PSUV Seeks to Maintain a Majority in Venezuela’s Upcoming Legislative Elections
By Tara Brain
Office of the Simon Chair
On September 26, roughly 77 percent of Venezuelan voters are expected to cast their ballots for 165 spots on the National Assembly. Sunday’s vote will be the third such election for the national legislative body since the Venezuelan Constitution was redrafted in 1999. The ruling party, the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), seeks to maintain its two-thirds majority, yet some scholars point out that rampant crime, high inflation and falling popularity ratings for President Hugo Chávez mean the opposition’s prospects have never been better. While few are predicting the opposition will be able to turn the tables and steal the majority, most agree that, following Sunday’s vote, Venezuela will have a more combative legislature, something new for the Chávez government that is not accustomed to compromising with the Congress.
With his popularity ratings hovering at a seven year low, Chávez does have cause for concern. International media has reported soaring crime rates in the country, calling Caracas one of the deadliest cities in the world, with a staggering homicide rate of 200 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Opposition leaders have latched onto the theme, blaming the Chávez government for letting violence get out of hand. Venezuela’s faltering economy has also been taking the heat. GDP shrank by 3.5 percent during the first half of 2010 compared to the same period a year earlier. This follows a decline of slightly more than 3 percent in 2009. While the government set a goal of economic growth between 0.5 percent and one percent this year, many analysts are predicting the economy will continue to shrink. Inflation, hovering around 30 percent, is the highest in the region, and shows few signs of abatement. Furthermore, in 2009, a series of power outages in major cities forced the government to mandate rationing and raised questions about the upkeep of Venezuela’s energy grid, its state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), and the remainder of the country’s power infrastructure. Opposition leaders and other critics blame Chávez’s brand of “21st Century Socialism” for the country’s economic problems, as well as reduced consumer demand and stagnant investment. Strict foreign exchange controls that limit the amount of U.S. dollars available to businesses are also criticized for stifling growth.
The government has combated these criticisms, contending that current economic difficulties are the result of lower petroleum prices and the global recession, which has not only affected Venezuela but most countries around the world. Some scholars also call the attack on Chávez unfair, accusing mainstream media of running a campaign against the regime and presenting one-sided coverage that augments certain issues, such as crime and high inflation, while neglecting others. They maintain that the economy has grown considerably in the last decade and has only recently begun to struggle. In fact, between 2003 and 2008, Venezuela saw annual GDP gains fluctuate between 5 and 18 percent and reductions in inequality were the highest in the region, according to ECLAC. Furthermore, this was not solely due to redistribution policies but a strong labor market; poverty rates fell between 2003 and 2008, with at least 70 percent of the increase in income coming from the job market. In 2007, 57 percent of Venezuelans believed income distribution was very fair or fair, a response greater than in any other Latin American country.
Yet, as elections approach, these past achievements may be a distant memory to those struggling to stay afloat due to diminishing purchasing power and surging crime. However, while pollsters say the country is roughly divided between supporters of the PSUV and a coalition of the opposition, many fear that unfair campaign tactics and possible fraud on election day mean Chávez will maintain his parliamentary control. Critics have accused Chávez of gerrymandering, such that pro-Chavista candidates are heavily favored and some of the least populated areas of the country will have as many representatives as their more populated counterparts. Additionally, Chávez has been criticized for his use of the media during the campaign. In early September, an outcry arose after an electoral official accused the President and his allies of breaking campaign laws by using state-run media to berate rivals and praise friends. Opposition leaders claimed the move was in violation of legislative rules that prohibit elected officials from using their positions to promote candidacies. The law also bans the use of state media and funds in the campaign process. Chávez has been called out for airing long speeches on national TV and abusing a law that allows the President to seize control of TV and airwaves at will, a measure intended for cases of national emergency or major decisions affecting the country.
Opinion regarding possible fraud at the polls is divided. Some critics mention faulty voting booths and criticize the government for not allowing enough international observers into the country. While the National Electoral Council (CNE) did welcome 150 international observers and 60 political guests to take part in the observation, arrivals to the country were warned they must respect Venezuela’s sovereignty and not meddle in the country’s internal affairs. Furthermore, the CNE is believed to be stacked with Chávez supporters and, unlike during the parliamentary elections in 2005, delegations from the OAS, the EU and the Carter Center were not invited to observe the run-up to the election. Others, however, contend that while foul play has certainly taken place, it has occurred during the campaign and will not turn up at this weekend’s vote. In 2005, the opposition boycotted the legislative elections, saying the results could not be trusted. The government argues that this time around cries of fraud are sure to be made to delegitimize the results of the election even if Sunday’s proceedings are perfectly fair.
As election day approaches, it remains to be seen whether the party of President Hugo Chávez will be able to maintain its firm control over Congress. Faced with economic uncertainty and spiraling crime in Caracas, the opposition hopes that many Venezuelans that have voted for Chávez and the PSUV in the past will look will be willing to give them a fresh look.
Flickr photo by Globovision