| CARACAS | From the print edition
ON THE face of things, Venezuelans were simply voting for their mayors and local councillors on December 8th. But the opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, had called for a massive protest vote that he hoped would turn into a plebiscite on the erratic, economically incompetent and increasingly totalitarian rule of President Nicolás Maduro (pictured), the successor to the late Hugo Chávez. By that standard, Mr Capriles failed.
The opposition coalition, called the Democratic Unity alliance (MUD), made gains, especially in urban areas. The four biggest cities, including Caracas, now have opposition mayors. In all, the MUD won nine of the 23 state capitals. The most painful loss for the ruling Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) was Barinas, home of the Chávez family. But outside the main cities, the electoral map remains chavista red, a reflection of the government’s stranglehold on rural Venezuela, which has most of the 337 mayoralties.
For the MUD, the bitterest blow was that the core opposition vote, discounting candidates who challenged the unity ticket, came to less than 44%, while the PSUV and its allies took almost 50%. That compared with Mr Maduro’s margin of victory of just 1.5% over Mr Capriles in the presidential election last April, a result whose accuracy the opposition still disputes. A gleeful Mr Maduro called on Mr Capriles to resign as governor of Miranda state, where “he lost the plebiscite”—the PSUV won the state capital, Los Teques. Mr Capriles replied that the government should recognise that “the country is split into two halves”. Unfortunately for him, the president’s half is the one with all the levers of real power.
That was apparent in the government’s no-holds-barred campaign. Vicente Díaz, the only non-government member of the five-person electoral authority (CNE), called it the most unequal in the country’s modern history. Mr Maduro spent an average of two hours a day on live television, but the broadcast media—now either state-controlled or cowed into obedience—ignored Mr Capriles. Candidates and leaders of the MUD were threatened with jail. The entire apparatus of government was deployed to help the PSUV. Ambulances, as well as vans belonging to the state-owned power company, were used to transport campaign propaganda. The government decreed December 8th to be “Loyalty to Chávez Day”. The chairwoman of the CNE defended the decree as a government prerogative.
Mr Maduro was equally ruthless in subordinating economic policy to the imperative of electoral victory. In November, he forced retailers to slash prices of goods ranging from television sets to cars. This certainly boosted his previously lukewarm support. But it came at the cost of further weakening the economy. Faced with dwindling foreign-currency reserves, inflation of over 50% and a black-market dollar at over ten times the official rate, the government is expected to devalue in the next few weeks. That will add a further twist to the inflationary spiral. Although the government may tweak the foreign-exchange controls that have helped cause shortages of basic goods, few expect it to abandon Chávez’s populist policies that got the country into its mess.
As the economy has worsened, discontent has spread beyond the middle class. Mr Maduro’s pre-election antics will do little to ease the pain of two hours spent queuing for milk and toilet paper. But there is not much that opposition mayors can do about the soaring cost of living and empty supermarket shelves.
So the opposition faces a dilemma. As an electoral alliance, its strategy is to encroach steadily on the once seemingly impregnable voter base of chavismo. But the government is continuously moving the goalposts. When it seemed that the MUD might win a majority of seats in the legislature, the government changed the electoral system: the MUD, with almost half the vote, was awarded just 65 of 165 seats. When Mr Capriles challenged the result of the April election, the CNE and the supreme court refused to review the evidence. Opposition mayors and state governors find their budgets, largely dependent on transfers from central government, slashed and their powers transferred to unelected officials.
The next election, for parliament, is not due until late 2015, so the opposition risks sinking into irrelevance unless it can turn itself into a resistance movement. What no one can predict is whether Venezuelans will meekly accept a sharp decline in their living standards, and, if not, when and how they might express their anger.