VA's Lucas Koerner speaks to The Real News on Sunday's municipal elections in Venezuela, covering issues such as the opposition boycott, disputes within Chavismo, & President Nicolas Maduro's so-called ban on opposition parties.
SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Venezuelans headed to the polls for municipal elections on Sunday, this time to elect mayors. Several mayors of opposition parties decided to boycott the elections. As a result, the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela swept almost all of the races according to the first official results. Participation was at 47%, which is about 10 percentage points lower than the last mayoral elections held in 2013.
Joining me now to analyze the most recent developments in Venezuela is Lucas Koerner. Lucas is a staff writer for the website Venezuelaanalysis.com and is a Master's student at Venezuela Institute for Advanced Studies. Good to have you, Lucas.
LUCAS KOERNER: Great to be here, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: So Lucas, why did the opposition parties boycott the elections? What were the official reasons given?
LUCAS KOERNER: Well, the opposition decided to boycott the elections because they say that given that all mayors will have to swear in before the National Constituent Assembly, which they consider illegitimate, they refused to participate though many analysts consider this to be spurious and actually the real reason being their fear of suffering another landslide defeat and legitimating the government in that way, following their defeat in October 15th regional elections.
I think we have to see this boycott as the latest kind of 180 turn that the Venezuelan opposition has made over this past year, beginning in April with violent anti-government protests that it carried out until late July, alienating large sections of its supporters. Then suddenly switching to deciding to participate in regional elections called by the National Constituent Assembly, the very body which they were protesting against. Then, announcing that they're going to boycott these elections after they suffered defeat while at the same time agreeing to engage in dialogue with the government. These kind of 180 degree turns has left their supporters very demoralized and unclear about what is the direction of the opposition's national leadership.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now Lucas, are these regularly scheduled elections that took place for the mayors or was this extraordinary?
LUCAS KOERNER: No, this is, according to the Venezuelan constitution, mayoral elections are held every four years and the last elections were held in December of 2013 and they are up for, this past 10th of December is the time that they should be held.
SHARMINI PERIES: Lucas, so who won in all of this?
LUCAS KOERNER: The United Socialist Party of Venezuela, the ruling party took over something like 308 of the country's 335 municipalities, some 92% of the municipalities in the country. Clearly the winner, but I think it's important to point out that you do have some grassroots candidates. For example, Chema Romero in Paez, a ...state who ran with the PSUV and is of grassroots social movements. He won, but also in for example, in Sucre state, in the Cajigal municipality, there you had a communal candidate who challenged the PSUV candidate and won. There's certain other, So, really the PSUV won the vast majority though you do have some interesting local developments of shall we say disputes and contests within Chavismo that are hopefully showing contradictions with the revolutionary process but possibilities for moving forward with building upon it.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now one thing very interesting about the Venezuelan democratic processes and voting in particular is that there's always election observers present. Who was there and what did the observers say?
LUCAS KOERNER: The observer mission was headed by the, as in the October 15th regional elections, by the Latin American Commission of Electoral Experts, which is staffed by different heads of the equivalent of national electoral authorities throughout the continent. They said that the election was clean. There was no irregularities and we ourselves, in our visits to at least six or seven voting centers found everything went smoothly and no complaints, particularly in the opposition, the main opposition municipalities where we visited. Likewise no problems.
Though the CELA, this body did not comment on certain particular instances of, for example the ruling party, ruling socialist party attempting to block grassroots Chavista candidates as we saw with Angel Prado who's a commune leader in Vargas who could not get his name on the ballot. He won 9000 votes but the electoral, the National Electoral Council is refusing to recognize his victory or Eduardo Samán in Caracas, who likewise could not get his name on the ballot even though he was on the ballot through other people, other tickets with other people's names on it. So, these kinds of irregularities have been there, though we're not talking about a large widespread issue. These are internal disputes within Chavismo.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Lucas it was widely reported that President Maduro in a speech he gave after the results were announced that he felt that opposition parties that did not participate in these municipal elections or boycotted or encouraged the boycott of these elections, should not be allowed to participate in the 2018 presidential elections. What was this about and was it accurately reported on by the international media?
