Friday, April 27, 2007

Gutting civil rights in Venezuela: the Recall Election example

These days where the constitutional changes are discussed in secret by a group of folks appointed by Chavez, there has been quite a few rumors circulating. Whether they are wild rumors or justified fears, the fact of the matter is that we all know what the changes are about: a single one, perpetuating Chavez in office until kingdom comes. The other are accessory changes to make the one that counts as permanent as possible. Does it matter in the end what are the constitutional changes that will be rammed down our throat? In 8 years of Chavez rule we have witnessed so many twisting of the laws that we all know that laws are meaningless, understood as tools to simplify the life and inner workings of the installation of an authoritarian regime.

Thus we have reached the paradox that the "perfect", "most advanced" constitution of 1999 is ALREADY in the dire need of a refurbishing that will include at least 20% of its articles! I personally know of no serious world constitution which required such an overhaul. Usually it is simply easier to do a new constitution.... but what do I know...

Whatever hits the constitutional blue book we know one thing for sure: whenever required by chavismo it will be gutted of all meaning. To illustrate this we have now a rather complete example on how a novel constitutional feature, and political right, of the 1999 document has been gutted of all real value: the Recall Election system. Let's visit this scandal.

Recall Elections in Venezuela

First let's remind the constitutional provision. Under the constitution of 1999 when any elected official reaches its half term, 20% of citizens in his or her circuit can sign a petition for a recall election. If the electoral authorities, CNE, decide that the 20% names have been collected in due form, then it is obliged to call for a Recall Election (ill called "revocation referendum" in Venezuela). To remove the said elected official there is the need to gather more votes in favor of removal than the votes the official obtained for his election. That is all.

Now let's see how this "right" has been twisted beyond all recognition and even democratic value, including profound human rights violation.

The 2004 example

The test case of this provision was a recall election of Chavez planned in 2003 and finally carried unsuccessfully in 2004. The wounds of this traumatic experiment by themselves meant that the Recall system would be useless in the future. How did that happened?

Referendum, plebiscite or election?

First, there was an interpretation of the constitution that made the Recall Vote, originally planned as a referendum, a plebiscite. That is, now it was decided that it was not enough to get more votes to remove a public official than those that were obtained for his election: in addition the people that did want the official to stay had to be less numerous. If in a way there is a certain fairness in demanding that a majority of the people does indeed want the official out, it did change the nature and the objective of the vote. Now, instead of having a vote to evaluate the management of the elected public servant, it became a cryptic political election where there was only one candidate, a plebiscitary event. It is not that it is undemocratic, the problem is that the intention of the constitution was changed.

Still, one could live with that interpretation since after all the National Assembly who was supposed to legislate on Referendum conditions had not done it then (nor as it done it so far, 6 full years after it was required to do so by the new constitution!). One could expect that the eventual law would give the correct constitutional interpretation, but as it has been often proven, all the tricky points of the 1999 constitution, all of those who could rest power to Chavez have been left out of the legislative agenda and will probably be simply cut in the changes to be announced any time soon.

The Tascon list

The legal problems about the real nature of the Recall Election of 2004 in fact pale when one looks at the Tascon List. This list was created on a web site organized by assemblyman Luis Tascon where the ID numbers of all who asked for a recall election were published. That is, you could enter the ID of any people you would know, co-worker, relative, friend, neighbor and you could figure out whether that person was for or against Chavez. Soon that list ballooned with the inclusion of people participating in Chavez social programs (pro Chavez) and people who manifested against Chavez in other activities (e.g. other referendum petitions of anti Chavez nature). That list was actively used by the government to discriminate against people that were perceived or assumed to oppose Chavez. Those people were fired from governmental jobs, denied promotions, and if they were not working for the government could be subjected to all sorts of abuses starting from passport denial.

The objective here is not to discuss these violations which are extensively documented in several links offered on the right side of this page. No, the objective is to state the immediate consequence of such a governmental discrimination: nobody would again risk apposing his or her signature on a recall election least the person being voted upon wins and is able to seek revenge.

