Saturday, December 03, 2005

How democracy ended in Venezuela: the final gasps

Readers of this blog certainly do know that I have long ago considered Venezuelan democracy on its way out. However this week is witnessing the last steps. I usually write a lengthy post a few days before any election, but I am late this time as events have been crazed. To keep up with the now fading tradition as there might not be anymore real elections to monitor, I have written this three part post where, to somewhat simplify things I describe in order first what were the main events and factors of this non-electoral campaign for a new National Assembly, then the crisis that erupted on Wednesday 23 and finishing with the situation as it is now for the individual players.

The electoral campaign

This one started under the worse possible conditions for both sides. Here goes the short story, since early August 2005 after the municipal elections

The lonely chavismo

The municipal elections were at the same time a triumph and a defeat for chavismo. The pyrrhic victory of a party who got control of more than 80% of town halls councils was made on the basis of a huge general abstention, and a near absolute division of the opposition. Indeed, it is assumed that more than half of chavista voters did not bother to vote, in spite of all the efforts of the state apparatus, including an illegal election day “spontaneous” rally lead by Chavez when he went to cast his ballot, shown live on TV for as long as needed.


Clearly, even with billions in social program spending, the enthusiasm had left the chavista camp. It might still be the main political force in Venezuelan politics, but it was more by sheer lassitude from the other side than any particular triumph of its actions. In fact, 7 years of arrogance, philocastrism, lavish spending on presidential caprices were coming home to roost.

So what did chavismo do? It forged ahead, giving even more money overseas, including to some Boston poor people who on state TV looked way more prosperous than the Venezuelan poor that some people were murmuring Chavez had lost interest for them, preferring the poor of other climes. At home radicalization of the system followed as a wave of expropriations took place and private property was openly questioned by members of the government. This was accompanied by a shrill, and only too often ridicule anti US stanza which did not seat quite well with many people, even poorer one who would probably prefer to take their kids to Orlando than to Havana. Polls started sagging some in October.

Still chavismo had two formidable advantages. First, unity and even servility to the great overlord. Against the law chavismo named all its candidates without primary elections, and without much consultation anyway. Chavez demanded safe candidates for a 2/3 majority to push the necessary changes in constitution so as to perpetuate himself in office à la Castro. This request was explicit.

The other advantage was chavista candidates access to the apparatus of state. This has been particularly shameless in these recent days of political crisis where I have been told of countless pressures put on public employees to go and vote or risk been fired next Monday, including from my S.O. Speaking only for my home state of Yaracuy, I have witnessed the most expensive election to date. For example, most important meetings ended up with lavish fireworks that would made some small town US very proud of their 4th of July firework if they could have afforded such fireworks. In another rally I even saw a large tent with about half a dozen high power AC apparatus. That is, now electoral rallies in this tropical state are held in cool air. Long gone are the days of sweaty governor Lapi running for reelection. And of course the distribution of free T-shits, jobs or booze cannot be evaluated.

Still surprisingly the walls of san Felipe are not particularly littered with chavista propaganda. I do not know if this is due to the lack of presence of the opposition or to the knowledge that chavismo was going to win anyway so the campaign was limited at the local struggle between the partisan of the PODEMOS governor (pro Chavez) and the MVR candidates, an oddity but not a fake division as the Morochas system ensured from the start that chavismo would get 4 out of 5 Yaracuy seats, the only contest being whether the MVR would get 2 or 3 seats.

The not so divided opposition

The debacle of August did bring some satisfactions for a few when the opposition leadership realized that only an electoral alliance would allow the opposition to retain at least 1/3 of the assembly. Mind you, not a programmatic alliance, just an electoral alliance. After much huffing and puffing that alliance took place and actually the list of candidates was in general rather good. But by the time this had been achieved, there were very few weeks of campaigning left, and still no money in the coffers.

It is important to notice that the opposition potential is a full 4 million votes as of the recall election of 2004 results. Pretending that Chavez has been gaining over the opposition since then is rather silly. Such events as the Tascon list used to fire people in public administration, or the aura of invincibility that Chavez did create promoted the illusion that Chavez was floating at a lofty 70% in polls. Finer pollster described that 70% as a “like Chavez” rather than an actual “I will vote for Chavez”. Even more, Chavez through 2005 has been consistently aggressing the opposition, linking it to the Empire as its servants, ironically just as his servitude to Castro was now unbridled. No, there is no way to believe that a significant fraction of that 4 million block (again, assuming that the results of 2004 are real results) has been dented away by Chavez. If nobody contests that Chavez leads in the poll, the solidity of his lead is very dubious and certainly dependent of the inexistence of an option at this writing.

