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Venezuela: Democracy continues to thrive


NewsNotes, January-February 2009

Despite the New York Times’ portrayal as a “stinging defeat,” the regional elections in Venezuela on November 23 showed that President Chavez and his PSUV party continue to hold the favor of the majority of the population. A recently released report from Latinobarometro, a well-respected polling organization, shows that among Latin Americans, Venezuelans continue to be some of the most satisfied with the functioning of their democracy. It is becoming obvious to more and more observers that the Chavez government is far more democratic than it is portrayed to be by much of the mainstream media. The 2008 election was the 11th since Chavez’ election in 1998, as contrasted to only 15 national elections and referenda in the previous 40 years.

Turnout in the regional election was a record-setting 65.5 percent, the result of an intensive voter registration campaign that has increased registered voters by 64 percent since 1998. Additionally, the opposition did not boycott the elections as in 2004. Chavez’s PSUV party and its allies won 17 of 22 governor races (an increase of two) and 80 percent of the mayoral races. In the five states where opposition governors won, PSUV and allies still control the majority of city governments. In addition to taking a large majority of positions, the PSUV and allies won their races by far wider margins than oppositional parties. Opposition candidates won by margins of just 10 percentage points or less in four of those states (as low as 1.3 percent in Tachira and three percent in Carabobo), and won by 15 percentage points in the fifth state (Nueva Esparta). In contrast, candidates supporting the government won by roughly 50 percentage points in two states, 30 percentage points in five states, 20 percentage points in four states, and five to 10 percent in six more states.

In Caracas, mayoral opposition candidate Antonio Ledezma won with a strong 52.4 percent of the vote. Yet even here, PSUV candidate Jorge Rodriguez won the mayoral vote in Libertador, the largest district in Caracas and home to two thirds of the city’s population (1.7 million), by over 12 percentage points.

This was the first election since the system underwent significant improvements aimed at increasing voter turnout, such as a greater number of voting stations in poor neighborhoods, and was the first time that laws requiring gender balance in candidates were in force. While in 2005, almost 27 percent of candidates were women (an increase from less than 11 percent in 2000 and better than most of Latin America), new election rules mandate that all political parties have an equal number of male and female candidates. Additionally, they must list them in an alternating fashion so that women are not placed at the end which minimizes their chances of being elected. As a result, the list of candidates was 49.75 percent female and 50.25 percent male, in contrast to the 2004 regional elections where 82 percent of the candidates were men.

Despite reports from U.S. news sources, most Venezuelans feel like their country has never been so democratic. The polling group Latinobarometro’s 2008 report shows tremendous support for democracy among the Venezuelan people. Eighty percent of Venezuelans said that the most effective way to bring about change is “to vote for those who defend my positions.” This was by far the highest percentage in Latin America, where an average of 59 percent of the population agrees that voting can effect change. In 1998, before Chavez was first elected, 37 percent of Latin Americans were satisfied with democracy as a way to achieve social change, with only 35 percent of Venezuelans agreeing.

While Venezuelan democracy is not perfect, ample evidence shows that Venezuelans support the idea of democracy and its implementation in their country. In almost every question regarding democracy in the Latinobarometro report, Venezuelans were in the top half of Latin American countries in terms of satisfaction, many times in the top four. While this is true, Chavez should take notice that only 48 percent approve of his government, compared to 52 percent of Latin Americans. While these numbers may indicate that the Chavez government needs to improve public safety, which was the top issue for most Venezuelans in this election, they in no way indicate that his government is a dictatorship in any way as some in the mainstream media persist in claiming.

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