This happened because not only the CNE put a heavy and totally unreasonable burden on the process, a burden decried by international observers, but because it also did not take any action to avoid this witch hunt, and in fact all but promoted it by having one of its directors, today nothing more than the vice president of the republic, Jorge Rodriguez, qualify as "pillos" (bandits?) the promoters of the Recall Election drive. That at the end 40% voted against Chavez did never bring an apology from him when he publicly looked down on the 25% who signed, as if they were a figment of collective imagination, making them along the way second class citizens.

As far as this blogger was concerned there would be no more recall election in Venezuela. Unless... called by the pro Chavez sector and thus many people would go and sign up to avoid to be put into another "reverse" Tascon list. But this blogger has been proven wrong as the pro Chavez crowd has managed to diminish further this "right" to recall lousy politicians.

Today's farce

In a surprise development since the mayors and governors elected in 2004 reached their half term last October we have seen a flourishing business of launching recall election petitions. The casual observer could be mistaken in thinking this a demonstration of democracy considering that the huge majority of elected officials today are in Chavez camp and thus the overwhelmingly mount of politician that might be subjected to election are within chavismo.

But the observer would be dead wrong upon this observation, an observation that by the way the regime tries to put forth as an evidence of its democratic bent. But it is a fraud alright.

The first element of that fraud is that even if about a third of the folks elected are under threat, this threat is weak: none of the 20% signatures has been collected yet and my bet is that there are few cases where such a collection might actually be successful. After all the opposition is very unlikely to participate in that masquerade and many in chavismo either do not care nor do understand why so many chavista are under ballot threat! Weren't these politicians named by Chavez to run for the seat they are presently holding?

But the comedy does not stop there: of the two opposition governor only one might go for a Recall election whereas up to 13 chavista governors might be subjected to it! This is already suspect, but more about it later.

Thus we could look for some credibility in the way the operation is undertaken by the CNE. But we observe that the provisions to organize a Recall Election have still not been approved by a law, these provisions having the same arbitrary nature as the ones in 2004. And this is as good as any a moment to remind the reader that in 2004 the purposeful delays of the CNE sabotaged effectively the collection of signatures for Recall Election for other folks than Chavez. The ones that were gathered by chavistas then were never validated and the Recall Motion was simply called off by the CNE. Quite a nasty precedent of this year process, no?

Btu it gets better: the CNE has announced that this time they will audit only 4% of the collected signatures. Let's remember than in 2004 the CNE decided to review all the collected signatures, and forced hundred of thousand of folks to go through the public humiliation to go again RATIFY their signature. Nothing of that this year.

You could ask how the safety of the voter will be covered. The CNE very magnanimously announces that the officials subjected to a Recall Election petition will be allowed to view the signatures but not be allowed to copy them for their own check up. Huh? So Chavez was allowed to verify every single signature but this time the guys in office will be allowed to only see that indeed the CNE collected the signatures but not verify them themselves? In other words they are supposed to trust 100% a CNE which has demonstrated amply that it cannot be trusted with anything.

However what is missing from the CNE announcement is an effective policy on will leaks be punished. Let's not forget that the data will be on disk somewhere and could easily be leaked to the interested party, ready to use that list for later political "revenge". And as for anyone using improperly such list, no sanctions are previewed. After all Tascon keeps running around as if nothing, cashing his fat pay check while the thousands of people whose life he ruined have to resort, if they can afford it, to international courts to try to get a redress. But of course, punishing Tascon woudl imply punishing Chavez who approved of such a list, thus dooming the safety of the voter willing to risk his neck against an elected official.

How can one expect the present process to succeed?

But it gets worse: apparently the unexpected amount of Recall Election petitions seems to be originated from a few group of people who organize these drives in states where they are not residing. That is, the Recall Election process is intended for the people to deal directly with the official they elected, but apparently there are some people within chavismo that have made it a cottage industry to submit such petitions anywhere they care to do so, even if a few months ago they did not even know of the existence of the person that they are working hard now to unseat.

This is in fact so bad that the CNE has taken the unusual step to offer a "regret period" for the people who are abusing this right. That is, if after May 18 they have not withdrawn their petition then the CNE would examine whether these people are indeed allowed to solicit such a petition. See, it seems that in fact chavismo is using the Recall Election system to settle internal accounts and to purge a few people that are not considered revolutionary enough. That is right, what is being judged in this new wave of Recall Election drives is not the management skills of a given elected official but whether this official is more faithful to Chavez or to the people who voted for him or her in October 2004.