What has fooled Chavez, and probably the opposition of the leadership itself, is the resentment that the hard work of 2003 and 2004 to gain a recall election was wasted through the inept opposition leadership response on August 16. The result has been simply that increasing numbers of the opposition voters stayed home at each election.

But this was not the only problem of the opposition. The Bolivarian Government found a way to scare political donors with the SENIAT or Venezuelan tax agency which leaves many European feared tax agencies and the IRS as mere gnomes. All the people who funded opposition political efforts through 2002 to 2004 found themselves audited, fined on the silliest of reasons, when not closed for a few days while thrown to public contempt. That public contempt did not last much as quickly it became a badge of honor to be “clausurado” by the SENIAT. However business folks do not have neither the inclination or means to give to a divided opposition leadership when they risk in addition the wrath of the government. As a result, the tardy campaign of the opposition could only count on some personal and meager donations to nail very few posters here and there. And forget about TV advertisement where the legal access to 10 minutes, free of charge, of government announcements daily on TV was by itself an insurmountable unfair pro Chavez media blitz.

The electoral system: an announced fraud

I have already extensively described the Venezuelan system here. In this section I just want to address the fact that all during the campaign Cassandra under the guise of SUMATE has been announcing that the voting conditions were not acceptable and that there was no guarantee of free and fair elections. The August 2005 report on "problems" was still valid in November. In fact SUMATE fought hard not to say outright that people should not go to vote. In late November they started asking people to go to church on election day to pray for Venezuela. At the 11 AM service preferably.

Briefly, just the main problems with the electoral system (SUMATE has an 80 something pages report on these irregularities, not to call them outright cheating, a short 10 pages PDF referendum version here):

  • End of proportional representation, that is with 40% of the vote chavismo can get 80% of seats. And if the abstention is high we could get to see that 20% of Venezuelans get 80% of seats at the Venezuelan National Assembly.
  • Secret of vote in jeopardy through the finger printing machines
  • No electoral roll call available to opposition parties. But the pro Chavez parties have access to it through the leaked Maisanta program. This makes much more difficult for the opposition to organize an effective campaign as it does not know exactly how many voters are in a specific district. That might not be important in a referendum or presidential election, but it could make the difference in a legislative election with discrete districts. This by itself could mean perhaps an extra 10 seats for chavismo as they could differentiate much better allocation of resources such as voter bus transportation on election day. Besides, that roll has been exposed as a fraud for the number of dead people registered, those of of the same name and alsmost same borth date, etc..
  • Gerrymandering as district shifts were done outside of the legal schedule, to favor chavista candidates.
  • An electoral high court that is composed exclusively of pro Chavez judges that are there to back an electoral Board, CNE, whose employees and directors are calculated as being at least 90% pro Chavez. No appeal can be made in such conditions.
  • And many more, some mentioned in this text such as the resource advantage for chavista candidates.

In short, a most irregular campaign, subdued but definitely tense as we all felt that nothing good could happen from it. We were right.

The political crisis in Venezuela

With this inauspicious electoral background, in the dying days of the campaign exploded the gravest political crisis in Venezuela since April 2002. The CNE, at its Fila de Mariches installations, held an audit of the voting machines. Interestingly from the start suspicions should have been raised: the voting machines had already been spread around the country and the selection of the audited ones was made by the CNE. Yet, in spite of adding all possible advantages the CNE was caught red handed cheating. And this in front of the International Observers of the OAS and EU. A rather obscure informatics technician, Leopoldo Gonzalez, rose to fame when he was able to say which international observer voted for whom in the mock ballot. While the US was eating turkey a political firestorm gathered speed at an incredible pace.

First, Primero Justicia secretary, Gerardo Blyde was able to negotiate successfully the withdrawal of the finger printing machines, supposedly breaking the loop that compromised the secret voting. With this uncontestable major victory the opposition went to the weekend feeling that in one week it could start reversing the abstention tide and perhaps snatch 1/3 of parliament from the jaws of a simultaneously over confident and anxious chavismo.

