Venezuela Elections: Who Won and Who Lost?
Victory for the right wing reflects popular discontent
Johan Rivas, Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Venezuela)
These elections took place in the midst of a deep social and economic crisis, essentially linked to three factors. The crisis in raw material commodity prices such as oil, the principal source of resources and motor of the Venezuelan economy, the slowdown in China and the low growth levels in the US and EU economies.
On the one hand, the reformist policies of Chavismo, of trying to apply corrections to capitalism only to come up again and again against the wall of big capital. On the other hand, there has been an offensive by a silent counterrevolution by pro-capitalist sectors within Chavismo, combined with a conspiracy by the right-wing labelled “economic war” by the government. In this context, there was an historic election on 6 December which could spell the end of the Bolivarian process and of an era of progressive left-leaning governments, a lost opportunity for the revolutionary Left to deepen the process. The same process has also been stalled in Bolivia and Ecuador.
This has been the case with the elections in Argentina where the right wing won, and is also possible in Brazil, where the PT Dilma government is in deep crisis. While these governments have been, in comparison with Chavez and Maduro, less radical and in Dilma’s case are closer to neo-liberalism, they still clearly strengthened the hopes of wide sections of the working class and poor population, and confronted the more conservative and reactionary layers of the Latin American right wing, allies of imperialism.
These were the first parliamentary elections which Chavismo had a real chance of losing, and the right-wing opposition a chance of a historic victory which puts the Nicolas Maduro government in a critical position. This is potentially a scenario similar to the Nicaraguan process in 1989.
Though unlikely due to the wearing away of the basis of Chavismo, it can still not be ruled out that an attack by the right wing on the social and political conquests of the 17 years of revolutionary process opens up the possibility of a new radicalisation and turn to the left. It is still possible to retake the revolutionary path which has been left in the last years.
A deeply polarised election
The elections took place in a context of political polarisation between two options – the government and its supporters- the PSUV and Great Patriotic Pole (GPP) in coalition with 11 parties from communist and other left traditions – and the right-wing opposition in the MUD electoral coalition.
Attempts at independent alternatives
However, there were fractures in both camps this time round. Resulting from differences with the government policies, wide sections of the Chavista rank and file and some leaders who occupied important posts under Chavez, distanced themselves from the Maduro government and took up a Left opposition position. Some tried to launch independent candidates, such as Marea Socialista. Many of these candidates didn’t materialise because of the pressure which the government and PSUV applied in order to stop them being allowed to stand by the electoral commission.
There were other sections of the Left which have been in opposition to the government for a long time, such as the PSL, led by Orlando Chirino, but which did not manage to enthuse other sections of the Left to form a common front and launch a joint campaign.
This party made some attempts but its confrontations with almost all other Left groups prevented it from launching a genuinely unitary project, though they did manage to form some electoral alliances with other parties like MAS, which has vacillated in the last years between Chavismo and the MUD, only to stand this time independently.
There was also a weak alliance between PSL and Marea Socialista un some regions but in reality the polarisation and electoral machinery of the PSUV and the MUD did not leave any space for other options. Not one MP was elected outside of these two blocks.
The MUD on the other hand, only lost the support of some opportunists with some historic links to the Left and Chavismo such as the MAS and Bandera Roja, which chose this time to stand independently and try to capitalise on the historic level of discontent with the government which polls put at between 60% and 80%.
Win, no matter what
In the end, the polarisation, media power and clientelism of the two poles dominated. The electoral campaign was very poor and without political content, based on demagogic promises by both sides about changes in the economic and social situation.
The government sector had all the state’s resources under its control, and went on a populist offensive promising credit concessions, express pensions, tablets for university students, cars, new buses and routes for public transport, housing, infrastructure, putting on concerts etc etc. It also put in place initiatives to sell food for much lower prices in the weeks running up to elections.
These activities were especially concentrated in the regions where the MUD was ahead in the polls. They also had more media coverage than ever. This actually benefitted the right wing which used it to play the victim and show the unfair advantages of the government and paint it as a dictatorial regime. There was a dual “international monitoring” of the elections, one legitimised by the government the other parallel invited by the right wing. In reality the government shot itself in the foot in this sense.
At the same time, there was a dirty war waged. Phantom parties appeared mysteriously in order to try to divert votes from the two camps. At the same time, independent candidates and small parties were brow-beaten to pull out and support one of the two poles.
The government didn’t have a coherent political message in its campaign, which was all accusations against the right wing and imperialism as being responsible for the crisis, and warnings that the victory of the right would endanger the legacy of Chavez and the gains of the revolution. This is the same rhetoric the government has been using for over 3 years, without actually taking measures against the so-called counterrevolutionary offensive, which has lost it credibility in the eyes of the population. The lack of political content in the campaign was reflected in violent clashes, with at least 6 violent episodes between Chavistas and opposition, which also resulted in violent deaths on both sides.
Right wing capitalises on crisis in absence of revolutionary alternative
Insecurity, criminal violence, speculation, high inflation and bureaucratic and erratic policies by the Chavista leadership mired in corruption provided the main platform for the right-wing to win such an historic victory.
Unfortunately, we were right when during the last years we asserted that the bolivarian revolution was threatened with defeat, partially because of its fragile economic model and bureaucratic state which maintained capitalism. Venezuela deepened even more its dependency on oil, the price of which has fallen to $30 a barrel, down from £120 in 2008. This exposed the limits of the government and of its social reforms.
This economic model is controlled by a civil military bureaucratic caste – which the people call “boli-bourgeoisie – which has made incredible fortunes in power.
