When Venezuela’s leader, Hugo Chávez, won a clear victory in presidential elections in October, it was hardly surprising: The opposition had mounted its strongest campaign ever. But over the course of his 14 years in power, Mr. Chávez has remained widely popular and been re-elected on four separate occasions – no matter oil prices, world politics, or who is in charge in Washington.
Now, Venezuela is facing the very real possibility that Chávez, who is in Cuba recovering from surgery after being diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer, might have to step down. So the test came yesterday, in the form of regional elections for 23 governors.
Almost all the states during Sunday's election went with the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV). The results are viewed as a litmus test for a future presidential race, if Chávez can no longer run Venezuela. To many, it shows that Chavismo, as Chávez's political and social movement is called, is alive and well.
'Not just about Chávez'
In 23 state elections yesterday, 20 governorships were won by Chávez allies, while only three went to the opposition, which had previously held eight. Among the biggest losses were opposition stronghold and oil-rich Zulia state, and Tachira state.
Some have surmised that Chávez allies were voted in by Venezuelans as a message of sympathy and support for Chávez the man, but Maria Artiga, a homemaker in one of the poor neighborhoods of Caracas called Petare, says the results show that it’s not just about Chávez.
"Chávez has done so much in los barrios, people want a governor that represents him,” Ms. Artiga says. "I think some people are voting in part to support him while he recovers, but most are voting to support his political program."
The staying power of that political program could be tested very soon. If Chávez is unable to stand for his inauguration on Jan. 10, a new election will be called within 30 days. He has named Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his preferred candidate.
No member of Chávez’s party has the same kind of brand name or popularity as Chávez himself. Carmen Carreño, who works as a messenger for the government, says she supports Mr. Maduro but worries about life post- Chávez, noting levels of corruption among many within the PSUV, especially at the local level.
“If Chávez is around keeping an eye [on things,] things will stay the same,” Ms. Carreño says. “But without Chávez, things will change."
And in the context of a potential new presidential election, yesterday’s race was not an outright loss for the opposition. Maduro would most likely stand against Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chávez in the presidential race in October but crucially retained his position as governor of Miranda state during Sunday's election, boosting morale among his supporters. He beat Elias Jaua, a former vice president.
"I'm extremely happy we at least held on in Miranda. Capriles has now beat two vice presidents, with all the resources and advantages they have,” says Jorge Mellet, a leather salesman, who came to celebrate Capriles’s victory outside of his party headquarters in Caracas. The other vice president he's referring to is current National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.
However, Mr. Mellet adds, "certainly, losing Zulia and Táchira hurts, we have to revise and improve where we failed."
It is unclear how these regional elections would translate into a Maduro vs. Capriles stand-off, but analysts see an advantage for the PSUV.
“This is the first time in 14 years Chávez was not actively campaigning for candidates that support his cause,” says Mr. Tinker Salas. “There is a degree of institutionality that we have not seen previously.... The PSUV has sunk enough roots at the regional level that they now have a party apparatus.”
Christopher Sabatini, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly in New York, also says that the results will favor the PSUV in a national election scenario because of the resources that states in PSUV control now wield. “It gives the PSUV a tremendous amount of political machinery and state access for when a presidential election comes again,” Mr. Sabatini says, in terms of “patronage and ‘get out the vote’ campaigns.”
Others are less clear about what Sunday’s race says for the future of Chavismo.
Eloy Torres, a political analyst at Santa María University in Caracas and a former PSUV administrative diplomat in Cuba and Russia, says he didn’t see a “show of force” by the PSUV because of high abstention rates. Yesterday's election saw about 54 percent of eligible voters turn out to vote, compared with 80 percent for presidential elections in October. This lack of turnout occurred, he says, despite government handouts and vast resources used to help encourage voters.
"This movement is increasingly losing influence” Mr. Torres says. “The abstention from yesterday shows that."