Preliminary results released at 12:30 am, Monday November 1, by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE), have given gubernatorial and mayoral candidates allied to President Hugo Chávez Frías an overwhelming victory. According to the CNE, the Chavistas lead in 20 of 22 states, however, in some cases these results represent as little as 29.65% (Barinas) of the total votes. Some states have already counted as many as 87.69% (Vargas), yet many candidates remain so close that the outcome will not be clear until the last vote is counted. Unfortunately, according to National Electoral Directorate (JNE-an arm of the CNE) president Jorge Rodriguez, that will not be until the end of the week. With that caveat in mind, there are nonetheless some trends worth looking at.

In the 2000 regional elections, pro-government candidates captured 15 states (fig.1), leaving 8 states and the Metropolitan Mayor in the hands of the opposition. [1] Yesterday, pro-government candidates increased their number to 21 of 23 states, and the Metropolitan Mayor (fig.2).

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Fig.1: In 2000, Chavistas won 15 of 23 states.

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Fig.2: Preliminary results from Yesterday’s election show Chavistas leading in 20 of 22 states. [2]

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Fig.3: Venezuela’s new political landscape. The blue shows the only two states in opposition hands: Zulia (upper-right), and Nueva Esparta (island at top).

This potential victory is more than just an increase in the influence of Chavismo. The specific states won over from the opposition are strategically among the most important in the country. These include Chavista victories in the race for Metropolitan Mayor and in the state of Miranda, in which 3 of Caracas’ 5 municipalities are located. The Metropolitan Police and the governor’s office of Miranda played key roles in the 2002 coup that briefly toppled the Chávez government. Chávez was restored to power 48-hours later by loyal elements of the military and massive popular mobilization, but the death-toll of around 60 people was largely laid at the feet of the Metropolitan Police.

From Referendum to Regionals

Chávez’s sound victory in the recall referendum on August 15, 2004 represented a clear threat to the opposition’s toe-hold in states and municipalities. As mentioned above, after the 2000 regional elections, the opposition controlled 8 states, Metropolitan Caracas, and around 220 other municipalities out of a total of 335.

Not only did Chávez win the referendum 59.1% to 40.6%, he came out on top in 22 of 23 states. Many analysts used these figures to predict Chavista victory in the regional elections. In fact, in many states Chavista gubernatorial candidates actually received more votes (percentage-wise) than Chávez received in the referendum (fig.4).

Fig.4: Surprisingly, Chavismo appears to have received a higher percentage in several states in the regionals than it did just two months ago in the referendum.

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Turnout

Opposition newspaper El Nacional screamed “Abstention Wins” this morning, referring to what is widely being referred to as a historically high rate of abstention. Before we address the figures themselves, possible explanations for the low participation bear mention.

Historically, regional elections are ill-attended in Venezuela (and in most countries of the world for that matter). For the period 1979-2000, for example, abstention averaged 45%, rising above 50% three times (1989, 1992, and 1995-fig.5).

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Fig.5: Abstention rates 1979-2004.

In the wake of the referendum, the opposition has refused to accept the results, despite the Organization of American States’ (OAS) and the Carter Center’s corroboration of the results. They have maintained that the results where manipulated by the CNE with the complicity of the OAS and Carter Center. The implications of such a position for the regional elections were the source of much controversy within the opposition, eventually causing the opposition umbrella group the Democratic Coordinator (CD) to rupture.

Small parties with no regional posts to lose called on their followers to abstain. Afraid of losing their slipping hold over municipalities and certain key states, the larger parties in the opposition called for active participation, yet continued to cry "fraud."

The inherent contradiction in this position caused many in the opposition’s base to say “what’s the point? If my vote didn’t count in the referendum, why would I expect it to count now?” The opposition leaders’ irresponsible and hypocritical position caused an unknown, but certainly considerable portion of Venezuelans to stay home yesterday. Further, the opposition’s inability to unify their candidacies has likely caused many supporters to become disenchanted.

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Fig.6: The percentage of Venezuelan’s registered to vote reached an all-time high of 55% in 2004.

While many refer to historically high abstention in yesterday’s regional elections, the truth is, unsurprisingly, slightly more complicated. It is true that abstention reached 55%, and it is also true that abstention rates in regional elections have never quite been that high (1989 is a close second with 54.4%). But it is also true that Venezuela’s electorate has expanded more rapidly, with respect to overall population growth, than at any other point over the last 25 years (fig.6).

When this information is taken into consideration, it is possible to consider absolute abstention as a percentage of total population. Such a figure removes the variable of the electorate, comparing instead the number of Venezuelans who did not vote with the overall population. The comparison reveals that highest abstention by this measure occurred in 1989 (25.7%), followed by 1995 (25.6%), with the 2004 rate (24.6%) coming in third (fig.7).

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Fig.7: Compared to overall population, abstention peaked in the 1989 regional elections.

Deepened Revolution

Addressing a crowd of followers from the Presidential palace upon winning the referendum, Chávez called for the "deepening" of the Bolivarian revolution. In the two months since, the concept has received a great deal of attention, though it is not yet clear exactly what this deepening will entail. Yet one thing clear to everyone, especially Chávez, upon speaking the words, was that any deepening of the Bolivarian process would in many ways be contingent upon a near-sweep in the regional elections. The first 5 years of his administration have been plagued by an opposition on the offensive that has not limited itself to legal means in seeking to oust Chávez. In many cases, these attempts have been facilitated at the regional level by governors and mayors in the opposition bloc.

A Chavista near-sweep in the regional elections will have another, even more crucial implication for the deepening of the revolution in Venezuela. With all but two states in friendly hands, Chávez is set to expand the popular social programs bringing free and accessible education and health, subsidized food, and employment training to the 80% of Venezuelans living in poverty. In general, the development of the government’s still incomplete economic and social strategies will be greatly accelerated by the cooperation of all three-or at least the top two-levels of government.

The CNE has promised to provide the final results by the end of the week. Several opposition leaders have refused to accept the results, and have produced their own versions allegedly "proving" their own victories. Violence is unlikely, but certainly possible, and the rebuilding for the 2006 Presidential elections now seems a distant dream for an opposition that has reached a new nadir. As the opposition licks its wounds, Chavismo is set to enter a new stage; the deepening of the revolution has begun, and the first step appears to have been a resounding success.

[1] Actually, they won 17 plus the Federal District, but the Metropolitan Mayor (Federal District) and the Governors of Bolívar and Anzoategui both joined the opposition shortly after winning on a Chavista platform.

[2] The state of Amazonas held elections in 2001 and, thus, did not participate at the gubernatorial level in the 2004 regional elections. The current governor of Amazonas is allied with Chávez’ government.