November 25 2008
By Redmond O’Neill
With all of the votes officially counted the results of Venezuela’s regional and municipal elections on November 23 are clear and of some interest.
Hugo Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venuezuela won 17 states and a large majority of the national vote. The opposition won five states and the mayoralty of capital Caracas.
Contrary to the dire predictions in some sections of the British and US media, both the president and opposition accepted the results with good grace. This confirms the meticulous respect for democracy, confirmed in the latest survey by the widely respected Latinbarometro, which found that satisfaction with democracy in Venezuela is the second highest in Latin America.
However, the elections illustrated two new aspects of Venezuela’s political landscape. First, in the country as a whole, Chavez gained a large margin of support over the opposition, of around 1m additional votes or roughly 20%.
That is a dramatic shift in comparison to the referendum on constitutional reform last year, which Chavez lost by roughly 1%. This suggests that, while Venezuelans rejected some of the proposed constitutional changes, Chavez retains broad overall majority support. No doubt this is due to the way his government has given the majority of the people access to free education for the first time, eradicated illiteracy, massively expanded access to free education at every level and raised the living standards of the impoverished majority.
At the same time, the opposition won Caracas and the interlocking state of Miranda, the main oil-producing state Zulia, and Carabobo, an important industrial region. These are the three biggest urban regions in the country.
The loss of Caracas, in particular, is a symptom of the acute problems of massive shanty towns, crime, traffic congestion, waste and inadequate public transport, which are now primary concerns of people in the big cities.
There can be little confidence that the opposition has any answers to these problems, as their policies of plundering national resources for the benefit of a tiny minority created this situation of urban decay in the first place.
Under the old regime, continued in the key backers of today’s opposition, Venezuela started 1950 with an average income that was nearly three times that of the main eight Latin American countries. By the time Chavez came to power, this lead had almost been eliminated by policies that gave Venezuela a rate of growth less than a quarter of the average of those eight countries for 48 years.
Once he tackled those controlling the national oil company in 2003 and was able to put its resources to productive use, Chavez achieved a sustained rate of economic growth outstripping that of most of Latin America and he put these resources to use tackling the most acute issues of poverty, health and education.
These elections show that Chavez now faces a more specific but equally imperative challenge, that of radically improving the infrastructure, and with it, the efficiency and quality of life in the country’s main cities.
What has been achieved so quickly, with such success, in the fields of health and education gives some confidence that this can be achieved, but only if the government takes on these issues with the same single-minded commitment.