The next five months are absolutely critical for President Hugo Chavez and for the political opposition.
The opposition represented by the Unitary Democratic Table (MUD, in Spanish) is banking on winning a significant share of the 165 seats in play in the 26 September National Assembly elections. This is the opposition’s best opportunity since the 2005 legislative elections that were boycotted by the opposition, handing Chavez total control of the National Assembly.
The opposition has five months to develop and mass-market a message that appeals to a majority of voters, especially those who already may be thinking of abstaining altogether because they dislike Chavez and the opposition equally.
An effective message with broad popular appeal is vitally important because most of the candidates fielded by MUD are not “fresh” figures with exciting ideas and proposals.
However, as someone remarked to Caracas Gringo this week, “They’re all we have going for us right now, so we have to overlook some of MUD’s obvious shortcomings – like too many of the usual suspects and way too few new faces – and do our best to make voters understand that the worst outcome would be Chavez retaining control of the legislature for another five years.”
Hay que arroparse hasta donde alcance la cobija, our friend added. So true.
Chavez has used his control of the National Assembly since the 2005 elections to force-march Venezuela towards a Cuban-style autocratic regime with himself as president-for-life.
But President Chavez is conscious that September’s elections represent major challenges and risks for his one-man regime disguised as a people’s revolution. Chavez says that he is the Venezuelan state; that he alone controls the three branches of government – executive, legislature and judiciary.
But if Chavez loses total control of the National Assembly, it means that cracks would open in his total control of Venezuela’s institutions of government. Chavez cannot – will not – allow this to happen.
Chavez has said repeatedly since January 2010 that the PSUV must win at least two-thirds of the legislature. Regime thugs like former Libertador District Mayor Freddy Bernal warned a week ago that “all our heads” are at risk in the upcoming elections.
But from Chavez’s perspective, it is impossible for his revolution to hold elections and lose a third – 54 seats – of the National Assembly.
This means that Chavez must (a) sweep the elections, (b) rig the outcome in his favor, or (c) create a national emergency of such magnitude that he is “justified” in suspending the elections.
What are the odds that A, B or C could happen?
Chavez wants his followers and opponents to believe he remains firmly in control, hence actions like the recent 40% wage hike for the armed forces, and the recent “march” of 35,000 Bolivarian people’s militia brandishing FAL assault rifles sans live ammunition.
In Brazil last week, Chavez also said that in Venezuela currently there is no thought of a presidential succession. “The Constitution and the will of the people” want Chavez to remain in power indefinitely, he indicated.
Recent agreements signed with Moscow and China also fall under the category of calculated initiatives aimed at showing that President Chavez remains very much in control of Venezuela, and has powerful friends internationally who support his revolution.
Beijing is doing what it can to help Chavez retain control of the legislature, and give his regime a much-needed boost. A large chunk of China’s $20 billion loan to the Chavez regime, half in US dollars and half in Chinese yuan, likely will be spent in the coming five months. The loan from China also gives Chavez some leverage to divert funds within his regime towards campaign spending aimed at boosting the PSUV candidates.
Beijing is banking on Chavez staying in power indefinitely because it guarantees Chinese companies incremental access to Venezuela’s crude oil and gas resources. Since 2005, Caracas and Beijing have signed dozens of energy agreements that are worth over $75 billion on paper, including up to three joint ventures to produce/upgrade extra-heavy crude in the Orinoco oil belt, up to four refineries in China and a fifth refinery in Venezuela, an international shipping company to transport Venezuelan oil to China, oil services and technology ventures, and more.
If Chavez loses power between 2010 and 2012, the prospects in Venezuela for Chinese oil companies could dim considerably. If Chavez loses control of the National Assembly, it would be a major setback for Beijing’s long-term strategic plan to gain expanding access to Venezuela’s energy resources.
It’s doubtful that Chavez can sweep the National Assembly without pulling levers behind closed doors in the CNE, Supreme Court and AG’s office. In effect, the odds that Chavez can win hugely in free and fair elections appear to be uncertain at best, which significantly raises the odds of his cheating. However, Chavez still has five months and vast resources in hand (compared to the opposition) that could influence the outcome.
But it appears that Venezuela’s deepening crisis is reaching a point where even President Chavez no longer may effectively control the entire panoply of internal political conflicts, competing interests and structural issues that make up the national “entorno.”
Or, alternatively, is it possible that Chavez is deliberately stoking a free-for-all in Venezuela so that, in the resulting chaos, he can find an excuse to suspend September’s elections?
If Chavez is stoking chaos deliberately, he is also increasing the risk of being the target of potentially violent blowback from unexpected directions.
Chavez has picked countless political fights at home and abroad during his reign and by some estimates has set back Venezuela’s socio-economic development by at least 25 years, if not longer.
The list of individuals and other “institutional actors” who would like to see Chavez swept into oblivion is so long that the odds of his being targeted for random hits from unexpected directions probably have never been greater than they are today. But it’s going to get worse in coming months.
The national climate is becoming more chaotic. The country’s multiple crises – electricity, water, basic industries, collapsing oil and other strategic infrastructure, food shortages, inflation, unemployment, insecurity – will not ease in coming months (although Beijing may be hoping that its $20 billion loan will Chavez muddle through until order is restored).