Saturday, September 11, 2004

The consequences of the recall election result in Venezuela
Part 7: a summary of where we stand and what might happen

During the past three weeks I have been trying to cover what the results of the recall Election mean for the country, chavismo, and the opposition. This was done, of course, based on the assumption that the results presented on August 16 at 4 AM are the real ones, which seems less likely as the days pass. Yet this does not change much of what I wrote: chavismo and the opposition do have their own internal problems that will remain there no matter what the outcome of the election was. Thus, for the sake of simplification I am writing below a quick summary on the situation of every political actor that I have addressed previously.

Chavez and chavismo

The effects of a good victory have been spoiled by the spell cast by the suspicion of fraud. As far as I can recall, no election since 1958 has been as challenged, including the previous 7 where Chavez won. In the mind of most Venezuelan people, this election is now tainted, even in the mind of some who agree with the result. The only true question is: did Chavez win in spite of a possible manipulation? For Venezuelans the opinion of international observers is pretty much besides the point. These verdicts by the Carter Center et al. are used only when political points are to be scored: as a country we know. And we know that the corruption of the chavista regime is apparent enough that we are sure they would not mind cheating on an election if that ensures them impunity, and more cash. After all, it is the pattern in our history and chavismo is only our latest, and worse, avatar.

What should Chavez have done?

Well, if the results are as good as he claims them to be, himself should have asked the CNE to open the ballot boxes and clear the air once and for all, scoring yet a major political point.

Second, he should have invited, no questions or conditions set, any institution or opposition group to come to Miraflores to discuss an agenda of points worth discussing in the future. After all, a president that has won with 60% is immune to any condition and posturing from the defeated parties. Besides, negotiating an agenda does not mean that the agenda itself will later be discussed. A simple “I understand your concerns, write them down and bring them yourself to my office” would have sufficed and shut down most people.

Third, a simple statement as to the complexity of the election. This would have included an offer from the central government to help financially to resolve the bottle necks experienced on August 15. That would have gone a long way to restore confidence in voting and allowed the government to keep its campaign full speed for the regional elections. Probably the opposition would have been weakened even further and lost some of its strongholds. In other words, a victorious and confident and moneyed administration should not be afraid of elections, no?

What Chavez did.

None of the above. The government, through its servile CNE, has been stonewalling any serious complaint from the opposition, even those aimed at trying to have at least the October 31 election more transparent. This gives the impression that chavismo will try to apply yet more fraud.

Any dialogue attempt was quickly trumped by the aggressive government tone. Some economical sectors do hold discreet meetings with the government in crucial areas such as those related to feeding the country, and these keep going referendum or not. But nothing new to improve seriously communication has been attempted.

The recall election has not solved any of the issues. Chavez ability to govern has not improved and as days go by the use of force is more and more a distinct possibility. Actually, some recent dissensions as to who gets the loot have been surfacing within chavismo, not simplifying Chavez task and probably forcing him to purge his own ranks even before he can trash the opposition once and for all.

The opposition Hamletian dilemma.

The opposition is confronted with a big problem: its leadership failed to insure a victory in the Recall Election. That fraud might have taken place is irrelevant: it was unable to prevent it, and slow at dealing with it, more to be blamed for.

What the opposition should have done.

The first thing would have been a prompt response a few minutes, hours at most, after the CNE announcement, claiming fraud energetically. You either trust your exit polls or you do not. When the difference between results and your numbers is so big, there should not be any hesitation. At the very least, the opposition should have called for a press conference before the international observers did.

This moment of assertiveness done, another even more assertive moment should have followed. The leadership of the CD should have realized that they had been conned and that they did not see it coming. Immediately it should have submitted its resignation, while holding the fort until new leaders were named. A full fledged commission to investigate the fraud should have been established, separately, and the rest of the energies should have been invested in preparing the local elections and forcing the CNE to change the rules in order to avoid future fraud. In this last aspect, a vigorous and unabashed counter offensive could have even brought the interest of the foreign observers and emboldened them to make a few suggestions. There were enough irregularities in the pre August 15 days to justify such a tactic. And those irregularities should have been well documented before August 15 and submitted then.

What the opposition did.

It fell into shock. No plan B existed. And any leadership that was there crumbled fast. We had to wait a few days until second rank and file folks did mount a serious challenge, and only September 7 the leader of the Recall Campaign finally spoke. He did a good job but it might have been too late.

Worse, the lack of strong response allowed the international observers to say all sorts of stupid things, which they probably will resent when proven wrong. The opposition bases got demoralized to the point of seeing some nonsensical leaders calling for abstention at the Regional Election. As if that ever stopped election fraud and thugs to cling to office. Some people never learn!

What might happen

It would be foolish for anyone to hope that even with a smoking gun Chavez will be unseated. The judicial system is in his hand and he will be able to stall anything until the 2006 election. This has to be clear for all, we have a thug that placed his pals where it mattered. Only force will remove him from office now, even if the OAS and the US reverse their approval of the election. We do not have a Fujimori here that can run away to Japan.

In a best case scenario the fraud accusation will be supported enough that Chavez might cave in, a little bit at least. We could have changes in the CNE and a cleaner electoral system for the regional election. Then if the opposition can keep its states and add a couple such as Nueva Esparta, Tachira or Merida, it would show clearly that the results of August 15 were not those claimed. From such basis it could build a credible challenge and produce a consensus leader. The next round would be the legislative election in 2005 and then 2006 to unseat Chavez. With his fraud a suddenly weakened Chavez would have won only 2 years to prove that he can indeed run the country, an ability for which there is no evidence yet.

But I doubt that this will happen. As a good Peron-like autocrat Chavez will never accept anything that might cast a doubt over his “popular support”. People like Peron, Chavez or Castro never take chances with elections. More likely we will see a new polarization of the situation, more confrontation, more crisis until finally either the opposition collapses or Chavez is forced to become an outright repressive caudillo.

The battle is for democracy, and negotiation is justified only on the way to reach it, not on reaching it.

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