Over the past month I have been looking in detail at some of the results of the Venezuelan regional elections and tried to make sense of them, to see how they could help explain the coming political developments and perhaps to perceive a little bit what the future has in stock for Venezuela. Now, with the Merida results posted I think that I have covered all that I wanted to cover. It is time to tie all together and reach a conclusion on these electoral episodes. There are other things worth writing about.
In the following post I will summarize the several texts I wrote. The links of the specific result analysis will be included. To this blogger knowledge this rather long assay and the posts it refers too are the most complete analysis that can be found around. I mean, soon there will be books written on this stuff by people that really know what they are talking about, but for the time being I hope that this effort will help the English language folks get a better understanding of where does Venezuela stands. To simplify reading I have split and tagged this text so people can read only the sections that interest them if they wish. As usual, I have written all of this stuff to the best of my knowledge and I am willing to edit it if significant new information is brought for.
The Results and the Factors affecting them, an overview
As could have been predicted from the loss of August 15 in the referendum, a divided and dispirited opposition lost much more ground in Ocotober than what it should have lost. If there are real reasons to think that electoral fraud was committed on August 15 for the Recall Election on Chavez, the collapse of the opposition and the unprecedented use of public monies in an electoral campaign have created a favorable situation for a chavista victory on October 31. Only in Carabobo it seems that irregularities were committed, but the lock on the judicial and electoral systems by the partisans of Chavez ensures that no objective investigation will take place.
If the causes of the opposition major set back are clear, they did not played everywhere as one would have expected. Regional factors as usual in this type of elections exerted quite a role. [top]
The two main national issues for the opposition electorate were abstention and division within its ranks. These played mostly in Caracas, affecting the results of Metro Area and Miranda state by ricochet.
Interestingly the pro Chavez electors were as heavily abstentionist, if not more, than the opposition electors all over the country. Remarkable considering the performance of August 15, and raising a few questions as to their real motivation if indeed the numbers of August 15 are to be trusted.
One general observation in the provinces is that abstention tended to affect as much each side. Thus the hope that one could have had to verify the possibility of fraud in August through the results of October has been dashed. Only in Zulia one can detect a real anomaly in the voter allotment between August and October. [top]
In two states, Yaracuy and Cojedes, abstention was comparable to the abstention in the recall election. In Yaracuy in particular the sitting governor, Eduardo Lapi, recouped a significant amount of the votes apparently lost in August. This will stand as the testimony that a strong local leadership with hard work to its account could have withheld the red tide if the opposition had its act together. Yaracuy is one of the sorriest losses for the opposition and an undeserved one. As such it does demonstrate more than anywhere else that local chavista candidates often won because Chavez supported them rather than by any merit that they might have had themselves.
That Chavez support was a key factor in winning is clear not only in Yaracuy, but at least in Carabobo, Trujillo, Tachira, Lara, and Bolivar, either for the victory of the new governor or for the fat margin that had nothing to do with the sitting governor merits. Of the local preexisting leaders supporting Chavez, only a few can boast that their reelection is due more to their work than to Chavez who only inflated their victory margin: Aragua, Guarico, and Cojedes. There is one notable exception and it is Miranda where Diosdado Cabello hard work during the campaign was at least as important as any Chavez support to unseat Mendoza. In one case, Anzoategui, it seems that all the negative factors of the opposition and the positives of Chavez played to seat Tarek Williams Saab as the new governor. [top]
As usual the candidates running for office explain quite a lot the result. The opposition not only quite often did not present the best possible candidate, often preferring the old cronies of the past in order to ensure unity, but its division in some areas did not help at all. Merida was a striking example of a state where the opposition went divided with two bad candidates. The result was a disaster. But other states also had bad nominations: Falcon, Guarico, Sucre, Anzoategui, and even Bolivar and Tachira could be considered as states where different options might have been desirable.
