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Venezuela Update: Gubernatorial Elections Preview and Cabinet Changes

President Hugo Chávez shuffled his cabinet and appointed a new vice president in early October. (Image: Chávez Candanga)

October 24, 2012

After defeating a rejuvenated opposition by 11 points in the October 7 presidential election, President Hugo Chávez begins a new six-year term in January following nearly 14 years in power. However, he won by his narrowest margin ever; the opposition gained 2.2 million more votes in this year’s election than in 2006. In fact, the opposition vote share grew from 37 percent to 44 percent since the 2006 election. Nevertheless, Chávez aims to further consolidate his administration by electing members of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to state posts during the gubernatorial elections on December 16. Meanwhile, Henrique Capriles of the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD) hopes to recover from his election loss by recapturing Miranda state’s governorship. As such, the gubernatorial elections may prove crucial for the opposition.

The Opposition’s Outlook

Disappointment among the opposition followed Chávez’s win. Polls had signaled that due to factors such as Chávez’s health and his limited campaigning, Capriles had a solid chance of winning the election. Following the defeat, the opposition will have to work to remain united. The New York Times reported after the October 7 election that “strains were visible” among the opposition as some members of the coalition said the Capriles campaign had shut them out.

On the road to the December election, the opposition must mobilize its constituents once again to participate in the election, a challenging race given that traditionally opposition-majority states like Miranda and Zulia voted in favor of Chávez in October. The opposition also hopes to defend political rights. As expressed by opposition Deputy Maria Corina Machado, the opposition must not only organize its supporters, but also promote the defense of rights such as private property and the right to protest against the electoral authority. This body, called the National Electoral Council (CNE), did not question how the use of state resources in the president’s campaign created an unlevel playing field during the October elections. Electoral experts and civil society organizations have requested the CNE provide the citizen verification certificates—the only instrument available to validate that the electoral results corresponded to voters’ intentions.

Another potential challenge for the opposition is the Ley de Comunas (Communes Law), passed in December 2010. The law gives more power to comunas socialistas, or socialist communes, which the opposition says transfers power away from mayors and governors. To date, 47 communes have been established throughout the country. Mayor of the Baruta municipality Gerardo Blyde said the law transfers powers “constitutionally given to governors and mayors” and requires these leaders to transfer their resources to the communes. In a meeting with his cabinet on October 20, Chávez requested creating more communes, structures he deems “necessary to achieve the transformation of the state into a communal state.”

Chávez Shifts Cabinet ahead of Gubernatorial Elections

The president shuffled his cabinet on October 13, urging ministers to be more efficient and “work as a team.” He warned against impeding other ministries from accomplishing tasks. “Tell me, since I have the constitutional power and I’ll send them a missile,” he said.

While shuffling his cabinet, Chávez named Nicolás Maduro, who served as foreign minister since 2006, as his vice president. Meanwhile, prior Vice President Elías Jaua left to run for governor of Miranda state against Capriles. Analysts say Chávez considers Maduro as one of his closest and most loyal confidantes. With his health still in question, Chávez could see him as a potential successor. Other possible successors include Jaua, the former vice president; Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly; and Adán Chávez, the president’s older brother.

During the shuffle, Chávez added two members of the military to his cabinet to posts normally held by civilians. He selected Admiral Carmen Meléndez—the country’s first-ever female navy admiral—as his chief of staff. Her predecessor, Erika Farias, will run for governor in Cojedes state. Upon her appointment, Meléndez launched an official Twitter account called @GestiónPerfecta (or perfect management) tweeting “Efficiency or nothing!”

Chávez appointed General Néstor Reverol, the former vice minister of citizen security, as the minister of the interior and justice. (The former interior minister, Tareck el Aissami, will run for governor in Aragua state). In July, Reverol found himself accused of being connected to two Colombian drug traffickers; Reverol defended Venezuela’s anti-drug trafficking efforts in September, saying the country met international standards for combatting illicit drug flows.

In other appointments, the president named Cristóbal Francisco as minister of the environment, Juan Carlos Loyo as minister of agriculture, and Aloha Núñez Gutiérrez as minister for indigenous peoples. The former Indigenous Peoples’ Minister Nicia Maldonada left to run for governor of Amazonas state. Finally, Chávez named Ernesto Villegas as minister of communication and information. Villegas previously worked as a journalist for state-run Venezolana de Televisión.

MUD and PSUV Prepare to Face Off at the State Level

On December 16, Venezuelans return to the polls to elect governors in all 23 states. At present, the opposition holds governorships in eight states including Miranda, home to the country’s capital and where Capriles—who served as governor from November 2008 to June 2012—will vie for reelection. Since Chávez won the October 7 election in all but two states, the opposition faces an uphill battle against the PSUV. Gubernatorial campaigns officially begin on November 1.

Chávez will need to keep up his victory’s momentum in order for PSUV hopefuls to win, particularly in Miranda state. “The failings of the Bolivarian Revolution are most felt at the local level, and it is there that the popularity of Chávez’s project—without the former lieutenant colonel on the ballot—will be tested,” writes AS/COA’s Christopher Sabatini for CNN-GPS. “The voting represents a real opportunity to make genuine inroads in the state to practically demonstrate the difference between Chávez’s inchoate political project and the opposition’s claims that it can govern more effectively.”

However, since Chávez picked cabinet members from party loyalists rather than candidates proposed by allied political parties, some parties protested by entering their own candidates in some states to run against the PSUV.  For example, the Socialism and Freedom Party will run its own candidate in Aragua state against PSUV candidate El Aissami, as well as a candidate in Sucre state to run against PSUV candidate Luis Acuña. As a result, these candidates could potentially split blocs and take votes from the PSUV.

A key race in Miranda state pits Capriles against Jaua, the former vice president. Using momentum from the October election, Capriles aimed to rally the opposition to remain united and optimistic before December. He also criticized the PSUV, saying: “We all know what we had before. A red government in Miranda is corruption, darkness, and destruction…you know about the poor management of the red governors and mayors.”

At the same time, Jaua focused on rallying support behind the newly reelected president. At an October 16 press conference, he said: “[Miranda] requires a governor who works with the national government and with President Chávez, a government that doesn’t give excuses…it needs a full-time governor at the service of the country…and not obsessively dedicated to becoming president.” Presenting his government plan, Jaua said he would reduce violent crime by adding 1,000 police graduates to the force every 18 months, and that he would create an agroindustrial center processing flowers, chocolate, cacao, and other products for export.