The Winners and Losers of Cohabitation

The 2021 regional elections in Venezuela confirmed disaffection and the weakening of political identities. But the elections also revealed a new landscape, still dominated by chavismo but especially by the need of a normal life

Photo: Hector Rodríguez via Twitter

We expected the regional election to be an important victory for chavismo, which had almost everything in their favor to win a majority of councils, municipalities and states. Their voter mobilization efforts and coercion tactics dwarf the weakened opposition’s electoral machinery. Furthermore, PSUV controls the local CNE offices, has ample funding from State coffers—even in a post-oil boom, sanctioned economy—controls state media, and has many levers to pull to get regional media outlets in line, which are vulnerable to the influence of local powers.

So that PSUV won 20 of 23 governorships (although Barinas and Apure aren’t clear at this moment) is no surprise. The first reading is that division within the opposition and turnout must have played to the ruling party’s favor. The capital region had very little turnout, consistently with the political depression it’s suffering, but in national tems, and taking into account that the electoral registry still includes hundreds of thousands of voters who are living abroad, the turnout of at least 40% (we have no definitive figures at this time) is high, given the historical participation in regional elections and the unwillingness or inability to vote among many people, from all political loyalties.

A closer look allows us to see that the opposition (or what looks like it) won about 80 out of more than 300 mayorships, and especially some key findings about how things are changing, and can continue to change.

Identity politics gives way to the search for a new normal

Most Venezuelans have been dreaming of a peaceful, predictable life for a long time, during the non-stop conflict and mobilization of the energetic years when Chávez built his kingdom, between 1999 and 2009; the protest waves between 2014 and 2017; and the hunger and blackouts of 2018 and 2019. Identity politics (“I’m chavista and revolucionario” or “I’m in the opposition”) kept determining voting during those years, but now that the caretaker government experiment proved ineffective and a hoped-for democratic restoration vanished from the horizon, we’re seeing how voting is being driven more by that old desire of a normal life in a society more aware of the difficulties and costs of emigration, and more determined to try to survive in Venezuela. Few people are voting, but those who do vote, aren’t voting so much in terms of political identity, but in terms of favoring those candidates who seem more capable of providing that normal life.  

The need for purchasing power and a functioning country is so strong that it explains both the height of chavista popularity and its collapse. During the oil bonanza, chavismo enjoyed its best days by providing some of that normalcy, via consumption and public works (that ended up unfinished in many cases). In contrast, the collapse of public spending—and of public services—since 2013, led Maduro to meet a collective unrest that Chávez never experienced. 

Now, the relative and deeply unequal economic recovery is producing a miniaturized version of that normal life Venezuelans aspire to, with bodegones, some clean streets, some fresh paint on walls and sidewalks, some working lamp posts. This is why people from the opposition voted for protector Freddy Bernal in Táchira and sitting governor Rafael Lacava in Carabobo. Both ran for office with PSUV but are pushing “independent” platforms— because they managed to be associated with minimal management, fewer shortages, order. The big problems in Carabobo remain unsolved, but it seems Lacava’s social media popularity and cosmetic public works were more than enough to get him re-elected with twice the votes of his closest competitor, Enzo Scarano. 

Two other cases confirm the relevance of the impact of the suffering of rationing and chaos. Zulianos voted en masse against Omar Prieto, the governor imposed by Maduro who let the city burn in the looting that followed the blackout of March 2019. And in Margarita, people punished Dante Rivas, the protector who (contrary to Bernal) was associated with the mess in power rationing and the chaotic supply of water and cooking gas.   

After watching many opposition candidates’ behavior and messages in this campaign, it’s hard to think they’re giving serious thought to how to get voters to trust them again. But it’s also (sadly) true that voters appear to be favoring charismatic leaders such as Rafael Lacava. So maybe the opposition mustn’t be a good, modern, democratic force to compete in the new environment. Maybe they just need to be as agile as chavismo is, within their limited possibilities.

What can we call ‘opposition’? 

At this moment, it looks like the opposition won the gubernatorial election in three states. In Nueva Esparta, Morel Rodríguez won his fifth non-consecutive term as governor with another alliance, which involved parties related to “Operación Alacrán” and Fuerza Vecinal, the party that shattered unity in Miranda and made the victory of PSUV and Hector Rodríguez easier. The same seems to have happened in Cojedes, won by another former governor, José Alberto Galindez. In Zulia, Manuel Rosales won for the third time. Rosales was allowed to come back from exile and lead a party determined to keep negotiating and taking part in all elections, Un Nuevo Tiempo. And all three are former members of the other G4 party that supported UNT in this agenda: Acción Democratica (AD). 

So the label “opposition” needs a new meaning. What’s the opposition? Something that doesn’t play under the current rules and doesn’t participate at all? Or is the opposition anything outside of PSUV? What does it mean “to oppose” now, when you have people like pastor Javier Bertucci, who criticizes the government but everybody knows he works for it?

This question doesn’t have a single answer, even if the public opinion (you can see it on social media and in the votes) is already deciding and canceling people tied to MUD, for example. 

Is a ‘third way’ coming?

