The abstention problem
There is a new problem in the Venezuelan electoral situation: abstention has been increasing since Chavez came to office. The numbers are telling: in 1998 abstention was around 40%, now it is about 80%.
There are two roots to that problem: the lack of an opposition motivating force (why go and vote for these folks that are not representing me the way I want to be represented?), and the lack of trust in the electoral system (why go and vote since the result is foreordained thing?)
This problem has become significant enough that not only it alters the Chavez campaign pushing him to even more cheap populism to try to lure voters, when not using direct threats, but it paralyzes the opposition effort, compromising thus the democratic future of Venezuela.
The nature of the “abstentionist” in mid 2006
Let’s look first at the Venezuelan non-voter as they are today.
The chronic abstention. Phrases such as “I do not care”, “I cannot be bothered”, “It does not make a difference”, “you mean there is an election today?” summarize pretty much, in any country of the world, the chronic non-voter. I would give a 10% number for Venezuela since until the 80ies participation rate was around 90%.
The “cynical” or disgruntled abstention. If 20% voted in 2006, most of them for Chavez, and 10% will never vote no matter what, that leaves the astounding number of 70% that are new in the non-voting game. If Chavez claims to have up to 60% in the polls that means that he fails to garner at election time 2 out of 3 of his supporters! Not that this is a consolation for the 40% of the opposition as most do not want to vote. We thus have two sub-groups in this category.
The chavista abstention. This can be divided in three sectors: 1) the ones that thinks that the system is rigged in favor of Chavez and prefer to stay home and drink beer 2) the ones that think that it does not matter as Chavez will win anyway (the difference with the first group is that they think elections are still fair, whereas the first group thinks they are not fair but are fine with it, a difference that is fair to point out as it affects how an electoral campaign is done) and 3) the ones that pretend to be chavista but are not really that committed and prefer not to vote (if we look at the problems in polling, discussed earlier, this group might be larger than suspected and is a good hunting field for the opposition). There is really no way no measure the numbers in each subgroup, and the grand total. Something that is very perturbing to the chavista camapaign.
The opposition abstention. Things are clearer here are the motivations are precise and might or might not apply all to any opposition elector. Let’s list the motivations to stay home, in no particular order: 1) “the opposition leadership betrayed us on August 2004 and there is no way I will vote for these creeps; send me new faces” 2) “The system is rigged. As long as Chavez does not change the CNE and puts an impartial one I am not going to vote” 3) “Chavez is a dictator; there is no point to discuss election with him; he needs to be taken out by force”. Needless to say that no matter how unpalatable these statements are they all have a grain of truth in it. And needless to add that in front of such an emotional argumentation, the task of the wanna-be opposition candidate is quickly made near impossible to achieve.
How does “abstention” affect particularly the Venezuelan elections
This is easy to see. Chavez has declared that he will win in December with 10 million votes. If no one goes to vote he will certainly win but not by much more than what his parliament got last December, say somewhere between 3 and 4 million. This would be a victory with a taste of defeat, much worse than what experienced, for example, Tony Blair last year. There is actually a fair chance that even with suspiciously ballooning electoral rolls, Chavez might not even get the 2004 total.
Thus Chavez has embarked in a strategy that includes the following (and lots more): populist agenda of open vote buying; threats to the recipients of social programs and public employees in case they do not vote (and do not vote properly, see the Maisanta program); rabble rousing the people with pseudo patriotic initiatives such as turning the election as an anti Bush contest or attacking weaker foreign leaders; threaten the opposition with much worse if they do not accept a pre established defeat at the polls (which of course affects negatively the opposition effort). In other words, discuss all but issues, no debate, you are for Chavez and the fatherland or you are a traitor.
Within the opposition
There the damage is more complex and sometimes more subtle. The biggest blow however comes from the radical abstention party which is intent on sabotaging any effort to reach some decent agreement with the CNE or even within the opposition. These radical group wants all or nothing, and of course do not offer a significant and possible strategy as to how achieve their goals. It does not seem to bother them that the brilliant success of the abstention strategy of 2005 has been totally wasted since they were not able to build on it. In fact the real problem of the abstention movement is that its self proclaimed leaders think that 80% of the country is behind them when in fact they get very few followers, except for AD which now is playing the abstention card but has no more than a 10-15% in the polls (and it is to be doubted that all of AD potential voters support an active abstention movement).
The fact of the matter is that abstention at large is a general disgust of the people with the political situation of the country. This comes from chavismo cheating openly in 2003, and since, and the opposition being unable to take a powerful stand when it should have. It is this internal opposition contradiction, its inability to take responsibility for its mistakes that keeps fueling the abstention feeling. Chavez is just the spark that keeps it lighted up.
How to deal with the abstention group within the opposition
This is actually quite simple: make it very clear that if a certain number of things are not gained from chavismo by a certain deadline, then the given candidate swears to withdraw from the race. The point here is to stop debating Chavez on his chosen ground (he much prefers you to argue about CNE irregularities than his lackluster administration), and to stop crucifying people that have to offer something to the country just because they do not share your one track mind against Chavez. To the “asbtentionist”: it is not enough to just hate Chavez even if he richly deserves it, you must offer a plan for the post Chavez if you want to make the abstention threat a believable one.
The abstention feel in the opposition electorate is playing havoc with any effort in building a credible challenge against Chavez, not to mention wrecking any chance of a united front. At the same time it favors Chavez as it ensures an easy victory, legal though not legitimate. But within chavismo the only thing that matters is legality above legitimacy or ethics. The paradox here is that abstention is also affecting chavismo by his self imposed unrealistic goal of obtaining 10 million votes in 2006. This pushes Chavez to more promises, more vote buying, that will wreck once and for all the Venezuelan democracy. It is the opinion of this blogger that an ill managed abstention campaign will do much more harm than good to our future as a people.
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