But brainy political strategist like Blyde, important political commentators like Petkoff, smart bloggers like yours truly did not see that it was not a tide we were fighting against, it was an abstention Tsunami. During the weekend public opinion, at least in the opposition camp (and probably in part of the chavista camp) realized that 1) the CNE had been cheating at least since the regional elections of 2004 and 2) there were probably more vote traps than the one detected on that fateful Wednesday demo.

Accion Democratica was a once glorious party that has fallen to all but nothingness. However if it lost its ability to lead, to be creative, it still has an ear on the ground. When all thought that AD was looking more and more like a chavista agent double it took the initiative to withdraw from the elections. AD simply saw the Tsunami coming and decided to grab its surfboard and see if it could survive riding the wave. Other folks did not see it coming and at first criticized heavily AD. But as the days passed one by one they all retired and even people like Petkoff admitted that nothing could be done to reason with the abstention party and that elections should be postponed as this was now a major political crisis. Strangely, the apparent opposition break up from the AD announcement resulted in a new reunification of the opposition, if anything they would all die altogether but with “las botas puestas” (the boots on). AD could not benefit long of the glory of flattering people’s frustrations. The reunification of the opposition came as the reflexive withdrawal of Primero Justicia and the pondered petition of Rosales deepened the crisis while strengthening their moral position with their electorate.

Meanwhile chavismo experimented an implosion of its own. In as series of cadenas Chavez broke every electoral law on campaign restraint. Things have been so bad, so pathetic, that tonight by curiosity a quick look at the state TV, VTV, which showed some kind of “spontaneous” gathering of some chavista politicians including Caracas Mayor at large, Barreto, questioning the “maleness” of opposition folks among other very tasteless joke that this blogger would not allow in his page. Surely another broken electoral rule that will go unpunished. At least the country knows how much chavismo is hurting and afraid of a massive abstention tomorrow. We even get high officials claiming that who cares about the withdrawal of AD or PJ when there are so many other candidates. Besides being silly, such a statement form the vice President himself illustrate quite well what the government thinks of the very parties that form his “coalition”: interchangeable identities without any personal value, just good enough to serve Chavez. Ah! the revealing moments we have experienced these days!

Even the CNE head, Jorge Rodriguez chimed in. instead of attending the pressing business of surveying the last minute details of the election, he found time to receive Globovision to provide the line that chavismo has been threading in the last 48 hours. It refers to what for example Clodosvaldo Russian mentioned yesterday when he spoke of the failure of abstention in the 60ies. This is not the place such an historical tergiversation of historical facts. What is pathetic is Jorge Rodriguez using himself the party line when he should be the impartial umpire. Truly amazing! I sure hope that somebody will point out this to the International observers!

Because that is where the crisis lay, an absolute inability for one site to trust the other one, an absolute inability to listen to each other, to even try to reach a compromise as the great leader must be obeyed, must not be threatened by anyone. So you get lackeys doing his bidding and an opposition that prefers to commit suicide than playing this game further. This is were we are at, on a turning point where we must either find ways to go back to more democratic ways or face the real possibility to slide into civil strife. Chavistas and antichavistas are both aware of the moment, even if some extremes in both camps cherish the moment.

The situation

The opposition

As Fausto Maso writes in El Nacional today all lose.

But I think that perhaps the opposition will lose more than chavismo, at least for the time being. The opposition will lose its official voice, as the government will now be able to chose whomever it wants to “dialogue” with, as all political parties will be without representation and of course and none will be able to claim preeminence.

I think it was an error not to go to election. But I also must understand that the Fila de Mariches came too late in the game. The opposition made the crucial error no to insist on a further revision of the whole system, not just base itself on the elimination of the finger printing machines. By the time it realized its mistake it had no other option but to follow the irrational desire to stay away of the ballot box.

Coming back to Fausto Maso, I concur with him that this time, if withdrawing from the race turns out to be a political mistake of colossal magnitude, the leadership of the opposition better fess up. It failed to do so in August 2004, creating the abstentions movement without realizing it. I think that only Zulia’s Rosales and somewhat PJ seemed to have escaped that curse, but this time no matter how calculated their moves are, they might be carried away in the storm if they make any single mistake. In that case it will be years to form a new movement, or even worse, we will have to wait for a dissidence within chavismo that might bring Chavez down only to be replaced by the same incompetent personnel.