At the same time, the absence of democracy within the government party and independent workers and peoples organisations means that it was only a question of time before a bureaucracy such as this one took control of the process and led it to a defeat.
The right wing won without an alternative programme
The right wing had a simple but complex strategy, without an alternative political programme beyond a neo-liberal adjustment programme which Maduro himself would have implemented. The right wing had to control its more radical sections, which were seen in the violent events between February and June 2014, and want to bring down the Maduro government by force. Controlling this sector and capitalising on the government’s crisis was their basic strategy to win the elections.
It should be remembered that in this context, Maduro and the MUD had been negotiating a pact of coexistence, since April 2014, which was paralyzed partially by the pressures from the left of Chavismo and from the right of the MUD. It seems that the transition will take place peacefully in accordance with the constitution etc.
The elections were seen as a chance by the population to express its discontent. The government accepted that these would be difficult elections, the most difficult since the Bolivarian process began.
The right wins a majority in parliament
The turnout surprised everyone, at more than 75%. The right wing won with a whopping 67% of the MPs, which gives it control of the national assembly with a qualified majority with 122 MPs, with which it has the power to pass laws, renounce the government and recall the President. Chavismo suffered a historic defeat which announces a political earthquake in the PSUV. They only won 33& of MPs and 41% of votes. The total vote for the MUD was 7.707.422 compared to 5.599.025 for the PSUV-GPP – a difference of more than 2.1 million votes.
A third silent political expression – blank votes and abstention
Abstention and blank votes were also a political expression in these polarised elections. Despite being low in comparison with 2010, abstention was 25%, representing more than 5 million people.
The number of blank votes – 7.8% – was the highest in a number of years. Taken together, blank votes and abstention represents more than 6 million people, more than the total number of Chavista voters. On top of this, many former chavistas will have voted for the right wing in an attempt to castigate the government.
This can be seen in the defeats which Chavismo suffered in emblematic strongholds with a long left tradition, like the “23 de enero” and Catia neighbourhoods in Caracas, and in the Barinas state where Chavismo has been dominant. For example, in the “23 de enero” neighbourhood in 2010 the GPP candidates won 4500 votes, which fell to 2400 in 2015.
In the same way, Chavismo lost in the 6 major states of the country, where over half the population lives. Chavismo only won in rural zones, far from urban centres.
While some votes went to the right wing to castigate the government, abstention and blank votes represent a rejection of the status quo without a clear political home. This is an important factor for the revolutionary forces which attempt to combat the prevailing polarisation.
The right wing has already started its offensive, saying that its majority represents the defeat of the idea of socialism. Revolutionaries must all unite against this ideological attack. This does not represent the defeat of socialism, but of a political phenomenon which spoke of socialism but never went beyond reformist policies or the mistakes of similar historical processes. This facilitated the resurgence of the right wing which had been defeated many times over by the working people.
However, it is not the end of the story. Even if it does not immediately attack the most progressive reforms of Chavismo, ultimately the right wing will do so. This could mobilise millions on the streets in defence of their conquests. A key question will be whether or not the revolutionary sectors are capable of acting with the necessary unity to give leadership and point towards a definitive defeat of capitalism.
We will soon see a confrontation between the government and right wing blaming eachother while the country deteriorates. It cannot be ruled out that the new right wing controlled national assembly will try to force the recall of Maduro. It is even speculated that sections of the military could demand the resignation of Maduro in a sort of coup, to call early Presidential elections.
What is already clear is that the right wing will use its control of the parliament to block the government, trap it and accelerate its decline, initiating what they call a pacific transition, along the lines of the transition in Nicaragua in 1989.
A “radicalisation” of the process, which Maduro claims to support, is less likely in the short term, partially because of the responsibility of the current Chavista leadership in the crisis and its consequent lack of credibility, and also because of the sharpened fall in oil prices which is predicted for next year which will undermine any potential reforms implemented by Maduro.
There is also the internal crisis which is coming in the PSUV and GPP and the level of demoralisation among the Chavista population, which undermines the potential base for a radicalisation by the government.
Another possibility is that the government becomes more authoritarian and even refuses to recognise the national assembly, a de facto imposition of a bureaucratic dictatorship. The Stalin quotes which recently have been put around social media by the PSUV since the results to justify its defeat, and the attacks on a press conference of a critical ex-Chavista Minister by Maduro supporters, are dangerous signs.
The next period will surely be convulsive with the international crisis hitting Latin America and the internal situation in the country. The key factor remains the independent organisation and leadership of the working people with a clear political programme which defends the gains already won and deepens the process to solve the crisis.
Venezuela has options
Venezuela is not bankrupt or collapsing. In reality it is one of the top 50 richest countries on the planet. With tax reforms and changes to the foreign exchange market under a democratic workers and peoples’ state, along with other emergency measures, the country could overcome the crisis in the short term and begin a new process with a revolutionary socialist perspective, based on the nationalisation under democratic control of the commanding heights of the economy. These tasks cannot be fulfilled currently either by Chavismo or the right wing.
For unity and revolutionary action against the crisis
Therefore, we call on all progressive and revolutionary forces in Venezuela, including those critical forces within Chavismo, to organise a national conference to discuss in depth the situation of the country and a plan of struggle which unites us to defeat the counterrevolution.
The people and working class has not been defeated. The victory of the right wing has capitalised on the popular discontent, which is searching for a political expression. What has been defeated is not socialism but a model which has reached its limits within capitalism. The struggle continues, let’s prepare ourselves to move forward and win.