The political grip enjoyed by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez has loosened a little after opposition parties made some significant gains in regional elections.
Five of the twenty two governorships up for grabs went to opposition candidates. Gains were especially strong in economically powerful and well-populated areas such as Carabobo, Zulia and Miranda.
The newly created United Socialist Party lost four of the five municipalities in the capital of Caracas, holding on to only the poorest section.
The results are being seen as an electoral step forward for the opposition, especially when compared to their performance in the previous regional poll. However, Chávez’s United Socialists maintain a strong majority, and will govern states made up of about two-thirds of the South American country’s population.
The National Assembly, which is on a different voting cycle, meanwhile remains overwhelming in the hands of government supporters.
Chávez himself did not participate in Sunday’s contest, he won a six-year term in 2006.
Inevitably, though, he was a dominant figure in the lengthy campaigns which were widely seen as a test-run for the United Socialists created to unify a number of organisations that support the self-styled Bolivarian revolutionary.
They faced an opposition much better organised than that of the last regional elections in 2004, which, fractured in the wake of a coup attempt.
In an increasingly political country where nightly discussions of socialism and capitalism are perhaps only outnumbered by those of baseball, passion for and against El Presidente triggered a record 65 per cent turnout.
Both sides claimed victory on Monday. The opposition celebrated their advances and the prospect that the socialist may have “lost the heart of the country,” in the words of pollster Luis Vicente Leon.
But Chávez saw his ability to maintain supporters in large majorities ten years into his rule as a mandate for his continued revolutionary project.
He said the outcome “ratifies the path for the construction of socialism”. And in a manner reminiscent of the night he lost the December 2007 vote on a proposed constitutional overhaul that would have abolished presidential term limits and introduced a radical participatory socialist democracy, he congratulated his opponents on their victory and praised his country’s democracy.
“Who can say there is a dictatorship in Venezuela? Well, maybe some will continue to say so,” he said.
Earlier this month, a poll of Latin American countries found Venezuelans most likely to say that voting is the best way to change things. But it also found them to be continually worried about crime.
Personal insecurity – routinely cited by citizens as the largest shortcoming of the government – has risen in the last ten years and made Caracas one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Despite high levels of support for the Chavez government’s policies, which have redistributed oil incomes to fund health, education and food-subsidy programs, many Venezuelans remain unsatisfied with some issues of day-to-day governance, such as crime, corruption, trash collection and emergency services.
The people up for election in regional contests were those that largely deal with these problems, and the opposition was able to make political capital scoring victories in key urban areas.
“The candidates in the metropolitan cities haven’t been able to provide for every need the people have. And there’s a lot of corruption, and things like that are always punished,” said Coromoto Jaraba Pineda, a supporter of the government who works at AvilaTV, a state-run and left-wing youth station in Caracas.
She said she can’t be sure of where the funding for her channel will now be coming from, since the mayor’s office of greater Caracas, its former patron, fell to the opposition on Sunday.
Overall, 2008 has seen key victories for the left in South America. In Bolivia, president Evo Morales handily won a recall referendum vote, the new constitutional referendum supported by Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa passed, and Paraguay inaugurated a new leftist president, former Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo.
Chávez is an ally of all of these leaders, as he is of most of the left-of-centre governments which now run most of South America.
And he looms large on the continent because of his power, popularity, outspoken style, and access to oil dollars.
Though current low oil prices are certainly a difficulty for Venezuela, there haven’t been signs of any immediate need to dip into the country’s sizable reserves. Barring another referendum, Chávez will leave office in 2012. But the blows to his movement of his exit and the moderate losses of this election may be balanced by the success of institutionalising his ideas into a party and by the democratic advances of sympathetic governments in South America.