Venezuela election checks power of Hugo Chávez

The Venezuela election on Sunday saw the political opposition gain more than one-third of seats in legislature, enough to stymie Hugo Chávez's future initiatives.

Leonardo Ramirez/AP Photo
Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez casts his ballot during legislative elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Sept. 26.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez may have to learn to negotiate with opposition parties that he recently pledged to "pulverize." Sunday's elections saw his political opponents win more than 50 percent of the popular vote and more than one-third of seats in the country's legislature.

"The legislature can now can begin to debate," said Miguel Octavio, who writes the anti-Chávez blog "The Devil's Excrement," after the initial results were released at 2 a.m. "They can't approve anything important without opposition votes."

Since opposition parties boycotted the last elections, in 2005, the 165-seat legislature has been controlled by lawmakers friendly to Mr. Chávez, most of whom joined the new United Socialist Party, or PSUV. PSUV deputies gave Chávez the green light to eliminate presidential term limits, create citizen militias, nationalize entire industries, and exchange oil for Cuban expertise.

Chávez as recently as Sunday said the PSUV should "accelerate the crushing and demolition" of the opposition, and set a goal of keeping two-thirds of the legislature in friendly hands to keep the opposition from blocking appointments of top officials and opening investigations.

Failure to reach that threshold did not stop Chávez from claiming victory, however. "We've obtained a solid victory," Chávez wrote early Monday morning on Twitter. "We must keep strengthening the revolution. A new victory of the people. I congratulate everyone."

Both sides have called for the country to accept the results, and the capital of Caracas was tranquil Monday as citizens commuted to work.

The opposition got 52 percent of the popular vote, Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, head of the opposition campaign, said in a televised press conference. PSUV candidates won at least 58 percent of the legislature – or 90 seats – because of the way election rules distributed the seats. Such rules don't apply in the 2012 presidential election, meaning that the PSUV will need more votes to keep power.

For the fractured opposition, gaining a minority of the seats is part of a years-long process of recovery. Venezuela was a two-party state for 50 years until 1998, when Chávez, a former tank commander and coup leader, won the presidency. The new movements that swept him to power left the old parties with little support, and those who opposed Chávez's politics resorted to strikes, a coup d'état, a recall referendum, and the 2005 boycott.

The opposition made its first comeback in 2007, when Chávez tried to overhaul the Constitution with 69 changes that included vague language widely seen as a step toward Cuban-style communism. The next year, Chávez's PSUV lost some jurisdictions, including the mayor's office in the capital, Caracas.

The PSUV, which was formed out of several parties that supported Chávez, has pioneered the use of internal primaries, rather than back-room deals, to select candidates. This year, several opposition parties followed the PSUV's lead, became a unified front, and held primaries for some races.

While the opposition won at least 61 seats and will now have a foothold on power, both sides say Chávez will continue with his political project, which he calls "Bolivarian socialism." He supports majority state control of major industries and aims to reduce US power by using oil to solidify alliances with other countries such as China, Belarus, and Cuba.

"Chávez will keep going the same," political blogger Mr. Octavio says. "He's not used to discussing." He says the increased opposition presence will drive Chávez to move more spending off of the formal budget.

"It's how Chávez works. He has a victory, then ratchets up," Richard Gott, who wrote "Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution," told the Monitor before results were announced. "We're now moving toward 2012, so he's now likely to be full of fresh ideas" and will probably seek to expand housing construction.

Chávez has two months to implement his agenda without interference from new lawmakers, as the existing PSUV-dominated legislature remains in session until Dec. 15. He and the legislature may hand some of the assembly's powers to presidential appointees, just as they took power away from opposition mayors and governors following PSUV losses in 2008.

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