However chavismo did name candidates that were rather deficient in merits, such as in Yaracuy, Nueva Esparta, Vargas, Trujillo, and most spectacularly Zulia. In this state all the might of Chavez, all the electoral pressures, all the monies spread right and left were not enough. The sitting governor Manuel Rosales was able keep his seat and reverse the Recall Election result. [top]
There is one factor that appears to have played a major role all along, even if rather unheralded, in particular by chavismo whose secret aim might be to make AD the "official opposition". Old Accion Democratica on the week of August 16 decided to drop the fraud claim that its leader made on the early hours of the 16. At some point, in a decision that would be heavy in implications, AD decided to try its luck at the regional elections. Most, if not all of the divisions within the opposition were due to the intractability of AD. This stubbornness has been an essential factor, if not the essential factors in the losses of Yaracuy, Caracas, Merida, Apure, Trujillo, Lara and Anzoategui, and countless cities and districts such as in Caracas Libertador. It is to be noted that most of the "coalitions" that AD entered were with Copei and/or the MAS, but rarely with regional parties or new and coming movements. [top]
Finally there is one item that should not be forgotten.
The present electoral system favors greatly the winner, in a paradoxically unjust way as it is supposed to allow "representation of the minorities". Venezuela used to have a semi proportional system to distribute legislative votes and a winner take all single round balloting for the executive posts. But the modifications added in the 90ies, enshrined and exaggerated in the 1999 constitution, make that now with around 20% of the actual electorate, chavismo gets 20 out of 22 states plus the Caracas Metropolitan area.
To this, one can add many of the irregularities committed by the CNE, one notable one being the update of the electoral registry of voters. No serious auditing of the new voters were made in spite of continuous opposition claims. It is difficult to asses the complete effect of such irregularities but it seems that evidence of these can be seen in the results of Zulia, Yaracuy and Carabobo for example, not to mention many town halls that could change hands by an astute gerrymandering of the electoral registry, as probably AD knows by now. [top]
The first victim of these elections and the desire of people to submit themselves to Chavez is the predictable end of decentralization. All important decisions now will be taken from Caracas. If anyone doubts this, it is enough to see that Chavez gathered all his governors behind closed doors at Fuerte Tiuna in Caracas. Organizing a reunion so soon in a military base is quite a symbol: Chavez is the one giving all their marching orders. And it could not be otherwise: except for Didalco Bolivar from Aragua all of them owe their job to Chavez. [top]
AD is the first victim of the electoral defeat. It played its hand recklessly and lost all but a handful of cities. The only gain it can show is the governorship of Nueva Esparta where the victor does not even control the state legislature.
The regional factors did well, but not well enough. With a central power such as it will be set up from Caracas regional parties face a bleak future. It remains to be seen what a handful of town halls can do for their recovery and an eventual return to office. The death of decentralization will have a major effect on regional groups, even if Chavez were to leave office by choice in 2006. Decentralization is a long process, recentralization can be quite fast if the new governors become accomplices.
It is to be noted that what could have been qualified as "regional" pro Chavez groups such as PODEMOS or the PPT have been incorporated in the chavista machinery and there is no way to judge their actual significance. Thus one cannot even count on them as a regional voice in Caracas as they know that their tenure is at Chavez sufferance. Even the notable exception, Didalco Bolivar, is barred from running again in 2008 and PODEMOS will probably disappear from Aragua absorbed by the central MVR who, within Bolivar's coalition, already outvoted 3 to 1 PODEMOS! [top]
Venezuela is returning to the 60ies and even earlier when the president named the governors at will. They might have been elected this time but 20 out 22 governors know perfectly well that they cannot go against Chavez will. They certainly do agree with him, of course, but who knows what they will do when the interests of the region enter in conflict with the interests of chavismo in Caracas. Will they act as elected governors or appointed ones?
As it always happened through history when a political movement gains too much power, it starts making mistakes and, if necessary, a new opposition eventually will generate from its own ranks. Chavismo in 2002 was plagued with dissentions as it lost its comfortable 2/3 majority in the National Assembly. It also lost two governors, Bolivar and Anzoategui, before recovering them last month. There is no telling what can happen there as internal competition for the booty of the high oil price comes to play among too many interests. [top]
The lack of regional resources and trained public administrators is certainly going to affect the recovery of the opposition as a credible alternative in the future. The new opposition leadership will now emerge from strict political background rather than from tested administrators. It is difficult to see how good governors such as Salas and Lapi could become national leaders able to
challenge Chavez. This will even be more dramatic for AD who was lacking a credible presidential candidate for 2006 or 2012. AD was probably counting on training a couple of governors or big cities mayors for these dates; the one from Nueva Esparta will not do.
