November 26, 2008
OUR OPINION: Vote represents victory for opposition despite the obstacles
Venezuela's democracy advocates are proving to be tougher than President Hugo Chávez expected. Despite everything Mr. Chávez has done to crush the spirit of electoral democracy in Venezuela, millions defied him at the polls on Sunday to win races in several key states and cities. The results should give heart to Venezuelans who want to keep their country from becoming a Castro-style socialist regime.
Chávez myth destroyed
Last December, voters rejected Mr. Chávez's plan to alter the constitution to give himself vastly increased powers, a stunning reversal reflecting growing alarm over the president's bid to become a virtual dictator. This time, opponents captured the Caracas city hall and the governorships of the three most populous states. Just as important, the pro-Chávez candidate lost the Caracas suburb of Sucre, home of the sprawling slum of Petare, destroying the myth of Mr. Chávez's invincibility in the barrio and further eroding his credibility as a champion of the poor.
Mr. Chávez, to be sure, remains popular. His candidates won about 55 percent of the popular vote in all gubernatorial races and 17 of the 22 contested governorships. But the opposition won five governorships, whereas in 2004 Chávez allies won all but two of the governor's races and a majority of local offices while opponents urged a boycott.
The results are an even bigger victory in view of the many obstacles President Chávez placed in the path of the democratic opposition. During the campaign, he referred to adversaries as ''traitors'' and ''swine'' and used a variety of threats against opposition candidates. He placed 300 of them on a blacklist, ultimately preventing them from running. Still, the opposition refused to knuckle under.
Mr. Chávez threatened to deploy tanks against opponents in the state of Carabobo -- and still his candidate lost. Opposition leader Manuel Rosales won the mayor's race in Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city, despite Mr. Chávez's recent threat to arrest him. Replacements in other regions managed to win after the original candidates were blacklisted.
Voters want change
The lesson is that democracy's advocates in Venezuela should keep at it. Boycotts accomplish nothing; they play into the president's hands, as they did in 2004. Mr. Chávez has not given up his grandiose plans to abolish term limits so he can run yet again in 2012 and beyond, but electoral stumbles like the one on Sunday suggest Venezuelans are increasingly fed up.
In February, Mr. Chávez will observe his 10th anniversary as president, and still he wants more. On Sunday, millions of Venezuelans served notice that they increasingly are eager for change.