Conclusion

Thus we have seen a case study on how a new civil right enshrined in the 1999 constitution has been twisted beyond recognition to become an instrument of state sponsored discrimination (the apartheid like Tascon List) or of political manipulation and purge (this time around).

But this is also happening with all sorts of political rights. For example this week Chavez has announced that the decentralization that started in the late 80ies will be severely curtailed and such things as medicine will be completely centralized in Caracas. Or when we observe how property rights are increasingly menaced. Not to mention how the closing of RCTV is understood by all as the first step in curtailing freedom of expression. There is a clear pattern. In the case of the Recall Election we have the complete strategy now completed. Maybe this is due to Chavez being the first "victim" of this Recall right. He is going to make sure that it does nto happen to him anymore.

For all practical purpose the Recall Election system is dead and the current drive will more than likely fail miserably unless Chavez intervenes personally to force people to go out and sign.


-The end-

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Where does Venezuelan crime comes from?

When the weekly crime total of Venezuela hovers above 100 with peaks instead of dips, one is allowed to start wondering how come the government is not doing more about protecting the lives of the citizens. Is it actually a strategy of the government? To terrorize the people so that they will not even consider protest against their everyday deteriorating conditions because, well, they could get mugged or killed while they march in protest? Only in recent months the Iraq death toll has been consistently above the Venezuelan one, and Venezuela is not at war, nor is occupied by a foreign army (unless the Nazional Guard and the Cubans are considered as such).

So we should not be surprised that Weil translates quite well this growing preoccupation: is the military nature of Chavez regime promoting violence and crime?


I think so.

-The end-

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bayrou: how to lose and win in France

For the regular readers of this blog I must apologize. There are so many things to write about Venezuela these days, but... Forgive me for indulging in yet another post where I can discuss about a country where politicians do not show obvious pathological signs, where a real electoral campaign happens, with real propositions that actually could be implemented and give measurable results, a campaign that offers all sorts of surprises, where appealing, educated, smart candidates are able to campaign against each other without gross barrack insults such as a certain candidate does in a country that shall remain nameless. Yes, you guessed it, I am still following the French election, may TV5 be blessed.

The nature of a second round election

A second round election is in the French system a flash campaign that must manage to combine the work done in the preceding 6 months, with the ability to modulate enough one's message in two weeks to convince enough of the folks that did not vote for you to come over and get you over that 50%. In other countries the second round can be extended to several weeks and in a way it becomes a brand new campaign. But in France politicians do not have that privilege to reinvent themselves. They must demonstrate in two weeks that they can go from being a mere politician to become a statesman. French people, once the election is over, tend to think of their president as the embodiment of the nation, for better or for worse; and impeachment is not a word as easily flung as in the US.

This in a way surprises foreign observers who see all sorts of nasty words hurled at the diverse candidates but once they are elected there is almost a monarchical respect about the president and his private life. For example the extra marital affairs of Chirac or Mitterrand were never daily fodder of tabloids. Mitterrand was even able to hide for years the existence of an out of wedlock daughter. This became finally an issue when he started taking her on his travels. The second round campaign, its brevity and single debate structure, must be understood as the opportunity for both candidates to rise from the common of mortals and show that they can be France. It is a weird concept but that is the way it is.

For the observer that has a lot of trouble understanding this, in particular the US observer, let me make a parenthesis about the US electoral system. Most folks are amazed at the length of the American Presidential process. After all, general election is in November 2008 and you would think that Hillary and Barak are already preparing for the Democratic convention in a few days. What people do not realize is that in fact the American voter likes these long drawn primary battles because it sorts out candidates on their ability to direct a very complex federal state. The US being the Empire it is, folks like to see up from close their future emperor, to let him (or her?) know that they are the ones that will put her/him in office because a given candidate could make the difference between San Diego and San Antonio. How best to measure the management ability of a presidential candidate but to watch them running the primary road show, its scores of peoples, travels, issues, money raising, etc...? That is what matters to the US voters: will s/he manage my tax money adequately? In France it is: will s/he make me feel good to be French? The Prime Minister is the one who gets the blame for tax money mismanagement, by the way.

