December 04, 2008
On Nov. 23, Hugo Chávez won 75 percent of the posts contested in local, regional and state elections. His candidates rallied 5.4 million votes nationwide against the opposition's 4.4 million. Chavistas prevailed in 17 of the 22 gubernatorial races in play. So, yes, Chávez came out the winner 10 days ago.
These numbers, though, aren't the only ones that mattered. Here's a set that tells a different story. Chavismo lost the two principal cities: Caracas and Maracaibo.
The opposition won three governorships -- Miranda, Carabobo and Táchira -- and defended the two already in its column, Zulia and Nueva Esparta. Opponents will now govern in states where almost half of all Venezuelans live -- including the richest (Zulia), the most industrialized (Carabobo) and the most populous (Miranda).
While egregious irregularities didn't mar election day, Chávez didn't pull any punches in the weeks before. He took clientelism to the hilt, generously dispensing favors and resources to lure his base to the polls. He disqualified hundreds of candidates for alleged ''administrative corruption,'' though most were opponents, which flies against the rampant malfeasance in Chavista ranks. Chávez ranted, intimidated, threatened and cried wolf.
It didn't really work. True, more than a million of his voters came back on Nov. 23, but three million had abstained in last year's referendum. Even though its first candidate for mayor of Caracas was disqualified, the opposition's second choice still pulled the surprise win by seven points. Even after campaigning hard to pick them off, Chavismo didn't prevail in Zulia and Nueva Esparta. That the urban poor cast their ballots in significant numbers for the opposition must be particularly stinging.
Unlike last year's referendum, Nov. 23 allowed both sides to claim victory. Even if razor-thin, the opposition's victory in 2007 couldn't be denied. Now, neither side celebrated euphorically nor sulked miserably. Last year Venezuela pulled back from the brink and said No to Chávez's power grab. Today politics is inching back.
Political parties are making a comeback. New and old opposition parties waged effective campaigns throughout the country. Chávez's PSUV gained an even stronger hold in rural areas and poorer states. On the minus side, dissident Chavistas lost out, garnering only 400,000 votes overall. Last year they played a crucial part in Chávez's defeat. Today they have to decide whether to rejoin Chavismo or join forces with the opposition. That's politics, folks!
The opposition has come a long way. From wandering aimlessly in the desert, it now has an institutional base. A pigheaded abstentionism has been shelved for an electoral strategy. Fighting Chávez means winning elections. There is no way but democracy. Still, the opposition has yet to become an alternative.
Voting against Chávez is not enough, especially for the millions of dispossessed Venezuelans. On Nov. 23, Venezuela was split almost in half: the opposition's urban, modern and, generally, better off; Chávez's rural, traditional and, mainly, poorer. That's a familiar split in Latin American politics, which opponents must bridge to grow into an alternative of transparency and competence. Short and medium-term trends may be helpful.
With oil prices falling, economic prospects are dimmer. Amid growing insecurity, crime and shortages of basic goods, many urban poor abandoned Chávez. Inflation is sure to rise as the government may be loathe to reduce public spending significantly. Twenty-first century socialism is a poor guide for the sound economic policies Venezuela needs.
Chávez, moreover, is his own worst enemy. He can't but rant, intimidate, threaten and cry wolf, a strategy that is slowly bringing diminishing returns. While he does the initial recognition of the other side's victory well, he quickly reverts to his polarizing mode.
After Venezuelans denied him the right to seek unending reelection, Chávez started scheming for ways to bypass the popular will. Now that the opposition will govern a near majority of the population, he's resurrected the idea of a ''new geometry of power'' to supersede the governors with his own regional appointments. How he might do that without alienating Chavista governors is beyond me.
Last Sunday Chávez brought back the issue of his indefinite reelection. As Teodoro Petkoff, a prominent opposition journalist, said recently: ''If he wants a fight, we'll give it to him.'' Bring it on!
Marifeli Pérez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., and a professor at Florida International University.