By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 24, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 24 -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's allies won a hefty majority of state governorships in Sunday's elections, but the opposition secured important victories by winning the mayor's seat in greater Caracas and two economically vital states.
"Today, the people of Venezuela have spoken," Chávez said early Monday. "Today's victory is Venezuela's. The democratic path has been ratified."
Alberto Muller Rojas, vice president of Chávez's United Socialist Party, characterized the day's vote as a triumph for the government. "We have won in the majority of cases with a substantial difference," Muller Rojas said at a news conference after the election.
But the National Electoral Council said it was still too close to call the winner in the border state of Tachira and in the northern industrial state of Carabobo. It was also unclear who had won in big cities like Maracaibo or Valencia. The president's allies won two states, Yaracuy and Anzoategui, after the government disqualified two promising opposition candidates vying for governorships in those states.
The election was seen as a test of Chávez's dominance in the oil-rich nation, which has been tested in recent months as rising crime, high inflation and food shortages have shaken faith in the man known to his followers as El Comandante. The president had vigorously campaigned for his candidates, knowing a big win would give him the political leverage to reform the constitution and stay in office past 2013, when his six-year term ends.
Pollsters had said that opposition candidates and dissident politicians who had broken with Chávez could take half a dozen states. But the opposition lost the state of Sucre, and dissident politicians lost in the largely rural states where they ran, including the president's home state of Barinas.
"We've already won 17 governorships," the president said, flanked by supporters. "And until this moment, the opposition has won three governorships."
Opposition groups, though, celebrated wins in populous Caracas, where Henrique Capriles Radonski won the state government and Antonio Ledezma captured one of the biggest prizes, metropolitan Caracas. No one expected the opposition to take many states, but instead to threaten the president's hold in populous, economically diverse regions.
"The most important states are where the most important battles are taking place, and the opposition could win," Pedro Nikken, a director of Electoral Eye, a monitoring group observing the elections, said earlier in the day.
The president lost his first vote last December, when voters narrowly rejected a proposed constitutional reform that would have greatly expanded Chávez's powers, permitting him to run for office indefinitely and appoint allies to regional offices. In the wake of that stinging defeat, the government vowed to win Sunday's elections.
In August, the Supreme Court, which is stacked with the president's supporters, upheld a controversial decision made earlier in the year by the controller general to disqualify five strong opposition candidates, including Leopoldo López, a young, charismatic politician who polls showed would have won the mayor's post in greater Caracas.
Constitutional experts said the disqualifications violated two articles of the constitution and showed the lengths to which Chávez would go to ensure his hold on vital seats of power in Venezuela.
The government then marshaled its formidable oil-generated resources to support Chavista candidates, as those allied with the president are known.
Opposition candidates said the potent state media shunned or maligned their campaigns while giving maximum exposure to government candidates. In recent days, Chávez also threatened to arrest a leading opposition leader, Zulia Gov. Manuel Rosales, and order tanks into the streets of Carabobo state.
Luis Vicente León, a pollster for the Caracas polling firm Datanalisis, said the machinations and bluster demonstrate the importance of the vote to Chávez and the future of his socialist movement in Venezuela. Although Chávez loyalists control all but seven seats in the National Assembly, Leon said the president needs overwhelming electoral superiority across Venezuela to have the political capital to call for reforms to permit him to run for reelection.
"If Chávez wins this regional election," Leon recently said, "he is going to ask for the constitutional referendum very soon, because he is going to take advantage of this win."
On Sunday, Chávez sharply toned down his rhetoric as he stopped to talk to reporters moments after voting in a pro-government neighborhood of high-rise apartment buildings near the presidential palace. He touted what he called the "vigorous" nature of Venezuelan democracy and said his foes and the foreign media were unfairly characterizing him as a tyrant.
"They compare me with Stalin, they compare me with Hitler," Chávez said. "I am Hugo, Hugo Chávez. I firmly believe in democracy, I believe in these people, these people who have reelected me."
To be sure, Datanalisis, the polling firm, said one of its recent polls put Chávez's popularity at 58 percent, an increase from earlier this year. And determined supporters like Susana Zambrano say they would never support the opposition.
"They know that through the vote they will never defeat Chávez, because it was 40 years of exclusion," she said, referring to the period before Chávez was first elected president. "Fortunately, the people have Chávez. He's the hope of the Venezuelan people."
But polls have also shown that although overall support levels remain high, confidence that the government can resolve chronic problems, such as crime and Latin America's highest inflation rate, have fallen steadily from early in his presidency.
The opposition maneuvered to exploit those concerns in urban areas, with politicians accusing government officials of having done little or nothing to resolve those and other problems.
In Petare, a vast slum here that had long been a stronghold for Chávez, the opposition candidate for mayor of the district, Carlos Ocariz, was leading in the polls against the government candidate.
"The insecurity is a disaster," Erica Cordoba said. "Everyday there's muggings, the robbing of cars. Horrible. We would like to have a mayor who worries about that."