Transitions

Local Elections Are a Mixed Bag for Venezuela's Opposition

Venezuelans voted for mayors and local council members this Sunday, Dec. 8. As has been the case in the last few elections, the country continues to be evenly divided between two warring factions, reflecting the sharp polarization in Venezuelan society.

The government of President Nicolás Maduro has been besieged by a deep economic crisis. After winning a disputed election that saw him lose much of the impressive political capital bequeathed to him by the late Hugo Chávez, he has proven himself a weak and gaffe-prone leader. Wanting to compensate his shortcomings via the use of force, Maduro has recently taken over dissident media outlets, attacked business people by promoting populist measures such as forcing them to sell at low prices, and pushed the National Assembly into giving him special legislative powers.

If the government has navigated tenuously between dictatorship and farce, Venezuela's opposition has similarly failed to become the majority force they hoped to be at this point.

From the start of the campaign, opposition leader Henrique Capriles (who was not on the ballot) labeled this election a referendum on Maduro. Along with other opposition figureheads, Capriles campaigned across the country to support opposition candidates, fighting for a win that always seems a bit out of reach.

The economic crisis currently engulfing the country would, in theory, suggest that the winds were blowing in the opposition's favor -- but there were also a lot of factors playing against Capriles in the run up to the elections. In particular, the government made sure opposition candidates were all but shut out of mass media.

In the end, the opposition racked up significant wins. It retained Maracaibo (the country's second largest city), as well as four of Caracas' five municipalities, including the iconic Sucre municipality, home to Petare, one of the nation's most violent slums. It also held on to the Caracas Metropolitan Mayor's office. Chavismo held on to the important Libertador municipality, which covers much of downtown Caracas.

The opposition had some important pickups. One of the more significant ones was Barinas, capital of Hugo Chávez's home state. The cities of Valencia and Barquisimeto, the country's third- and fourth-largest respectively, as well as Maturin, home of the oil industry and a former chavista bastion, also went to the opposition. The opposition started the day with 55 mayors, and they will now have many more (results are yet to be finalized), most in the country's largest cities.

However, chavismo can also lay a claim to victory. It won the most municipalities, and its political party (the United Socialist Party of Venezuela) beat the opposition coalition. Though some news sources are reporting exact counts, the total vote tally for each side is not yet known because there are many small opposition parties that, taken together, won a significant percentage of the vote.

What now in the struggle to unseat Maduro? It's not clear. The consensus here in Caracas is that Capriles' leadership is safe... for now. Enthusiasm for the opposition's candidates was muted, as seen in the roughly 41 percent abstention rate. Many had thought an overwhelming opposition win in the popular vote would engender a massive shakeup in Venezuelan politics. That did not happen.

Nevertheless, time is in the opposition's favor. Many of the government's economic measures had been postponed until after this election, and voters will wake up in a few days to find themselves poorer and paying higher prices for many basic staples.

Capriles has hinted that the opposition might activate the referenda option enshrined in the Venezuelan Constitution to hold a recall referendum on Maduro's mandate, or a referendum to install a constitutional assembly with the power to impeach the president. But the government plays by its own rules, and it's not clear Capriles' voters agree that this is the best option.  If he wants to unseat Maduro, Capriles will have to convince Venezuelans that their problems are the result of the Revolution itself, and that it is in their interests to mobilize and force Maduro out of power.

For an opposition movement accustomed to banging pots and pans from the comfort of their own homes, this will not be an easy task.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, co-editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

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