November 27, 2008
Both narcissist-Leninist President Hugo Chávez and the opposition claimed victory in Venezuela's key state and municipal elections Sunday, but a dispassionate look at the voting trends shows that Chávez is gradually losing public support -- and faces even harder times ahead.
Chávez claimed a ''big victory'' after Sunday's voting, which he had presented to the country as a virtual plebiscite on his government's socialist project. He based his victory claim on the fact that government-backed candidates won 17 of 22 governorships and more than 80 percent of the municipalities. From a strictly numeric point of view, Chávez was right.
The opposition, in turn, claimed a huge victory based on the fact that -- despite the Chávez government's legal shenanigans that banned hundreds of popular opposition candidates from running, widespread voter intimidation and massive state resources for Chávez-backed candidates -- anti-Chávez candidates won the country's capital and the three most populous states.
Together, the five states and seven state capitals won by the opposition -- including Zulia state, the heart of Venezuela's oil wealth -- make up the core of the country's political, economic and cultural life. From a political point of view, the opposition won.
So who did really win, I asked Teodoro Petkoff, the publisher of Venezuela's daily Tal Cual, and one of the few Venezuelans I have found over the years to be able to analyze the Chávez phenomenon with a cool head.
Petkoff, a former leftist guerrilla leader, congressman and planning minister in the 1990s, told me there are several reasons to conclude that Sunday's vote was a victory for Venezuela's opposition.
''Chávez suffered a very important political setback,'' Petkoff said. ``He lost in the most important population centers. And in the key states he won, such as Bolívar, he did so because the opposition was divided.''
But more importantly, if we take a step back and look at Venezuela's voting trends, Chávez reached his peak in the 2006 presidential elections, when he won 7.3 million votes, Petkoff said. On Sunday, while the ''Chavista'' vote did better than in the December 2007 defeat of the Chávez-proposed constitutional changes to allow him to remain in power indefinitely, it only got 5.7 million votes.
''This is one more step in Chávez's gradual decline,'' Petkoff said, noting that the Venezuelan president has been able to prevent an even steeper political decline thanks to the country's recent oil export boom. ``Chávez continues to be the country's most important political figure, but the opposition is gaining ground.''
Two leading Venezuelan pollsters, Alfredo Keller and Oscar Schemel, told me in separate interviews that Venezuela's voting trends definitely show an erosion of Chávez's popularity after 10 years in power.
Chávez won 54 percent of the total vote in the 1998 presidential elections, 60 percent in the 2000 presidential elections, 59 percent in the 2004 referendum on his rule, 60 percent of the vote in the 2004 state and municipal elections, 63 percent of the vote in the 2006 presidential elections, 49 percent in the 2007 constitutional referendum, and 52 percent in Sunday's elections.
''Chávez's most glorious moment was in the 2006 presidential elections, which he had vowed to win with 10 million votes,'' said Keller, of the Keller and Associates polling firm. ``Instead, he only got 7.3 million votes in 2006, and he hasn't been able to reach that figure ever since.''
Schemel, of the Hinterlaces polling firm, says there is growing discontent with Chávez's confrontational style, as well as with his government's inefficiency and corruption. ''The period of social revenge is wearing out,'' Schemel said.
My opinion: Barring a major recovery of world oil prices -- something that is very unlikely to happen in the near future -- Chávez will continue going downhill.
Corruption and government handouts -- not ideology -- are the grease that lubricates Chávez's political machine, and both will be in increasingly short supply following the collapse of world oil prices from $146 to $54 a barrel in recent months.
If the Venezuelan opposition learns the key lesson from Sunday's results -- it won where it ran united and lost where it ran divided -- it will have a good chance of continuing gaining ground in the 2010 congressional elections, and maybe of ousting Chávez in the 2012 presidential elections.
As the voting trends of the past decade show, growing numbers of Venezuelans are realizing