Still the road ahead for the opposition is quite clear. If one gathers the results of Lapi, Salas and Primero Justicia one gets a significant group of electors, several potential leaders, experience, and crucial coverage in 2 out of the 5 industrial states plus Caracas. Also there is significant potential in enough states to build a credible challenge sooner than expected.
The key for the opposition is in Zulia where his reelected governor, Manuel Rosales, is the de facto leader of the opposition. AD could try to bring him back to the fold as Rosales used to belong to AD until 1999. But the bet is that this one would only do so if AD surrenders to him. Highly improbable even if AD needs him more than what he needs them. On the other hand if Rosales could find a way to make at least an electoral alliance with the other groups of the opposition he could even run in 2006 and hope for at the very least 40% of the vote, better than Salas Römer in 1998 and Arias in 2000. After all, a 2006 campaign against Chavez cannot possibly be any worse than what he just went through.
As for the rest. We have seen AD collapse. The MAS also collapsed as did Copei though it did manage somehow to hold to some small town halls here and there. The MAS and other social democrat groups issued from chavismo dissidence would be well advised to fuse and try to salvage something at the legislative elections of 2005. Perhaps even with AD in an electoral alliance. A 25% is not impossible in a fair election. Copei faces the dilemma to go to AD or go to the regional parties described earlier, who are in a way issued from Copei when it failed to become a modern center-right party such as those of Europe, instead choosing a slightly modified version of AD populism to reach office. But Copei has espoused all the defaults of AD and seems as unable as this one to proceed to the necessary aggiornamento, something that will doom it to a final extinction. [top]
With the regional elections chavismo and Chavez have completed a political cycle. Debating whether the recall election of August 15 was a honest election has become an useless exercise. No matter what, Chavez has won the battle and the opposition must lick its wounds and see what it can do with itself. Certainly pressing claims of fraud can be useful for many reasons, the main one of them being to try to obtain in the future clean elections, something which today is simply impossible in the view of the scandalous partiality of the Electoral Board, CNE, towards Chavez. Not to mention the even more scandalous partiality of the judicial system.
The sad fact for the opposition leadership is that in mid 2003 it would have won any election against Chavez. But the actions undertaken by the Chavez administration with great energy since the strike of December 2002 have granted him a near miracle considering his poor management of the country in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002. Eventually his outrageous populism and demagoguery have paid of. Not to mention his reckless contempt for the law, a law used only for cosmetic purposes, pure formalisms as the administration uses any resource available to ensure its perpetuation in office.
The task of the opposition will be made even more difficult. The apparent choice for repression instead of dialogue made by the regime ensures that it will be extremely difficult for the opposition to be able to offer a credible challenge. Like George Bush in the US, Chavez is sure to use nationalism, defense against "terrorism", to pass any law it sees fit, but in Chavez's case, to ensure his power hold for as long as he can away with it. The "gag" law and the new judicial law are only the first steps. The recent events will allow for the passage of even more stringent laws. Not to mention the reversal of important High Court decisions already announced.
Now the recent polls show that Chavez indeed recovered his lead. Maybe it is because Venezuelans like to bet on winners even if if they are distasteful. Maybe Venezuelans are tired of such confrontation and have decided to surrender to authoritarianism and populism once again. It remains that the opposition leadership has failed. It has failed to convey its message and actually made things worse by not being prepared for a possible loss in August. It has failed to offer resistance when it claimed fraud. It has failed to unite when it was more critical. It has lost all the tenuous protections that it still offered its followers in some states and towns. Now the country belongs to Chavez.
It is time that those that are the most responsible for such debacle leave the front scene and let a younger generation, often critical of their deeds along the way, to take over and see if it can come up with something new and more effective. It should not be too daunting, chavismo is full of seeds for its own demise for those who know how to grow them. [top]