For years, opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez embraced extreme and counterproductive tactics, ranging from election boycotts to a national strike and an attempted military coup. Yet in the past year — as Chavez has accelerated his drive to install a Cuban-style socialist regime — the opposition has finally found a winning answer: democracy. Last December voters rejected a new constitution that would have greatly increased presidential powers and allowed Chavez unlimited presidential terms. On Sunday Venezuelans turned out in record numbers for local elections — and chose opposition candidates for five of the six most important elected posts in the country after the presidency.
Until this week, Chavez's allies controlled all but two of the country's 23 state governorships, as well as the city halls of the largest cities. Now opposition leaders will govern five states, including the three largest, as well as greater Caracas and Maracaibo, the two biggest cities. Government candidates won in 17 states, including many sparsely populated rural regions. But almost half of Venezuela's population will now look to an elected leader who opposes Chavez's self-styled "Bolivarian revolution."
The opposition's success is remarkable, given the steps that Chavez took to stop it. In a blatant violation of the constitution, the government banned popular opposition leaders from running in Caracas and the surrounding state of Miranda. Their replacements won anyway, defeating close associates of Chavez. The president recently threatened to arrest opposition leader Manuel Rosales, who was running for mayor of Maracaibo. He won. Chavez also said he would deploy tanks in the state of Carabobo if voters chose the opposition candidate. They nevertheless did.
Chavez deserves some credit for not acting on his threats and for recognizing the opposition victories. The caudillo nevertheless shows no sign that he is listening to the country. "The people are telling me: Chavez, continue down the same road," he declared after the results were announced. That road has recently included the nationalization of major industries, huge arms purchases from Russia and heavy subsidies to leftist allies elsewhere in Latin America. The elections showed that urban residents are far more concerned with the soaring crime rates, empty store shelves and accelerating inflation Chavez has delivered — problems that appear likely to worsen as the price of Venezuela's dominant export, oil, plummets.
The opposition now has an opportunity to show that it can offer a workable alternative to Chavez's policies. Partly that will mean better crime-fighting and delivery of services, but the key element must be a clear and continuing commitment to democracy and the rule of law. If those principles survive in Venezuela, Chavez will be forced to leave office in four years. That's a long time to wait — but by now the opposition should have learned that shortcuts won't work.