Nicolas Maduro (right), Venezuela's president, has continued the ruinous populist policies of his deceased predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Photographer Diego Giudice/Bloomberg News
Nicolas Maduro (right), Venezuela's president, has continued the ruinous populist policies of his deceased predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Photographer Diego Giudice/Bloomberg News

The victory of Venezuela’s left in Sunday’s municipal elections suggests that voters are comfortable with their growing dependence on the government’s generosity. Opposition leaders must help Venezuelans overcome their addiction.

As of yesterday, President Nicolas Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela had captured a majority of the country’s municipalities -- 234 out of 337 precincts -- and had taken 44.2 percent of the vote versus the opposition’s 41 percent, with ballots still being counted.

Opposition candidates may have won key cities, including the municipality of Barinas -- home of the late President Hugo Chavez. But for those who expected a major defeat for Maduro and his allies, the election should serve as an eye-opening experience. Political analyst Luis Vicente Leon put it bluntly in a Sunday night Twitter post: “The opposition showed growth compared with the previous election,” but it lacked enough votes to “‘punish’ Maduro’s administration.”

That Chavismo -- the movement started by Chavez -- remains the leading political force in Venezuela says a lot about its citizens. In most countries, few people would back a government responsible for multiple currency devaluations (the bolivar has been devalued five times in the last nine years), 54 percent inflation, regular blackouts and shortages of toilet paper, milk, oil and sugar, to name a few products. Chavistas win partly because enough Venezuelans are willing to trade political allegiance for state handouts -- even if the government mismanages the country’s oil wealth.

Carolina Acosta-A., a Venezuelan author and journalism professor at the University of Georgia, posted a tweet on Sunday that was apropos: “Local elections today in Venezuela. More than ever before, my country is the kingdom of populism.”

Populism compensates for Maduro’s lack of charisma and a worsening economic outlook. As Bloomberg reported last week, figures by pollster Datanalisis showed that the president’s approval rating rose 9.5 percentage points between September and November, on the back of high government spending and a host of populist measures, such as the military occupation of electronics retail-chain Daka.

Most Venezuelan politicians deny that populism is a social problem. Chavistas tend to argue that their “revolution” defeats political opponents by dispensing “social justice.” In a Sunday night speech Maduro praised, “the strength of the Bolivarian revolution after a mere seven months of the government led by the first Chavista president, amid an economic war” against capitalist enemies.

Even opposition leader Henrique Capriles in a speech in April offered to continue the government’s largess, if elected president. On Sunday night, Capriles tried to downplay the victory Chavistas enjoyed in most municipalities, saying: “It’s clear that this country doesn’t have an owner.” He added: “We have a divided country.”

The first step out of the populist trap is to admit the problem. Opposition politicians have gained support in major cities among educated voters, but they can’t overcome Maduro’s spending on the poor. Capriles and his allies should try to win the votes of low-income Venezuelans by winning their minds first.

For starters, the opposition could gain much from educating poor Venezuelans about the country’s misspent oil riches. State dependency isn't a viable long-term solution to poverty. Plus, those who oppose Chavismo’s easy-money strategy could offer a political platform that gives the poor a direct share in the country’s annual oil rents. Venezuelans will demand sound governance when they regain a sense of ownership over oil.

An editorial in El Nacional newspaper yesterday suggested a failed approach by calling on Venezuelan democrats to, “face up to a regime that represses protests, that systematically acts against freedom of expression, that works to eliminate an independent news media…that keeps political prisoners, that tapes and spies on its citizens, that operates tirelessly to promote fear, exhaust society’s mental energy and political imagination.” The trouble is, Venezuela’s poor care little for abstract concepts such as democracy or freedom of expression.

Maduro’s foes may also hope an economic debacle may prompt Venezuelans to reconsider the current government. But a deeper economic crisis may be far off. And Venezuelans have endured economic troubles before, without learning a whole lot in the process. After all, changing one populist administration for another does little good.

Reform minded politicians understand that unseating Chavistas is a long-term political project. Changing the state-dependent ethos of the average Venezuelan is a needed step in that direction.

(Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for theWorld View blog. Follow him on Twitter. E-mail him at rgallegos5@bloomberg.net.)