Local elections test Chavez support
By Will Grant
BBC News, Caracas
The Venezuelan government says President Hugo Chavez’s public approval rate is as high as 70%.
While that figure may be over-generous, there can be little doubt that, despite the ups and downs of the past 10 years, the left-wing leader still enjoys an unprecedented level of backing from the majority of Venezuelans.
So why are Sunday’s state and municipal elections being seen as such a test of President Chavez’s support in the country?
Chavez is the face, the leading figure and the image of the revolution. The revolution is him
Eduardo Semtei, electoral analyst
The vote is not supposed to be about him. These elections are to choose mayors and state governors for 22 states in Venezuela plus the capital, Caracas.
In theory, this should be the voters’ judgement on how well the current local leaders have performed – on whether the streets are clean, whether it is safe to walk home alone at night, whether the local police force is corrupt or not.
Last December, President Chavez narrowly lost a vote for the first time since coming to office in 1999.
He had proposed a raft of constitutional changes – the most controversial of which was a plan to remove the cap on presidential terms, which would have allowed him to stand indefinitely.
His detractors immediately seized on the result as evidence that his support was on the wane, and that the basis of his so-called 21st Century socialist revolution had deserted him.
KEY ELECTION BATTLEGROUNDS
Caracas: Chavez supporter Aristobulo Isturiz against anti-Chavez politician Antonio Ledezma
Zulia state: currently governed by Chavez rival Manuel Rosales
Miranda state: current governor Chavez aide Diosdado Cabello up for re-election
Barinas state: President Chavez’s home state. His father, the current governor, is stepping down. His brother Adan standing for the governorship but faces tough election battle
A year later, and that analysis looks misguided. Judging from the opinion polls and the vast crowds turning out to hear him speak in recent days, the president is still as popular as ever with his core supporters.
Instead it seems that less radical voters are beginning to draw a distinction between their unswerving support for President Chavez as a national leader and their questions about the way their local communities are being run.
Mr Chavez may enjoy strong popular support. Many of his local representatives do not.
As a result, the president is leaving nothing to chance. Over the past few weeks he has been criss-crossing the country, appearing at rallies in all the key states to support his local allies in person.
Mr Chavez has told voters that what he called “his candidates” must win on Sunday to preserve the integrity of the socialist revolution and guarantee the future of the “misiones” – social development programmes such as the health initiative “Barrio Adentro” (Into the Neighbourhood).
Eduardo Semtei is a former-vice president of the National Electoral Council and is now an electoral analyst who is broadly aligned to President Chavez.
Opponents like Manuel Rosales have been dismissed as “malignant tumours”
He says this approach is intended to focus these elections firmly on the president and his national plans, rather than the day-to-day, often inefficient running of the local municipalities.
“President Chavez cannot trust any of his local candidates to be the face of this revolution,” he said. “Chavez is the face, the leading figure and the image of the revolution. The revolution is him.”
The degree of transferability of the Chavez effect has reduced in recent years, says Mr Semtei.
“In the past, mere association with President Chavez was enough for local candidates to pull in the votes they needed for victory. That’s no longer guaranteed.”
As such, he says, the president has taken a very active role in this campaign. It is a strategy that may well make the difference between victory and defeat for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in marginal municipalities such as Petare in Caracas.
President Chavez has also been cranking up the rhetoric.
At a rally in one of the most closely contested battlegrounds, in the oil-rich state of Zulia, he called the state governor, Manuel Rosales, a malignant tumour that needed removing.
President Chavez has also threatened to arrest Mr Rosales, who ran against him in the last presidential election in 2006, should the PSUV’s candidate fail to win the state.
Chavez can rely on a “core of 30%” always turning out to support him
Such a prominent role by the president provoked calls of foul play by the opposition, which argues that he has abused his presidential powers.
President Chavez denied this, saying it was his right as a Venezuelan citizen to openly campaign for whomever he wished.
The issue was passed to the National Electoral Commission – who rejected the opposition’s claim as baseless.
But will Mr Chavez’s strategy work? Eduardo Semtei believes a lot will depend on the turnout.
“President Chavez can count on about 30% of the electorate as radical and committed pro-Chavez voters who will always turn out and vote for him no matter what.
“If the abstention rate is high on 23 November, that 30% will make up a majority of the voting public. If the abstention rate is low and the turnout is high, people may vote in protest at the poor running of their municipalities and the government might lose control of as many as eight or nine states.”
This election is also the first time that the PSUV has put up candidates under its party banner.
Authorities are hoping to avoid poll violence that blighted Nicaragua
In 2007, the government brought together all its disparate allies from a range of parties loyal to President Chavez together under the single umbrella of the PSUV.
In part, Sunday’s vote will be the first indication of how well that broad coalition has been received.
Meanwhile, the president has accused the opposition parties of already preparing their accusations of electoral fraud should government candidates win in the most marginal votes.
About 130 international electoral observers will be on hand to oversee that the vote is free and fair, and both sides will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the electoral violence seen in Nicaragua this month after disputed local election results.
Despite the personal endorsements by President Chavez, it seems likely that a number of states will change hands.
In private, even government officials are expecting some losses.
In 2004, Chavez supporters won 22 of the 24 available positions.
Since then, a number of those governors have withdrawn their support for Mr Chavez, such as Ramon Martinez in the state of Sucre.
If these “dissident” governors hold on to their positions and the opposition takes a few of the more marginal states, the political map of Venezuela will have altered – irrespective of the strong personal support for President Chavez.