Thursday, December 18, 2003

What will happen in Venezuela?
This blogger indulges in some punditry

Thursday 18, December 2003

The opposition will hand in the signatures tomorrow. I have been postponing making predictions since the signatures were collected. It is not my style to begin with. Second, to make predictions one needs to have "some" hard data and in Venezuela, which has become the land of "magical realism" by excellence. But I think that considering the merry season on us, and that I have started to drink a little bit everyday (I will get into that Christmas spirit one way or the other) I think I can allow myself some punditry. But be warned: two weeks from now I could rewrite a very different text.

Let's review the facts first, at least those that have some substance.

I- Who knows exactly how many signatures has the opposition or the chavistas collected: the one thing certain is that the opposition has collected more signatures and with more enthusiasm than the chavista camp. If the TV images of the two journeys do not convince you, you just need to look at the overblown campaign that the administration and its beneficiaries are trying to stir up. And the tense faces of the different spokespeople of Chavez. No matter what the final tally the Electoral Board will be giving in January, on December 2 the country woke up with a new political landscape and the political class must deal with it.

II- If chavistas do not manage to cancel the opposition signatures, some form of election will be unavoidable. That or a coup d'état. It looks very difficult for the administration to void the opposition collection journey. Of course, with all that is within Chavez power something can be attempted, something that still retains some form of pseudo-legalism. However, it seems that this time the international observers will take a stand.

III- Chavez will not accept a recall election. Chavez ambition is to become a South American leader. Administrative tasks in Venezuela bore him to tears, except inaugurations and big promotion shows. His obvious desire to be preeminent would be irremediably damaged if he were to lose a recall election, the type of election that is the biggest sanction a politician can get. There would his career go. Losing a presidential election is not that bad and offers a ready-made excuse: the other guy had a better program and that does not mean that my program or my actions were bad. You can recover from a failed re-election. You cannot recover from a direct sanction vote. Chavez will go to a recall election only screaming and kicking.

IV- No matter what, Chavez has a hard core support of at least 20% of the electorate. This translates into his 30-40% popular support in spite of the crisis! No serious poll give him less than 30 (or more than 40), and this is politically a very appreciable capital, after 5 years of misrule. He has something to gamble with. The opposition even with a hard core 50% cannot crush electorally a following of 30% that can quickly become a 50% if they fail a few years down. It is that permanent 20% that is the biggest obstacle for the opposition to remove Chavez. It forces very much a difficult union. The math is simple: with a divided opposition, in a one round balloting system Chavez could pull a 35% and get re-elected. And then what?

So, what could happen?

Scenario 1. Chavez accepts to go to a recall election. This one would happen late April or early May. Maybe even in June or July if Chavez tricks work to the best. He is very likely to lose the election. A new president would have to be elected by August to finish the last two years of the term.

Chavez could try to come back in 2006. Unfortunately for him he would have lost some of the key players and the opposition will have modified the constitution, instituting among other things a two round balloting that would be a major hurdle for Chavez for at least the next 3-6 years. The transition might go sort of OK and the opposition would try to maintain peace reassuring chavistas that the problem was Chavez but not his followers. Of course, if the recall election goes something like 2 to 5 against Chavez he would be done for good.

This, in my opinion, is the best we can expect. However by May I doubt that the opposition will be able to inflict a disastrous defeat on Chavez. They will win, but it will not be a knock out as Chavez will have plaid all sorts of nasty cards to polarize people and preserve a base for the future.

Scenario 2. A variation of 1. Somehow Chavez manages to postpone the recall election until after August 21. Even if he is booted out, the catch 22 constitutional provision allows the vice president (that he names) to finish the term. Depending on who he manages to leave (and that could even be negotiated with the opposition) the country might remain on a stand still until 2006, or slowly drown into anarchy. The final outcome would depend on the local elections of June 2004 or the legislative elections of June 2005. This scenario is not discussed by anyone right now, though it should. But it would be possible ONLY if Chavez manages to postpone the recall election until after August 21, a rather difficult prospect at this time.