LUCAS KOERNER: I think we can take the BBC's headline as a case in point, which says, "Venezuela opposition banned from running in 2018 election," and when we actually look at the content of the statement, first of all, this was just a statement. Maduro said that the National Constituent Assembly would have the final say in taking action upon this. In effect, no opposition parties have yet been banned.
Secondly, what he was referring to are opposition parties who called for an electoral boycott. In fact, smaller opposition parties actually have agreed to participate, one would think, would be allowed to run, though again, this is totally hypothetical and to report it as a done deal is very disingenuous. But I think we should put it in context that, in the United States and many other countries that have very harsh ballot access rules, if you don't participate in an election, you actually stand a chance of being banned as a party or being prevented from participating in future elections. In addition to the very rigid requirements for securing a number of signatures and having, in many states, to secure a certain percentage of the votes.
We should, obviously I don't want to hold Venezuela to the, I would say rather low standard of US representative democracy because as a popular and participatory democracy or at least what it claims to be in Venezuela, we should expect more but we should put that in context in the international reporting of it.
SHARMINI PERIES: From what I understand, what President Maduro was saying is that the National Constituent Assembly should consider removing them from the ballot or removing them from participating in the presidential elections. Now, I guess the real question is, is this constitutionally legal?
LUCAS KOERNER: I think that if we look at the political party registration process actually took place earlier this year, a number of political parties in Venezuela had to collect signatures if they did not gain at least 1% of the vote in the previous 2015 Parliamentary elections. Of course, this is much less than in many other countries.
There was a, and if they did not meet this, they did stand a chance of not being able to stand. So, I think that this is a question that has to be decided by the National Constituent Assembly in conjunction with the CNE about if they didn't, got zero votes in this election are they going to be eligible to stand again? It's an internal legal matter and I don't profess to know the particular constitutional answer to it, but I think that's the general lines of it.
SHARMINI PERIES: So Lucas, finally, this forms a very good foundation for the ruling party of Venezuela to move forward onto the presidential elections coming up in 2018. However, we have a population that's suffering with huge unprecedented inflation rates in Venezuela and economic crisis that President Maduro faces going into the 2018 elections. What do we have to look forward to in this process?
LUCAS KOERNER: The government is quite confident. I would say over-confident about its ability to win the presidential elections. We are already seeing the propaganda, the posters for Maduro's candidacy going up throughout Caracas, and in fact there's talk about the elections being moved up perhaps to February or April. It's unclear.
I think that we really need to take into account the fact that while the opposition is at perhaps its lowest point in many years and internally divided, having lost many of its key states and key municipalities throughout the country, that nevertheless the government has to wrestle with a severe economic crisis, which it has taken no real decisive action in years to address. We're reaching hyper inflation at this point, and there's a perception among a large part of the population that the government which now has the National Constituent Assembly, has 18 of the, soon to be 19 of the country's 23 governorships has the majority of municipalities and the presidency, yet is really taking no decisive action to resolve this issue of rising prices but also scarcity, et cetera. This creates extreme discontent and could very well add prejudice the ruling party in upcoming elections.
The recent December Venebarometro Poll found that Maduro has 28%. 28% of the population says that they would support Maduro if elections were next Sunday, which in the case of the opposition going into this divided with two or three candidates or opposition abstention, could be enough, but nonetheless, if the government is not, if Chavismo, the social movements really are not going to be able to go on the offensive and take real economic action to win over, not just the solid base but those who are undecided and those who might in many cases be seduced by the opposition discourse, a loss in April or whenever of next year in presidential elections, could be very possible and the consequences would be devastating.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Lucas. I thank you so much for joining us today and I look forward to having you back very soon as this next year's going to be quite a turbulent year for Venezuela. Once again, thank you.
LUCAS KOERNER: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.