In previous years, Henri Falcón was trying to build a third way. He was defeated in the presidential, fraudulent election of 2018 and was defeated yesterday in Lara, where he had been a popular mayor and governor.

Now, the brand new party Fuerza Vecinal is something to watch. David Uzcátegui had 300,000 votes for governor in Miranda. FV helped candidates win in Nueva Esparta, and supported the Morel Rodríguez-linked candidates for the two richest municipalities, Mariño and Maneiro. They also held the mayor offices of Baruta, Chacao and El Hatillo, in eastern Caracas and Lechería, in Anzoátegui. All these municipalities are prosperity clusters, the landscapes of the constellation of economic bubbles of the Pax Bodegónica, to use the brilliant term coined by Guillermo Aveledo Coll

Now, it’s easy to imagine Fuerza Vecinal joining forces with AD and Un Nuevo Tiempo to form the this “third way” we can conceive in Venezuela at this moment: non-ideological, non-tribal, pragmatic, focused not on the abstract, vague dream of restoring democracy that fades away with the end of the caretaker government story, but on taking part on every election no matter how unfair electoral conditions are—under the oft-repeated mantra of “It’s time to go back to politics”—and campaign on the hope of economic recovery and normalization. Exactly what (part of) chavismo wants too. 

We could even imagine that, in the future, people from chavismo join this coalition to gather the interest of financers, voters, and big players around a new horizon that is neither the Marxist chavista project of a communal state nor the opposition dream of democratic restoration.

What’ll Happen with PJ and VP?

Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular were the parties more involved in the protest, in the caretaker government. They have been widely persecuted, with members pushed to exile or in jail, and party symbols are now in control of former members and traitors to their party like Luis Parra and Jose Brito. They carry the burden of the Monómeros and Citgo issues, of the failure of the caretaker government. 

Which future do they have ahead?

They could try now to lead the exile, those millions of Venezuelans of different socioeconomic origins that in some noisy cases tend to radicalize to the right, but who are unable to vote in Venezuela. Leopoldo López, Julio Borges and Carlos Vecchio (and who knows if Juan Guaidó and Freddy Guevara, too) could try to compete against María Corina Machado and Antonio Ledezma for a sort of spiritual guidance of those enraged Venezuelans who think that voting yesterday was an act of treason. So, is VP the embryo, from Madrid, Miami, and Washington, of a Venezuelan version of the Cuban exile?

Time will tell. It’s really hard to imagine a Venezuelan political force built on people who can’t vote in Venezuela and who will be connected through social media. Meanwhile, some opposition leaders will likely consider themselves winners even with the opposition losing key races. Henrique Capriles will use this election to relaunch his plan of a return to electoral politics for the opposition and try again for a recall referendum against Maduro, which he sees as the ideal platform to stake his claim as leader of the opposition—again. Manuel Rosales —returning as governor of Zulia— could catapult himself back into the top ranks of the opposition, not because he has many supporters within the opposition as a whole, but simply because someone has to fill that vacuum at the top. Other candidates who took the chance of this supposed “third way” between hardline chavismo and hardline opposition might emerge with a bit more influence, if only as kingmakers in state and municipal councils.

How could we describe the new political landscape in Venezuela?

We are talking about cohabitation, according to the rules established by the chavista hegemony. A new political map that follows the fait accompli that the 2019 “Cese de la usurpación” strategy has been defeated, where PSUV is almost the center of a single-party political system. 

That “almost” is a dark spot to explore. Why is chavismo still courting voters for regional elections, if the communal state is in the works and, with it, the chance of wiping out governorships and mayorships? We wonder why protectors, which are Miraflores-appointed governors-in-all-but-name in states where opposition governors won last time, such as Freddy Bernal in Táchira and Dante Rivas in Nueva Esparta, both running for the actual governor’s office, needed the post after enjoying unfettered and unelected power. Maybe chavismo is not fully in control. Not yet. There are cracks in the regime, which makes people like Capriles think it still makes sense to keep working to regroup and relaunch a political, electoral offensive with a reformed opposition. Is that even possible? 

Chavismo needed the opposition to at least win a few races, as much as Capriles needed some wins to hang his hat on to push the opposition in his preferred direction. As much as the regime would like the opposition to simply disappear, they needed at least a hint of an opposition revival—with chavismo showing themselves respectful of electoral results—to have a hope of getting sanction relief in the near future, during the likely return to the negotiation table in Mexico.  

The results of this regional election, under the eyes of international observers, will have to suffice for those respective agendas. In any case, these elections will no doubt have an in the likely reshuffle inside the government and the opposition.

These elections were important for the normalization process, particularly with European countries, which Russia has been lobbying for a thawing of relationships with Maduro. Having the opposition participate in the election and allowing some opposition victories will, in the eyes of PSUV leadership, help project legitimacy abroad and show that opposition votes are recognized and validated through elections. The regime hopes this validation of opposition votes is precisely what many European countries need to see before considering relaxing or lifting sanctions, the main preoccupation for the regime.

In the full report, you’ll find information on what’s going behind the curtains of the Venezuelan political struggle. You can subscribe to the PRR here.