The opposition’s significant gains in Venezuela’s state and local elections may represent a real political watershed and have likely dealt a decisive blow to President Hugo Chávez‘s plans for indefinite rule. The results mean that opposition forces will “now have something of an institutional power base” to challenge the regime.
The adverse circumstances facing the opposition make their gains all the more impressive, as Alvaro Vargas Llosa notes:
The environment in which these victories were obtained could not have been worse for the opposition. Five of its best candidates, including Caracas politician Leopoldo Lopez, whose approval ratings were higher than Chavez’s for most of the year, were disqualified through various legal maneuvers. In recent weeks, as it became apparent that the government was in trouble in key states, Chávez led a personal campaign of intimidation, threatening to jail the outgoing governor of Zulia, who was running for mayor of that state’s capital, and warning the voters of Carabobo that he would send in tanks if the opposition prevailed.
The victory of opposition candidate Carlos Ocariz in the Caracas suburb of Sucre, home to one of the largest slums in Latin America, had a special resonance. “Ocariz broke the myth that Chávez cannot be beaten in poor barrios,” said Luis Vicente León, director of Datánalisis, a Caracas-based pollster.
“It should make Chávez realize that instead of traveling the globe promoting socialism, he needs to address basic issues back home,” says Chávez sympathizer and biographer Bart Jones.
But the electoral gains also represent a challenge to the disparate opposition forces to unite and to develop a meaningful program for change. “It’s not enough that the opposition has won isolated triumphs against Chávez in places where it was unexpected,” pollster Leon said. “They have to convert them into real plans and proposals if they are to compete. That’s their real challenge.”
The government won a majority of the provincial races – 17 of 22 governorships – but the opposition won four of the five most important states, including the capital Caracas and the populous surrounding province of Miranda, oil-producing Zulia, and the country’s industrial hub of Carabobo, areas which “represent the most important symbols in terms of cities and population.”
Chávez responded to the setback by insisting that Venezuela was still “taking the road to socialism” and he has threatened to withhold funding for opposition-controlled states and set up a parallel system of handpicked regional authorities that would rival elected governors.
Fidel Castro is a revolutionary in the guise of a caudillo, while Chávez is the reverse, writes Inter-American Dialog‘s Dan Erikson. A PBS documentary confirms that he possesses the megalomaniac qualities of a caudillo, a characteristic that “hardly instills confidence that he is capable of the tact and coalition-building needed to effect significant, positive change.”
“A clip that shows him turning on an Irish reporter and plunging into a tirade about Europe is jaw-dropping,” notes a New York Times review. The reporter in question, Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent for the left-wing Guardian newspaper, here reports on the results of Venezuela’s local and regional elections where he describes Chávista candidates openly giving gifts for votes, a form of political largesse that plummeting oil prices will make less feasible.