What Venezuela's Regional Elections Really Mean
State and municipal elections held in Venezuela on Sunday, November 23rd strongly favored President Chávez and his political party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), not the opposition, as one might be misled to believe after reading the coverage available in much of the mainstream media. The vast majority of state governorships and mayoralties in Venezuela will remain under pro-government leadership. The races provided yet another check on the democratic credentials of the president, and certainly reflected the consistently high rates of popular approval garnered by his policies.
The day after the elections, Washington Post and New York Times editorials reacted with more of the same mudslinging that is their usual fare on Venezuela. The Times accused Chávez of "authoritarianism and incompetence" and attempts to "skew the elections." It stated that candidates facing charges for the misuse of public funds were disqualified
from elections by a "government watchdog," when in fact this was done by elected leaders in Congress determined to curb corruption. The Times also said more than half of Venezuelans will now be under opposition leadership, but electoral results show that the opposite is true: the majority of citizens -- 57 percent -- will be under pro-government leadership.
With all of the misinformation swirling around this scene, what should we take from Venezuela's latest elections? The most important lesson for many observers, including the Secretary General of the OAS, José Miguel Insulza, has been that democratic procedure in Venezuela is essentially ‘all grown up.' Insulza said in a statement that these were "peaceful, exemplary" elections reflecting the "maturity that strengthens democratic institutions."
Venezuela has seen eleven electoral processes in about a decade. What was remarkable this time is the fact that voters set an all-time record for turnout in regional races. Some 65.6 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls, despite rainstorms that drenched parts of the coast around Caracas and caused deadly mudslides two days earlier. This showed that Venezuelans trust their democratic institutions and take them seriously. The National Electoral Council (CNE) again proved its reputation for efficient and accurate electoral oversight, posting complete results online less than 24 hours after the polls closed.
A look at the statistics provides essential insights into what will likely be the political pulse of Venezuela during the next few years. First off, most Venezuelan citizens voted for candidates aligned with the Chávez government. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its allies won 77 percent of governorships and 81 percent of municipal posts. Even in Caracas, where the overarching metropolitan mayoralty went to the opposition, residents of the city's most populous district of Libertador elected a PSUV candidate as their local representative.
Opposition candidates were elected to govern five states in Venezuela, compared to the 17 that went to the PSUV. Their victories came in some of the must heavily populated states. However, the map of municipalities across the country looks more uniform, because in at least four of the five states that went to the opposition, most local municipal mayoralties were won by pro-government PSUV candidates. This is true in the coastal state of Carabobo, for example, where at least 11 out of 14 of the new municipal mayors are members of the PSUV, including the mayor of Puerto Cabello, a major port city that is of strategic importance to the oil industry. In Valencia, another of the Carabobo municipalities that is an important industrial and manufacturing city, the PSUV got elected at the local level for the first time ever during the tenure of the Chávez administration.
Most states in Venezuela that hold strategic natural resources and industries elected PSUV governors. In accordance with predictions, the Western state of Zulia that is the traditional seat of the oil industry went to the opposition. However, the PSUV won in the states of Anzoategui, Bolívar, Monagas, and Delta Amacuro that encompass the lucrative
Orinoco Oil Belt region. Bolívar, in particular, also boasts the country's other important basic industries: hydroelectricity, aluminum, steel, and petrochemicals.
In the gubernatorial races, the 17 PSUV wins were generally far more decisive than those five earned by the opposition. Opposition candidates won by margins of just ten percentage points or less in four of them (in Tachira, a narrow 1.3 percent), and gained 15 percentage points on the PSUV in the fifth state (Nueva Esparta). In contrast, candidates supportive of the Chávez government won by roughly 50 percentage points in two states, 30 percentage points in five states, 20 percentage points in four states, and five to ten percent in six more states.
Unfortunately, despite the extensive records available on the website of the CNE, many media outlets in the U.S. have failed to report accurately on the results of Venezuela's regional elections.
As the numbers slip from the picture, a dangerous thing happens; blanket statements about "rising stars of the opposition" who are "gaining ground" and baseless claims about an "authoritarian" Chávez losing his "grip" on power become substitutes for the truth. They become stand-ins for factual information that media consumers have little choice but to digest. Soon, people might think a country that has free speech and fair elections isn't really a democracy at all. Before our knowledge of Venezuela goes too far in that direction, it is time to bring the facts back into the picture.
Find the full results of Venezuela's regional elections on the official CNE