Weary Venezuela voters gear up for their next election

After an intense political season culminating in Hugo Chávez's reelection last month, Venezuela's voters are now set to head back to the polls on December 16 to elect state governors and state legislatures. Many voters seem to be wondering, though, whether the whole thing matters.

Venezuela is, in theory, a federal state. All state and local authorities are elected. State and local governments have their own legislatures that pass their own budgets.

Federalism, however, has its limits -- some imposed by the constitution, and some imposed by Hugo Chávez.

The Venezuelan Constitution mandates that twenty percent of the federal budget should go to state governments, who then must hand over twenty percent of their income to local governments. Budgets are roughly distributed across states according to their population, which means the relative size of a state determines the size of the budget the governor is in charge of.

In spite of this mandate, states are limited in their ability to raise funds on their own, and they are forbidden from issuing debt.

In theory, state governments should be enjoying their fair share of Venezuela's oil boom. In practice, Hugo Chávez has severely limited the size of the federal budget by purposefully assuming ridiculously low oil prices, which ensures that all "unanticipated" extra income goes directly to funds he manages with zero oversight.

In spite of this, state budgets are large enough to allow opposition governors to implement public policies, and a few of them are actually worth mentioning. Miranda governor (and unsuccessful presidential candidate) Henrique Capriles has focused on schools with innovative multi-purpose architecture. Zulia governor Pablo Pérez has a voucher system for university scholarships. In spite of this, Hugo Chávez has stripped state governments of many of their powers, limiting opposition politicians' scope of action.

Looking at just the political aspects, state governments give opposition party politicians two things that are vital for relevance in Venezuela: visibility and a get-out-the-vote machine. State governments are filled with large bureaucracies, which can be turned into impromptu "volunteers" to fill up rallies or help get out the vote. The advantages these incumbents enjoy are more relevant here than in most democracies.

Having said this -- what are the likely scenarios?

Venezuela's opposition is still licking its wounds after losing to Hugo Chávez by ten points in the presidential election on October 7. Only eight of the country's twenty-three governors are from the opposition, but in the recent presidential election, Capriles carried only two states. He even lost his home state of Miranda -- albeit by only a fraction of a percent.

Given the feeling of helplessness in the opposition's ranks, it is no stretch to imagine Hugo Chávez going 23-for-23 on December 16. That, however, seems unlikely.

The opposition could have a decent night if they retain five high-profile offices: Zulia, Miranda, Táchira, Carabobo, and Lara. All five states have big populations, and they are currently governed by men representing five different factions of the opposition coalition. Failure to hold any of them would be a serious setback.

On the other hand, if they were to pick up Aragua, the eastern state of Anzoátegui, or retain Monagas, they could be allowed to gloat. All three states are large, and they went for Hugo Chávez last month.

For chavismo, winning anything less than the twenty-one states Chávez carried a month ago would cast serious doubts on his party’s ability to win elections without him. The lingering effect of Chávez’s victory would suggest a landslide for the president’s candidates. However, the bond between Venezuelans and their leader does not easily translate to local leadership, and even more so when many of chavismo’s candidates were hand-picked without regard for local leaders’ opinions.

Ultimately, it is hard to shake the feeling that the stakes are low. Both opposition and pro-Chávez voters viewed the October 7 poll as the definitive battle. As hard as they try, politicians from all sides are struggling to provide a rationale as to why this particular election still matters. After chavismo’s “perfect victory,” it’s hard to dispel the notion that they are playing for scraps.

Photo by RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/GettyImages


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