What are the Stakes in Venezuela’s Municipal Elections?

This 8 December Venezuelans will choose the mayors and local councillors for the country’s 335 municipalities, electing a total of 2,792 offices. Local elections in Venezuela are usually low profile affairs compared with presidential or parliamentary contests, enjoying less media attention and lower voter turnout. Yet in the context of Venezuela’s current difficult economic situation and the National Assembly handing President Nicolas Maduro decree powers to address this, the election results could have a significant impact on national politics, with some analysts even suggesting that the elections will be a “referendum” on the Maduro presidency. So what are the stakes for both Chavismo and the opposition, and is it accurate to see the upcoming elections as a type of “plebiscite” on the government?

The opposition’s plebiscitary campaign

The municipal elections come as Venezuela experiences one of the most difficult economic situations in several years. While the economy grew in the first half of 2013 and unemployment remains relatively low, the country currently faces shortages in several basic foodstuffs, annual inflation of 54%, and a value of the dollar on the black market worth almost ten times the official rate. The government argues this situation is the result of an “economic war” being waged by business sectors aligned with the conservative opposition, while the opposition claims that “government mismanagement” and interventionist economic policies are to blame.

The de facto leader of the opposition’s Democratic Unity Table coalition (MUD), Henrique Capriles, is campaigning hard to turn the municipal elections into a national plebiscite on the Maduro government. While the opposition may not be able to win a majority of the 335 mayoralties at stake (they currently hold 56), as their electoral support is mainly concentrated in big cities, they are focusing on trying to win more votes than the government overall.

The lesson seems to have been learned. In fact the opposition is now repeating Hugo Chavez’s electoral strategy by using Capriles as a central leader to raise the profile of local candidates, and encouraging turnout with a message that can appeal to both opposition voters and disaffected government supporters. However this campaign to exacerbate discontent has been criticised by some voices within the opposition as seeking to sharpen political polarisation, with Capriles using inflammatory discourse and purposeful mischaracterisation of the government to try and maximise the protest vote he seeks to generate.

Capriles has also changed his discourse toward the Venezuelan electoral system. While he still claims that the result in April’s presidential election was fraudulent, he now argues that the voting system itself accurately reflects votes cast, however that fraud was created by other “abuses” by electoral authorities and the government. Voting to protest against these “abuses” has thus become one more mechanism to galvanise opposition voters to turn out.

Doubts and divisionpackage of policies termed as an “economic offensive”, which includes the enforced sale of electronics and other goods at reduced “fair prices”, also seems to have electoral as well as economic ends. Author Gregory Wilpert has suggested that this policy could result in a "popularity boost" for the government ahead of the municipal elections.

One problem for the PSUV’s strategy could be discontent and rebel Chavista candidacies springing from the decision of the party’s leadership to abandon primary elections for the selection mayoral candidates. These candidacies were instead selected by consensus from within the leaderships of organisations belonging to the pro-government Great Patriotic Pole coalition, excluding the grassroots. However, with alternative Chavista mayoral candidates standing in around 20% of municipalities, the government appears to be entering the elections on a more united front than the opposition.