To each countries its peculiarities.

Bayrou, the loser who won

In this context we can see a new Bayrou emerge today. What? Bayrou? Isn't he the guy who came in third last Sunday?

He did but he holds the key for the second round and today he announced that he would not give an indication to his followers on how to vote. That is, 18.5% of French electors will do as they think fit, without any indication from their leader. And believe it or not this was a master strike by Bayrou. With this announcement he has taken control of the campaign while Sarkozy and Royal will do the impossible to have his folks come over their respective dark side of the force.

But that is not all: Bayrou also announced that he will be forming a new centrist party, that his current UDF had served its purpose and could not keep carrying with it the rightist connotation it received when it was Giscard D'Estaing vehicle. With this Bayrou implied that he is already starting his campaign for the legislative elections of June, making these elections a real third electoral round where he could well come out the New Prime Minister of whomever wins two Sundays from now.

Now, I am impressed. Not by the announcement: this was the way to go for him. No, I am impressed because he actually pushed the envelope to the max, he had the guts to confront the Socialist challenger and the official UMP as well. For the next month and a half Bayrou is on the driver seat of French Politics, unless he makes a mistake. But I saw his press conference today, and his TV apparitions and it was a different Bayrou: poised, in control, directed. A man with a plan. We are not done with him.

Segolene Royal reacts

The socialist front woman reacted quite fast and quite well and quite surprising. As Bayrou she showed that she had guts by confronting her fossiliferous left wing. She immediately challenged Bayrou to a public exchange of ideas BEFORE she meets Sarkozy for the official debate. She also said that she would consider UDF ministers in her next government.

In other words she decided that the Socialist party should open itself to the Center, where the votes are, where the victory will come from. And may the radical left or the fossil socialists deal with the new French political reality! Ms. Royal has decided to play down her cards of modernization and of turning the socialists into a truly social democratic party, not bound to outdated, retrograde and unworkable dogmas such as the 35 hours work week or the anathema on any politician that does not put social programs ahead of any other governmental considerations.

Ms. Royal for all of her failings knows how to read an electoral result. After all she learned from the best, François Mitterrand. She knows that the right has the votes. She also probably already knew what is the surprise these days: that maybe as much as 50% of Bayrou voters are in fact socialist deserters! These people who have abandoned the socialist party because they realize that a 35 hours week, and an incredible burden of social regulation is slowly asphyxiating France and that the socialist policies will eventually doom the welfare state. Yet they are not ready to go all the way to the free wheeling ways that Sarkozy is proposing with some economical aspects. She sensed that these people might not have deserted her, but rather have not followed her because they do not think she can control her left wing. What better way to demonstrate your will to control your left wing by going to your right in search of new allies, of a new presidential majority?

It is too early to know if her gambit will pay off. If she pisses of the radical left she might not be getting enough Bayrou votes anyway to compensate. But does the Radical Left has a choice? As I pointed out last post, Voynet of the greens was already claiming loud that only a victory was possible if Royal stuck on the leftist ideas. Because Voynet knows full well that a Royal-Bayrou alliance would make her green movement irrelevant (and deservedly so, by the way, for all the mistakes they have done along the way). But what if Royal's gambit pays off? All will change in France. For better or for worse, who knows!? But the way politics are done will change and the repercussions will provoke a likely division of the socialists and of the UMP and who knows what will emerge.

Sarkozy does not react

If there was another surprise today it was that Sarkozy dismissed Bayrou words. True, he does not need Bayrou as much as Royal needs him. With the Radical Right and half of Bayrou votes he might make it. But if Bayrou and Royal debate works out for them, Sarkozy might not even be sure of 25% of Bayrou votes. The surprise today was finer exit polls that actually show that more voters of Bayrou come from the left than form the right, and thus the center is build mostly on tired disillusioned leftist. That is not enough to transform them overnight in conservative voters.

Thus it is surprising that Sarkozy did not want to meet Bayrou over a debate, sticking to the tradition that the campaign should be between the two winners of the second round. And that is likely a mistake as Sarkozy breaks the main rule of second round campaigns: try to become the image of France! The mood is for a change in the ways things are done and this sudden "conservative" approach is not in l'air du temps.

