(IPS) – As if his post were at stake, Venezuela’s left-wing President Hugo Chávez is showing up all over the country at election rallies, caravans, public works inaugurations, nationally televised public events and highly publicised midnight calls to his party’s local offices in remote towns.
But on Nov. 23, the almost 17 million Venezuelans registered to vote will not be going to the polls to elect a new president or decide an issue put to referendum. They will be voting to renew 22 of the country’s 23 state governors and 328 of its 335 mayors.
In the last regional elections, held four years ago, Chávez supporters secured 21 state governments and around 300 city governments, but opinion polls and analysts are forecasting a slightly modified political map after the coming election.
"The opposition has a sure chance of winning four states, including the oil state of Zulia (in the northwest) and the industrial state of Carabobo (in central Venezuela), and it is has strong candidates in four others," Luis León, director of the Datanálisis polling firm, told IPS.
Oscar Schémel, of the pollster company Hinterlaces, pointed out to IPS that "in eight of the 14 states where we’ve carried out polls there is a clear tendency in favour of candidates opposed to Chávez."
For his part, Saúl Cabrera said that his firm, Consultores 21, estimated that opposition or dissident candidates could win up to 10 state governments, and Nelson Merentes, a former finance minister of the Chávez administration and currently director of the opinion polling company Gis-XXI, said that official candidates have "high" chances of winning in 16 states, "medium" chances in four, and "low" probabilities in only two.
"If you want to know what the weak states are for the government, just check and see which places Chávez is visiting," analyst Eduardo Semtei, a former member of the National Electoral Council, commented to IPS.
Semtei predicts that the coming elections will "correct the statistics, as the opposition, backed by 40 percent of voters, has only eight to 10 percent of state and municipal governments."
"With his tours, Chávez is going to leave us all out of a job, because he’s making our voting projections redundant," León joked, "as in a way he’s clearly marking what is happening in terms of numbers around the country."
The same pattern is repeated in the most hotly disputed states: in the morning or at noon Chávez inaugurates some public work or grants scholarships or loans, and the ceremony is broadcast nationwide, and in the afternoon he climbs on a platform truck to lead a demonstration or rally for one of the candidates for governor or mayor that he supports.
"If you’re with me, vote for " and he mentions the name of his candidate. "Because what’s at stake here is the future of the revolution, of socialism, of Venezuela, of the government and the future of Hugo Chávez himself," he repeats to crowds of ecstatic supporters in red t-shirts, who cheer him on with shouts of "Hey, ho, Chávez won’t go!"
Chávez "has been trying to polarise and radicalise the process, and he knows he’s the catalysing element in that radicalization — that is, he acts as if he were the only candidate in the states and municipalities," León said.
"People distinguish Chávez from Chavism. Which is why the president is focusing this campaign on himself and wants to turn the election into a referendum. Without that support, his candidates would lose by a landslide," Semtei observed.
SUPPORT WITH A HIDDEN AGENDA
Why is the president making these regional elections out to be so critical when he still has four of the six years of his second term to go? IPS asked political analyst Fausto Masó.
"Because Chávez wants to be able to be re-elected indefinitely, and these elections are crucial to achieving that goal," he responded.
"If Chávez wins, for example, 20 of the states at stake and the opposition is reduced, then he will immediately call for an amendment of the constitution that will allow him to run for president again in 2012," said Masó.
According to Semtei, the government’s strategists have already prepared the referendum for such a reform.
"If, instead, the opposition wins in eight or nine states, including several of the most populous states, and secures the most important cities, then not only will that complicate Chávez’s goal, but also, once his presidency has a definite expiration date, he will face more and more contenders and dissidents within his own party," Masó added.
After he was re-elected in 2006 with 63 percent of the vote, Chávez tried to push through a broad constitutional reform that included the possibility of running for re-election indefinitely. The reforms, however, were rejected by 51 percent of the voters in a referendum last year — Chávez’s first electoral setback in a total of 12 elections and referendums held since 1998.
Between the two extremes — government and opposition — that have faced off over the last decade, certain dissenting voices have emerged in the regional and municipal elections, presenting alternatives that move away from Chavism, and which have added greater complexity and variety to the race, as well as opening up possibilities to trace a more diverse political map.
Dissent was first sparked when the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) held internal elections, and several regional leaders broke away from the party, hurling accusations of favouritism or fraud committed to secure positions for the candidates backed by Chávez.
Chávez, the party’s president, had, in fact, reserved the right to accept the candidates and select his favourite out of the three that took the most votes.
These skirmishes led the president to break with two small leftwing parties that had been supporting him for a decade, the Communist Party (PCV) and Patria Para Todos (Fatherland for All – PPT).
Recent polls indicate that several of the dissidents have a clear chance of winning. One of them is Julio César Reyes, mayor of Barinas, capital of the state of the same name located in Venezuela’s southwest plains. Barinas is Chavez’s home state, and his brother, Adán Chávez (PSUV) is running for governor there, hoping to succeed their father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez.
In Portuguesa, also in the southwest plains, the PPT candidate, Bella Petrizzio, has a chance of beating PSUV candidate Wilmar Castro.
And in Guárico, in the central plains, Lenny Manuitt, the daughter of Governor Eduardo Manuitt, who had left the PPT to join the PSUV, returned to her old party and, according to the polls, is giving the PSUV candidate Willian Lara a good fight.
In the small state of Trujillo, in the western Andean region, Octaviano Mejías won the PSUV internal elections, but Chávez appointed Hugo Cabezas, who had come in second. That led Mejías to run under a combined PPT and PCV ticket, and he is doing well in the polls.
Chávez, who has called several dissidents "filthy traitors," "sell-outs" and "counterrevolutionaries," and the opposition "conspirators," "vile" or "imbeciles," has threatened to throw in jail anyone who questions the victory of his candidates, as he says his adversaries "are getting ready to yell ‘fraud!’ and spur violence and destabilisation."
If that were to happen, he reiterated that "this revolution is a peaceful revolution, but it is armed," and warned that he will not hesitate to bring out the tanks in the streets of Carabobo or deploy a military operation in Zulia if the opposition stages an uprising to reject the results.
Dissidents and opposition candidates have responded by saying that these declarations are a clear sign that Chávez is closely following the polls.
More accommodating, the president said at a rally Wednesday that "if the opposition wins in any state, I’ll be the first person to acknowledge" the victory.