Venezuelan elections 2008 and their implications for the participatory project

The 2008 regional elections in Venezuela have received significant coverage globally. Mainstream reporting has repeatedly asserted that the elections are seen as "a critical test for Mr Chávez"[1]. However the explanation of this "importance" specifically in regards to Bolivarian participatory project and its relationship with representative democratic procedure is generally lacking. This means that little can be made of the effect that the significant opposition victories and yet solid PSUV win in the popular vote will have. What will be the relationship between municipal government and participatory projects in this new climate? Indeed what is the relationship between elections for municipal government and more participatory processes?
Municipal elections are uniquely important to the Bolivarian project. Representative institutions such as mayoralties currently co-exist with between 20,000 and 30,000 community councils[2] (depending on inclusion of those in formation) found in Venezuela and their corresponding higher participatory institutions, the Local Councils of Public Planning. These form an integral part of the Venezuelan process as central government and the population at large seek to create the "participatory" and popularly "protagonistic" state envisioned in the constitution.[3] It is in this context that the elections must be analysed.
This co-existence creates opportunities for great cooperation between communities and their elected officials concerning power in local governance, as seen in Torres Municipality, Lara, where Mayor Julio Chávez and the communities convoked a constituent assembly and transferred power over 100% of the municipal budget to the community councils.
As James Petras notes[4] the continuation and increase of this cooperation is vital given the inept and often corrupt nature of the state in a context of falling oil prices, as reserves can only provide a temporary cushion against the effects of the ongoing global financial crisis. Such cooperation also holds out the prospect of an effective strategy to combat soaring homicide rates in urban centres via police force and community coordination, though admittedly this has been much discussed in Venezuela and rarely effectively or comprehensively implemented. Likewise, however, the co-existence of these institutions creates opportunity for conflict as mayors resist the demands of their communities directly[5], or through obstruction of higher participatory institutions[6].
The reasons for such obstruction may vary widely, but chiefly stem from the instinct of institutional self-preservation. Quite simply transfer of resources and power to communities does, generally speaking, imply a loss of resources and power for mayors.
It is in this context that we must analyse the results. The clear victory of the PSUV in the popular vote, victory in 81% of mayoralties (even winning six of eleven mayoralties in the conservative bastion of Nueva Esparta), and rapid growth in the numbers of communal councils since the 2006 law seem to ratify the ideological vision and indicates increasing pressure for power transfer to communities.
Yet all too often PSUV mayors themselves have failed to precipitate this the transfer of power, which was often an important reason for their original electoral success. Carlos Leon’s term in Municipio Libertador Merida for example was neatly summed up by a rival candidate as the hosting of "the bull fights, the parties, the drunken festivities" and a complete failure to carry forward a participatory agenda[7]. This is indicative of a failure in the democratic processes internal to the PSUV, that candidates have won primaries without adhering to popular priorities or party ideology, a failure worrying in its own right. Furthermore, when combined with victory of other parties in 62 mayoralties, mostly less ideologically committed to popular participation, in a context of rising pressure and clear demands for further transfer it means the number of municipalities tending to conflict will most likely increase.
As such conflicts become more common we can expect the expansion of institutions such as the Local Presidential Commission for Popular Power as the national executive tries to overcome resistance from newly elected mayors in the face of their communities. We can also expect new legislative initiatives in this theatre of conflict comprised of communities and the highest political institutions on one side, and an obstructive local government on the other. Along with these expectations we can hope that such conflicts will precipitate further democratization of the PSUV’s internal mechanics, as the party’s leadership relies on and empowers its activist base to ensure future fulfilment of a participatory agenda.
Given the importance of these elections to this central tenet of Bolivarian ideology, itself perhaps opposed to the existence of these municipal representative institutions, one may have worried about the fairness and freedom of the electoral process.
One may also worry upon hearing a common sentiment in the Venezuelan participatory initiatives, neatly summed up by Marlene Moreno when she told me "Well yes, we want to have a better one (system of government), overcome the system that is always the same, the same, the same, that is repetitive, we only want to do something new and something for the community" and that this is why her community is forming a council.
In light of the combination of political importance, potential ideological opposition and widespread exasperation with municipal representative institutions, such worries in fact appear justified.
However not only Chávez calm acceptance of the results, but the manner in which the elections were conducted should help reassure many that a free and fair procedure of representative elections is not being sacrificed at the alter of popular participation. Though at 4pm election day leaders from the opposition claimed "generalised fraud" as a number of polling stations stayed open after the closing time such claims can be safely disregarded, Venezuelan law requires that polling booths remain open until all have had the chance to vote; the OAS Secretary General Jóse Miguel Insulza deemed the elections "peaceful and exemplary". In addition the high turnout reveals that despite popular sentiments of exasperation with local government and its failings in terms of rubbish collection and rising crime rates, the institutions are still seen as important, if not always effective.
As a monitor stationed in ward 8, Municipio Libertador in Merida, I saw first hand that despite the intense competition for the mayoralty voting was both orderly and rapid. All but one of the voter’s I spoke described the election as calm, and completed the process from queue to exit in under an hour. This is quite a feat in a developing country where each citizen had to place 5 votes (one for state governor, one for mayor, and three for the state legislators), in a largely new electronic voting system which also creates a paper vote receipt, and where each voter is then marked with indelible ink. I only observed one instance of disorder in the neighbouring ward where blows were exchanged as members of the PSUV tried to stop the illegal distribution of election material at the gates of a polling station and illegal conduction of exit polls before those asked had voted. The police arrived rapidly and dispersed both the groups.
These elections do not serve to prove the possible co-existence of participatory and representative institutions, as the current Venezuelan situation cannot be said to be a state of equilibrium. Yet they do seem to suggest that a population generally enthused about the creation of a participatory society does not see this as in conflict with the electoral procedures of representative institutions. As one voter, Ermina Rivas Rangel told me, "the movement is going a bit slowly, but truly we are using the legal process". Whether such a conflict must exist between the participatory initiative and those institutions themselves will continue to be explored in the coming year.
As such, despite the high stakes of the election it seems that the procedures of representative democracy in Venezuela remain firmly uncompromised. Though vigilance is clearly vital where such procedures are concerned, putting this debate behind us for the time being will enable better analysis of the effects of the result, particularly how the changed map of Venezuelan power will interact with the participatory elements of Bolivarian ideology, given the widespread popularity of the community councils among almost all sectors of Venezuelan society[8] and the situational importance of the councils in the current context. For those interested in the promotion and deepening of democracy, this is clearly a priority.

[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7745165.stm
[3] See articles 62 and 70 in particular
[4] http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3986
[6] Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, pg 56-59 – Gregory Wilpert
[7] http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3971
[8] the anatomy of such support is to my knowledge under researched, though it is likely reflected in the unusually high levels of support for and satisfaction with democracy found in Venezuela by Latinobarometro, see http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3975

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