Sunday, December 18, 2005

The day Chavez staggered: December 4 2005

Any casual but regular observer of Venezuela would have noticed that in the past two weeks things have changed in Venezuela. The result of the December 4 election has triggered something that is still too early to evaluate. And even more difficult to predict its consequences.

Before evaluating the meaning of what happened that day (a nice activity for the vacation days coming ahead for this blogger as news will slow down considerably in Venezuela) it is important, as a reference point, to describe briefly but completely the momentous events that led to December 4, 2005.

September and October 2005

The difficulties of the political situation and the problems with the electoral system were detailed by this blogger in July (in a post that by now must be the most self quoted of my posts!).

The dismal results of the municipal elections of August 2005 showed clearly that the public was starting to lose faith in the voting system.

Chavez through the last quarter of the year kept pushing his agenda on a “Socialism for the XXI Century” which included: more property confiscation, more free giving overseas, more incendiary rhetoric, more pro Castro, more anti US (even if disguised as anti Bush) and many more confrontational elements. In other words Chavez decided not to wait for his own reelection in December 2006 to make it a referendum on a new Venezuelan economical and social structure, but instead decided to get right now an assembly that would start implementing the changes as early as January 2006. Sweeping changes in the still brand new 1999 constitution were even discussed!

Yet, for such an important election, the Electoral board, CNE, refused to open up the electoral system to scrutiny and instead threatened to use in every voting station the now infamous finger print scanners and electronic voter rolls. Difficult negotiations only led to an enlarged but not improved audit system. The only positive action was the semi successful negotiation to bring in European Union observers and bring back a new team of OAS observers. Yet, their tardy arrival did mine any hope to improve the electoral conditions in Venezuela, in particular the obscene use of public funding for the pro Chavez candidates.

November 2005

With the observers in place and the chavista campaign in full swing, and full excesses, it was made even easier to observe the meager opposition effort due to its even meager means and profound doubts as to whether go to election or quit altogether. Polls kept consistently saying that the abstention for such major elections was going to be comparable to the most minor of elections, such as those of August 2005! A Hinterlaces poll of mid November projected a 71% abstention. If the opposition seemed duly depressed, signs of wear could be detected in chavismo as a high abstention would make the sought goal of 10 million votes for Chavez in 2006 a very difficult goal to achieve.

The CNE started setting up the voting apparatus and auditing some aspects as agreed with the observers and political parties.

Late November things began to unravel fast. In an audit at the Fila de Mariches facility it was demonstrated that a conjunction of the voting machine and the finger print scanner could render null the secret voting right of the people. This happened in front of the international observers who were using the voting machines and were surprised to see that a technician representing the opposition was able to tell each one of them who did they vote for. If this was a real major problem, its solution was not too difficult: it was enough to turn off the finger print scanners. The CNE eventually relented, but it was too little, too late.

After an initial hesitation, to everyone’s surprise, old AD decided to withdraw from the elections on Tuesday 29 November. By December first in the evening all the major opposition players had left, leaving chavismo alone to battle the election in front of very minor participants that would be unable to even get a single seat on December 4.

What had happened is that the Fila de Mariches incident, and the relative ease in which the CNE eventually gave up the scanning devices, in fact demonstrated that the electoral system was rigged, and that there was certainly more problems that now should definitely be investigated. One of these problems was the electoral registry which was condemned since August 2004, and which after Mariches was unanimously objected by all non chavista actors as being an even greater source of electoral fraud than the scanning devices. Far from being reassuring, the CNE managed to blunder its way to even more distrust from the electorate. Sensing this, AD could only take the lead in deserting the voting act, least it would suffer an humiliating defeat as now very few opposition electors would follow their parties on December 4. The result of that Sunday proved that AD was right in guessing the mood of the country.

The last days before the election

Faced by a massive defection that chavismo could not decide whether it liked, the government entered into a rather hysterical spiral.

Zulia’s governor Manuel Rosales was the last major player to withdraw, from the only state where no matter what manipulation the CNE did chavismo was almost certain of defeat. Rosales was the only actor from both sides able to rally the largest crowds of the electoral campaign. This made the withdrawing of the opposition now a really important matter, while at the same time making Rosales one of the real heavy weights of the opposition.

From fake praise to induce Rosales to remain in the race, Chavez personally initiated the round of insults against Rosales. There was no turning back in that mad race: the government decided to gamble it all and turn the election into a plebiscite over Chavez rule, making the abstention number equivalent to a NO vote. This impression came from either the intemperate words of the vice Rangel, or chavismo blithely "hoping" to get again the 5.9 millions it supposedly got in August 2004.

Nothing was spared, from promises of benefits and handouts to promise of punishment if public workers did not go out to vote on election day (easily verifiable since the ink stained pinky finger would show as late as two days after voting). Insults were hurled diligently by the vice president, making visible for all international observers the extraordinary involvement of the executive power in the campaign; something highly frowned upon in established democracies. What was worse is that the unforgiving campaign lasted all through election day with a long political speech by Chavez himself when he went to vote and with Iris Varela from Tachira state demanding publicly that public employees that did not go out and vote be fired next day. The only result was tying up even more the abstaining voter to a NO vote, the Chavez administration digging its own hole to fall in, in plain view of an astounded country.

Election day

There was no way to hide the empty polling centers, no matter what prohibition on news reporting were issued by the CNE to the media. Not even could the chavista media dare to break the interdiction since simply put they could not find a voting station full enough, except for the one where Chavez voted, easily packed with his traveling court. If opposition strongholds were staying away, pro Chavez area could only muster light voting at best. By noon all knew that abstention would be the big winner.

