This election, comrades, is purely [party] machinery,” argued PSUV vice president and National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello last month.
Control of a majority of municipalities and local budgets is important for the government in order to be able to fully implement its policies, guided by the Plan of the Nation 2013 – 2019 penned by Hugo Chavez last year. Key battles are also underway for the mayoralties of the country’s biggest cities, such as Caracas, Maracaibo and Valencia.
However the opposition’s attempt to make the elections a “plebiscite” on Maduro and the need for the government to demonstrate support for its policies in a critical political and economic moment appear to have raised the stakes of the campaign.
“The most important task for the candidates of the patriotic alliance in this battle is to mobilise the people in support of Maduro’s economic measures and for the Enabling Law [decree powers], approved by the National Assembly,” said recently the PSUV’s campaign chief for the municipal elections, Francisco Ameliach.
In a move widely seen as an attempt to encourage Chavista turnout for the municipal elections, in early November Nicolas Maduro issued a presidential decree declaring 8 December “The Day of Love and Loyalty to Hugo Chavez”. 8 December marks the anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s last public address to the Venezuelan people, where he asked followers to elect Nicolas Maduro as president if his battle against cancer prevented him from continuing in office. “On 8 December the people won’t fail Comandante Chavez, we’re going to fight the battle [against the opposition]”, said Maduro when he announced the decree. The measure also continues Chavez’s practice of making every election a test of strength and legitimacy for the Bolivarian revolution.
With shortages and inflation not showing signs of improvement by October, and Christmas approaching, Maduro’s recent package of policies termed as an “economic offensive”, which includes the enforced sale of electronics and other goods at reduced “fair prices”, also seems to have electoral as well as economic ends. Author Gregory Wilpert has suggested that this policy could result in a "popularity boost" for the government ahead of the municipal elections.
One problem for the PSUV’s strategy could be discontent and rebel Chavista candidacies springing from the decision of the party’s leadership to abandon primary elections for the selection mayoral candidates. These candidacies were instead selected by consensus from within the leaderships of organisations belonging to the pro-government Great Patriotic Pole coalition, excluding the grassroots. However, with alternative Chavista mayoral candidates standing in around 20% of municipalities, the government appears to be entering the elections on a more united front than the opposition.
In Venezuela’s current political and economic juncture, the December municipal elections are being treated by both the government and the opposition as more than just a local electoral contest. This is despite evidence that many citizens are not planning to vote along strictly party lines of “for” or “against” the Bolivarian government, and that a great number of independent, rebel opposition and rebel Chavista candidates are standing in municipalities across the country.
Treating the elections as a national rather than local matter increases the stakes for both the government and opposition. If the opposition does well, winning a majority of the popular vote and a large number of new mayoralties, it will be encouraged to consider electoral challenges to the Maduro administration from 2015, including possibly organising a recall referendum. The opposition would also enter 2014 attempting to make even more political capital out of discontent with the country’s economic situation.
If the opposition gets a poorer result, for example receiving less than 50% of the vote or winning few new mayoralties, disillusionment may set in, as happened after the two Chavista electoral victories in 2012. Henrique Capriles’ leadership could also come under greater questioning from the forces opposed to him within the opposition.
For the Maduro administration, the PSUV, and its allies, the results are equally important. A strong electoral showing, for example winning the popular vote and two thirds of mayoralties, would be interpreted as a demonstration of support for the government’s chosen course to deal with economic problems, including the approval of law-making powers for Maduro. It would also again confirm Chavismo as Venezuela’s preeminent political force and put the narrow presidential election victory in April behind. On the contrary, a weak showing for Chavismo would act as a warning sign for the government, and possibly provoke internal criticisms of the PSUV leadership or lead to a change of course on economic policy.