A great coup for him would be to manage to put an acceptable vice president for the opposition and resign on August 22 in exchange of avoiding the recall election. He would retain his party machinery and start a two year electoral campaign to come back. Will enough members of the opposition be willing to negotiate such a solution? I doubt it but a lot of things can happen form here to May...

Scenario 3. Chavez resigns. An obliging High Court allows him to run again. He might win if he manages to divide the opposition which is riddled with ambitious characters. He will be helped by his extensive money reserves that would allow him to spread money all around and buy loyalties. If he wins he might be able to consolidate his system and it would be very difficult to unseat him in 2006. The only chance would be that finally the opposition understands that unity is the only way to boot Chavez out, but by 2006 it might be too late. The country would have become again a centralized state, barely legal and democratic, but still enough to avoid major international sanctions. It will all depend on how much oil Chavez is able to deliver.

Unfortunately this is a rather plausible outcome that is been discussed more and more. It would become like the Peru of Fujimori but without the economic skills and recovery.

Scenario 4. As 3 but the opposition manages to maintain its unity and comes up with a transition candidate that engages herself to rule for 2 years only in order to strengthen up the institutions and allow some economic recovery. In 2006, after a constitutional amendment, we have free and fair election and a new president comes into office.

I think it would minimize the most the risks of major unrest providing a suitably long but accepted transition. It would allow tensions to decrease as both sides would perceive that in 2006 they have a chance to prevail. The likeliness of high oil prices would allow the opposition some leeway in attaining some results. Even if it goes in separate blocks to the 2006 elections, the political parties would have had time to complete their recovery and to show some results. Chavez might manage to retain control of his troops and would be able to pick perhaps 40% of the vote. But his return would be difficult, and would only occur if the opposition fails in the two years chance given to it.

Of course, by retaining control of his troops Chavez could manage to sabotage any real progress for the new government and thus improve his chances of returning in 2006. On the other hand part of his troops could leave him and form a new leftist block. Definitely, the departure of Chavez would be far from resolving the problems, his or the opposition.

Scenario 5. Chavez refuses elections of any type. He manages to annul the signatures in a semi legal way. All will depend on how he does in the local elections of June 2004. If they are free and he loses them he could still remain in office but it will be a controversial presidency, a country slowly but surely sinking into the abyss. In 2006 the opposition will have to manage a united front and all will depend if the elections are fair or not. I think it very unlikely but I suspect that this is the one that Chavez is trying to get.

Scenario 6. As in 5 but Chavez kicks the footstool completely and tries to establish a legal dictatorship. The high court caves in and offers to the world an image of legality that complicates the tasks of foreign pressure. Any election is stacked against the opposition and Chavez tries to stay in office as long as he can. Needless to say that the country will be ungovernable, foreign investment will be minimal, international sanctions will be eventually taken, the economic crisis will become permanent. Chavez on the long run might go the way of a modern day Castrist regime. Or Venezuela might become Zimbabwe. Unfortunately the odds for such a scenario are not insignificant.

Oddly I do not think that Chavez wants this scenario. His model is more Fujimori than Castro, trying to find a way to really win elections again. He probably thinks that he needs more time to convince the wavering ones to come back to his fold. But if he fails to woo them back then he will go the #6 way without qualms.

My scenario? I do not know. I think that scenario number 1 is the best in what it gives the best chance to get rid of Chavez once and for all. And thus Chavez will oppose it until the very end. I think that 3 and 4 are the two most likely ones to occur.

Scenario 4 will not solve much but at least will give the opposition time to re-establish counter powers if Chavez, or a Chavez like president, were to come to office in 2006 or 2012 (or 2010 if the presidential term is cut down from 6 to 5 years). The only good thing about scenario 4 is that it would force any new government to act seriously and responsibly, not playing the populist card that Chavez will always play better than any politician alive today in Venezuela. If the transition managed to survive and hand power to a non Chavez president Venezuela could be quickly in the way of a fast recovery, but after 2006.

A cure for populism could only come from a serious administration in 2006 that could demonstrate that some budgetary rigor does not imply that the poor are forgotten. A hard trick to pull if you ask me.

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