Chávez: A Mixed Victory in Venezuela Elections

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Jorge Silva / Reuters

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez

The regional voting in Venezuela on Sunday was ostensibly about gubernatorial and mayoral contests. But for the past decade, every election held in the Western hemisphere's richest oil nation has boiled down to one thing — a referendum on left-wing President Hugo Chávez. The balloting this time was no different. The bottom line: Did Chávez's party win big enough for him to rebound from a stunning defeat in last year's constitutional plebiscite? That vote reaffirmed the presidential term limits that Chávez had hoped to eliminate — and he needed a huge win this time around if he wanted to convince Venezuelans to give him another shot at it.

Chávez's United Socialist Party (PSUV) did pick up 17 of 22 state governorships, including Chávez's home state of Barinas, on Venezuela's poor llanos, or plains, where the president's brother Adan held off a strong challenge from a breakaway Chávista candidate. The PSUV also took about two-thirds of the total national vote and kept the opposition from winning the seven or eight states it needed to stun Chávez. If the radical, anti-U.S. firebrand showed anything, it's that his red-beret power and popularity are relatively intact.

Still, though Chávez crowed that his country was back on "the road to socialism," Venezuela isn't quite "dressed all in red" this week. Until the vote, the opposition had held only two governor seats. Of the five it won Sunday, three control some of the nation's largest population centers, including western Zulia state, the heart of Venezuelan oil production and home to the country's second largest city, Maracaibo. Perhaps worse for Chávez, the socialists lost the mayor's seat in the largest city, Caracas, the nation's capital — even after Chávez's government had successfully engineered the disqualification of the most popular opposition candidate in that race, Leopoldo López, on murky corruption charges.

So it seems doubtful that Chávez, whose second and final six-year term ends in 2012, emerged with sufficient palanca, or leverage, to again seek a constitutional amendment that would allow him to be re-elected indefinitely, without risking a dangerous national uproar. Critics see his effort to nix term limits as a veiled bid for a Castro-style dictatorship — and even supporters suggest that with oil prices plummeting, battering an economy already hit hard by inflation, Chávez should set other priorities. What's more, now that the U.S. is about to replace Chávez's archenemy, George W. Bush, with Barack Obama, it will be harder for Chávez to whip up the kind of anti-yanqui bile that has so often paid him political dividends at home.

In Caracas, for example, Chávez has poured billions of dollars from his petro windfalls into admirable social projects for the long-neglected barrios. Yet those slums are reminders of his failure to stem plagues like violent crime (Caracas has about 40 murders a weekend), corruption and insufficient garbage collection. "It should make Chávez realize that instead of traveling the globe promoting socialism, he needs to address basic issues back home," says Chávez biographer Bart Jones, author of Hugo!

At the same time, Chávez's feckless foes should realize that they're still weak enough for El Comandante to consider the constitutional issue a still viable option. Chávez, a former army paratrooper officer who led a failed coup attempt in 1992 before winning the presidency in the 1998 election (and a special race in 2000 under a rewritten constitution), has benefited greatly from a dysfunctional opposition led largely by leftovers from the old guard that pilfered Venezuela's oil wealth and left more than half the population in poverty; it thwarted Chávez last year only because a more politically adroit cohort of university students led the anti-amendment movement. Even for Sunday's contests, opposition parties struggled to unite behind single candidates and often failed to offer any useful platform apart from demonizing Chávez.

Manuel Rosales, who captured the Maracaibo mayoral post amid threats by Chávez to have him arrested for allegedly plotting the President's assassination (a charge Chávez often hurls against his critics), said, "The map of Venezuela has started to change." Maybe. But Chávez and the opposition did make Venezuela seem a bit less angrily polarized. Caracas mayor-elect Antonio Ledezma reached out to work with Chavez — a gesture that would make any reported attempts by Chávez to cut off budget resources to opposition victors look petty.

And while Chávez isn't set to loosen his heavy-handed control of Venezuela's legislature and judiciary — as witnessed by the scores of opposition candidates who, like López, were peremptorily disqualified from running — his acceptance of Sunday's results preserved his democratic bona fides. "Aside from his party winning big," says Jones, "he showed that the evil-dictator image is still overblown." After Sunday, it seems, Chávez can best keep things that way by turning ahead to problems that need to be tackled next year, instead of back to matters that voters already decided last year.

— With reporting by Virginia Lopez / Caracas

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