Unaccountably in spite of obvious abstention the CNE extended voting hours by a full hour alleging heavy rains in some areas of the country even though ¾ of the country had fine weather. International observers would notice that voting suddenly increased at that hour.

In spite of closing voting centers as late as two hours after the normal schedule, in spite of an all automated voting system we had to wait for 4 hours for an initial bulletin. One week later, with an all manual pen and paper system, and a high voter participation, the Chilean electoral system would emit its first bulletin in less time than it took Jorge Rodriguez to finally face the cameras.

He announced, or rather admitted, a 75% abstention result, a number contested from the very same moment it was announced (1). Anything more than 70% would have been considered a major chavista set back. A contested 75% was definitely not good news for a plainly despondent chavismo who in spite of winning 100% of the seats showed funeral faces on state TV instead of joyful ones (not a single one for the opposition even though some minor candidates remained in the race). The country knew. The time of easy lies was over (2).

The post mortem of December 4



The week that followed the election was not managed well by chavismo. To begin with the CNE did not help. It was totally unable to give coherent results as numbers of voters varied through its web pages (3). Massaging numbers to make abstention look more palatable was what all thought the CNE was doing. No one really cared since it was so obvious. In fact, it became quickly an “at least” 75%, which stuck. (4)

But it got worse.

A rather unusual null vote pattern appeared. This together with the meager votes of the opposition candidates that did not withdraw, made people realize that even with an unaccountable CNE sold out to chavismo, this one did not even manage to convince 20% of the Venezuelan electors to go out and ratify its political preeminence. Today a 15% number for chavista hard core voters seem to stick in the minds of all (as seen now as a constant reminder on the left side of this web page). The dismal 3 million votes was a far cry to the vaunted 10 million hoped for. And to add insult to injury the result was lower than for the municipal elections of August 2005. There was nowhere to hide.

And it got even worse.

The preliminary reports of the international observers came out. In spite of all diplomatic language required as matter of tact, and the obvious role of observers to only observe, it was clear from their text that they were not fooled. If duly they chastised the opposition from not having tried harder to participate in the election, they were rather direct in describing the CNE as the main culprit of the debacle from failing to create the necessary trust for an election to take place. The EU report went even further in pointing out the undue pressure of the government in trying to force people to go and vote. That report even mentioned the infamous Tascon list and the Maisanta program, modern McCarthysm, a political apartheid now suffered by the Venezuelan opposition.

A now totally perturbed chavismo started to attack international observers, to announce that the constitution would be changed to allow Chavez to stay in office until 2030, to announce that it will only recognize as opposition the minor candidates that stayed, that the traditional parties would have to renew their legal status, be punished for the expense of a useless election (!), ludicrous CIA driven plots, and etc

Chavismo could not hide how it was hurting, not because it had won 100% of the seats without a legitimate contest, but because it was now the main, if not only, responsible for the end of democracy in Venezuela.

As a suitable concluding and ironic moment, Jorge Rodriguez was asked to be the key note speaker for the commemoration of the December 15 1999 referendum on the new constitution. Only chavista representatives attended, few from the executive branch, and they gave him a standing ovation to his partisan speech, establishing for the international observers still in town that the CNE was in fact nothing more than the Electoral Ministry of the regime. And casting even more doubts on all elections since 2004! From blunder to blunder......

Questions

Analyzing what and why December 4 happened will require many posts, articles and perhaps even books by many people. A nice vacation occupation for many, including this blogger. The only thing we are all sure is that democracy, as we knew it, is over. The only real question is will Chavez complete the installation of an autocracy or will he back down at the edge of abyss and realize that he needs to recover the legitimacy he lost two Sundays ago. That one question he is the only one who can answer, though personally I think that he will chose the road to autocracy, or worse.

Meanwhile, we will be able to discuss the following items. Why chavista support has become so volatile? Will the opposition be able to cash in the abstention result and make it a victory (all parties have lost on the 4th, the one that will manage to lose the least might pas as a winner of sorts)? What will happen in Venezuela next year? Where are we as a country? What will this blogger do?

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1)That abstention of 75% was only overcome by the abstention for the municipal elections of December 2000, at 76%. This speaks volumes of the failure to engage the elector by Venezuelan politicians since 1998, in spite of the polarization of the country.

2) Sumate reports that according to them only 18% of people went to vote. It also reported that 30% of voting participation did take place during the extended voting hour! If these numbers are damning, it does not matter whether they are true and verifiable: the very numbers admitted by the CNE are bad enough already.

3)Today I checked out the CNE page and THERE ARE STILL discrepancies. For example for the election for the Latin Parliament we see a number of 13.933.494 registered voters whereas for the Andean Parliament we can read 13.928.900, a difference of 4594 voters when that “district” is THE SAME! Incidentally in this nation wide district, chavismo gets 20% of electors only.

4)The CNE has not published yet the national result for the National Assembly, only results by states. Well, if we look at Miranda state today we can see the following for registered voters: Andean Parliament 1.501.610; Latin Parliament 1.501.757 and Representative at large for the state 1.500.928. THREE numbers of registered voters for the same district!!!!! How can the CNE claim respectability!?!?! Not to mention that in May 2005 the official number was 1.514.943

The inconsistencies through 2005 have been notable. For example for the municipal elections of August the national voter registry read 14.404.799 and now it is either 13.933.494 or 13.928.900. Almost 500 000 voters gone in three months? If we use that 14 million number the abstention would be in fact 76%. How can we be sure of the numbers given by the CNE? Does'nt that 75% sound suddenly like a nice psychological number?

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