The role of abstention: the example of the Caracas Metropolitan district
Abstention has been blamed by all sides for the poor results obtained here and there. But also to raise a few very valid questions, such as how come the chavista vote dwindled so much between August and October. All cannot be explained on abstention, and actually some areas got even more than a 60% turnout. However, in some states and districts abstention did play a role in keeping someone in office, or not. The area where abstention from opposition voters had the biggest impact was the Caracas Metropolitan area, though abstention also had an effect on chavismo’s results.
Factors promoting abstention
Several factors played there. First, it was the area of the country where the “theory” of electoral abstention garnered the most supporters. This rather flimsy theory, in my opinion, stated that the best way to protest the electoral fraud of August 15. Well, maybe, but no form of protest was offered besides not going to vote. This attitude was further abetted by the most unpalatable choices offered to the electorate.
Chavismo offered Juan Barreto. An homophobic and misogynistic journalist by trade, his vulgarity and absolute lack of scruples is well known. Not to mention that Barreto has been associated with improper journalistic ventures and even with violence, or promoting it. But he was Chavez choice and little by little the other potential chavista candidates yielded, in particular Lina Ron.
The opposition started divided badly when AD decided to fill Claudio Fermin against Alfredo Peña, the serving mayor at large. This division in candidacies from the start created confusion, even more when none were willing to consider a primary system of sorts. This division also was a factor in three other Caracas districts.
The campaign and its results
For reasons still not quite clear Peña decided to drop out of the race early October when there was no time to register a different candidate. Thus the parties that were supporting Peña found themselves without a candidate and forced to support Fermín. Unfortunately by then Fermín had been uncovered as the AD Trojan horse to sabotage the opposition unity and promote AD wishes to eliminate anyone else. Not to mention that Fermín has a reputation as a shifty character, is thought as having concurred in financial irregularities as a former mayor, and is known to be willing to make deals with chavismo if it fosters his career. Though preferable to Barreto by any standard, his sudden desire to try to capitalize on Peña’s withdrawal probably hurt him more than helped him.
The results were as expected in that Barreto won easily. What was unexpected was the incredible abstention rate, even within chavismo ranks! The table below describes the referendum results of August 15 where the Yeah votes (SI) won, suggesting that Caracas was a possible ground for an opposition electoral success. For simplification the numbers have been rounded to thousands. The second column shows the percentage of registered voters, NOT the actual result, in the Metro area who bothered to cast a vote for a given option. The drop of 34% of NO to 19.4% for Barreto is just simply spectacular.
% of registered voters
Winning with such a low turn out against such a weak candidate as Fermín is very far from suggesting any mandate for Barreto. He soon was shown the meaning of such a hollow victory when attending a concert of Juan Luis Guerra where he was embarrassingly booed for something like 20 minutes, with very, very few people trying to stay either quiet or defending him.
In addition I have indicated the votes registered by the individual parties to elect the representatives to the Metro Assembly. Traditionally these are lower than the votes obtained by the executive position on the ballot, due to a complicated electoral system that induces many people just to cast a vote for the top of the ticket. I will discuss this phenomenon in a future post. But putting the numbers here shows clearly the weakness of the AD candidate. Fermín got 12.7% of the electorate to vote for him, dismal result by itself. But his own party, AD, only got 4%! Beaten by Primero Justicia (MPJ) who without a candidate on top, and a victim of the abstention movement still managed to get 4.2%! This can be contrasted with the Barreto party who got a 15.6%, reasonably close from the 19.4% of the top of the ticket.
It is fair to speculate that a real encounter between AD and MPJ in Caracas would result in a clear victory for MPJ who could easily duplicate its numbers, something doubtful for AD who campaigned hard for Fermín.
Finally the drop from 35.8% of SI in August to a meager 12.7% for Fermin shows abundantly the strength and disgust expressed through the voter’s abstention, even as they knew that they were making it easy for Barreto to become their mayor. Political suicide! The main victim was Carlos Ocariz of MPJ who barely missed unseating the highly incompetent, highly unpopular mayor of the Sucre district who retained his seat just because he is the son of the Vice President.
Votes in Sucre district
In Sucre the local executive, Ocariz plus Rangel, gets more votes than the Mayor at large! In particular the dislike for Fermín is clearly seen in numbers, in an area which has a majority of the population in “cerros” (from popular district to shanties) and where nevertheless Ocariz manages to make inroads! Had abstention been a third less Ocariz would have won by a couple of thousand votes!
The Libertador district
The Libertador district had another situation. MPJ had placed on the ballot Liliana Hernandez. Supposedly Hernandez and Melo, of February fame as political prisoner, were going to hire a set of pollsters as a primary of sorts. But as Hernandez was ahead of Melo at the polls, Melo and his allies, decided to refuse the result. An angered Hernandez, probably sensing that abstention was dooming any candidature in Libertador, dropped out of the race. Voters were apparently upset and decided to stay home as Melo made a dismal second to Bernal, who as the arguably worst mayor in Libertador history sailed through reelection! Melo miscalculation cost him dearly and any good will garnered during his ordeal in March 2004 was lost. The difference between Fermín and ALL candidates but Bernal is actually larger than between Bernal and Barreto!
Votes in Libertador district
As I had speculated earlier, the Caracas elections became the big opposition disaster where only the mayors of Chacao and Baruta retained office with an excellent score albeit certainly lower than what they should have obtained. Yet, the SI had won on August 15. The only explanation here is that the combination of AD misplaced ambitions and the refusal of the opposition to face the electoral fraud of August, due in large part to the ambiguous role of AD, merged in a deadly combination. It would not be too daring to say that AD preferred to yield all of Caracas to chavismo rather than see other sectors of the opposition make their political base.