Chavismo

This one has nothing top be happy about even if some of his silly followers showing how undemocratic they are show their happiness at a future monochromatic parliament. Heard on TV from some Mercal where participants were interviewed: one declared that these would be the “most democratic” election ever since the opposition will not run. It is not only the Vice and CNE Rodriguez that show their undemocratic bent, it is the whole system that Chavez built, which has radicalized power in the hands of an undemocratic minority.

On an international perspective it will be a disaster. Now Venezuela will be equated to some undemocratic Muslim country or some 4th world African republiquette. If Haiti pulls out some semi credible elections Venezuela will fall last in the Americas, with the most laughable system.
Oh, sure, people will sign deals with oil rich Venezuela, there is too much money to be getting from flattering the ego of a bolibanana republic autocrat. But to sign the deal Chavez will have to reward companies better than if an independent parliament were to ratify also those deals. In other words, any deal being guaranteed only by Chavez permanence in power, the private business from all around the world will demand “collateral”.

And wait until Chavez starts changing the national symbols, adding stars, shifting the horse direction and changing the names on the bands, while becoming president for life and who knows, even founding a new Yamoussoukro near the Orinoco-Apure axis that I am sure some complaisant French Ambassador will be only to delighted in helping design.

Without going so far in speculating what an unbridled Chavez might do, coming back to the real Venezuela of tomorrow, chavismo will not be the better for a monochromatic assembly. Its divisions will now become more apparent, and virulent as they will be based on how to divide the booty rather than serious development polices. They will have nobody to put the blame on. Its dissidence will be first one to complain as the press starts to be muzzled. Talent will flee the country at a faster rate while the dregs of world adventurers will flock to do business. I cannot recall of monochromatic parliaments that ended well.

At least I am happy to observe that at some level chavismo senses it. More than ever, after this week events, all these people that are about to step in the august hall where they would not have been hired even as janitor in past eras realize that they owe it all to Chavez. The hysteria of these last few days is actually an attempt at justifying at some level their getting in. Not having someone in the front bench to humiliate daily will force them to become their own people, or reveal their shortcomings. But then again that is why Chavez named candidate, because they are unfit but faithful.

Tomorrow

The government has refused to postpone elections, has refused to discuss any change in the electoral system. Yet on Monday morning its first task will be to initiate a new dialogue, to find a way to talk with the huge percentage of people that stayed home as now the opposition will be able to claim all the abstention as its own, in particular if the government does not reach 30% participation.

The incredible paradox of tomorrow vote is that chavismo will stab itself with the number wars it has been playing these past months. First there is the goal of 10 million votes in 2006. If tomorrow Chavez does not get 5 million, that goal will simply be out of reach, unless Saddam like he forces people to vote for him. We all know how that ended. Second, where are the so vaunted 70% favorable opinions in the polls? And last but not least, if participation does not reach 30% then the opposition can claim to be stronger than Chavez by just claiming half of abstention. In fact, anything below the 30% mark will be a disaster for chavismo, no matter how farfetched “historical” explanation chavismo spokespeople can come up with: all will have in memory the desperate attempts at thwarting abstention.

The only way chavismo can preserve some credibility tomorrow is by getting AT LEAST 40% of participation and of course 80% of votes for its candidates. Failure to do that will enter us in a long protracted crisis that could lead us to some form of tyranny and a possible civil war.

Will chavismo cheat? As a reference I want to point out to the huge lines of voters on August 2004. If there are not some lines visible for all centers, cheating will be quickly obvious. I will liek to point out that the huge increase in the yet to be audited electoral roll puts this one now at 14.5 million voters. It is not idle to remind folks that the yardstick that Chavez imposed on himslef is the recall election vote where he got 5.8 million votes meaning 59% of votes cast, for a 30% abstention. We will see tomorrow how real these numbers were.

I think that the opposition should have staid in the race. But now that we have crossed the Rubicon for the first time in my life I will not vote in an election that I could have voted in. And I am very sad at it.

I have no advice to give people but I think that the best is for all to stay home. If participation is below 40% Chavez will have to decide between democracy or a plebiscitary regime or an outright autocracy. Three scenarios. In the first case we might start a real dialogue and perhaps start solving the real problems of the country. In the second case it will be a mockery of legality that will not last long. In the third case, well, woe is us. But at least staying home we will finally learn of Chavez real intentions.

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