But Sarkozy also knows how to read results. A Royal victory would probably mean a legislative hemorrhage toward the new UDF that Bayrou as promised to create. French right wing electors ever so pragmatic will realize that their interests might be better defended by Bayrou folks inside a coalition where they will exert a moderating effect, than outside the parliamentary majority with the UMP, which by the way has lost control of the regional government for the next three years. And a safe victory WITH Bayrou might not be much better for the UMP. No, Sarkozy knows that his gamble is to win by appealing directly to enough Bayrou voters. If he succeeds he will get a parliamentary majority in June. If he loses? The UMP might be out of office for the next ten years, even if it does not divide itself and meet further trouble. If he wins with Bayrou? He will be blackmailed by him as this one will all but immediately start his presidential campaign of 2012. That is, Sarkozy winning with direct help from Bayrou would also become a hostage of Bayrou.

Conclusion (for the time being...)

Sarkozy and Royal have in fact evaluated very well the Sunday result.

The socialist candidate knows that she is in trouble and that the best she can get is a presidency with a coalition government with Bayrou. She went for it.

The UMP candidate has realized that he has a chance of winning without Bayrou, or play it safe but accept that he will depend on Bayrou good will for the next 5 years. He decided to go for broke and win on his own.

Paradoxically both have made a choice that appeals to the French in their president. Royal decided to play the unification card. Sarkozy played the strong presidency above political parties card. It remains to see which one will win. So far polls are smiling to Sarkozy but today's event could quickly turn this into a tight race, relying all on May 2 debate.

Whatever, it will give us one of the most interesting second round campaign in memory.

-The end-

Monday, April 23, 2007

The French Election Results

It is nice to follow French elections. Newspapers in France have such a wealth of graphs and maps that they should be the envy of any country. Within a couple of day Liberation will have an interactive map that will allow you to look for complete results in small districts. Meanwhile tonight they already, ALREADY, have an interactive map with the regional results and the main cities of France (1). I copied it here so you can have an idea. And also see the favorable position that Nicolas Sarkozy holds at the end of the first round election. As one would say in the US political jargon the second round vote is for Sarkozy to lose (blue areas). It will be very difficult for Segolene Royal, in pink, to catch up with Sarkozy and this one could well win by an 8 point margin, a huge victory by French political standards. However, such a result is not automatic as I will discuss below.

The very good news of the election

There are two excellent news coming out from the election this week end.

The first one was the highest voter participation since the beginning of the 5th Republic in 1958 (republic numerals change in France for very good reasons, not because some caudillo says so!). The final abstention number is expected to be barely above 15%! The immediate conclusion is thus that when there are good candidates and real options offered, well, people get interested in the outcome of an election and contribute to that outcome. Take that US political system! Or take even more of that Venezuela: think about the legislative election of 2005...

The second news is that when you have such a massive participation the motivated extremes tend to show their true strength in the country. The French Extreme Right of Le Pen dropped to barely more than 10 %. But also the Communist party got its lowest score ever falling below 2% while the Radical left, mostly Trotsky ersatz sums at most 7 points. All in all, all of these extremes put together do not reach 20%! The 2002 debacle is reverted, we know that 80% of France espouses strong democratic values and even when they want real reforms they want them in peace and democracy, be these reforms coming from the right or the left.

France remains on the right side

No matter what the second round reserves for us in two weeks, from the graph below we can see that the right in France remains the majority, even after 5 years of a very lousy Chirac administration. In this graph I have added the totals of the different parties in somewhat ideological similarities.


I have tried to avoid words such as Extreme as I think it is unfair to describe Le Pen as an Extreme when some of the Trotsky candidates are barely more moderate than he is... but also because it allows me to group by political families the different groups and then perceive better what could be the outcome of the second round. Thus we have:

The Radical Right

This is Le Pen and de Villiers, a strong right wing anti European who in older days would have been the pro monarchy candidate. Together they are the most anti European groups of the lot, but together they do not even get the Le Pen score of 2002. They are expected to go at least half to Sarkozy in the second round even if this one does not court them. Their allergy to the left will be enough, though not an insignificant number of them might end up voting for Segolene hoping that she will fail and that they can grow for next election. These people are able to conceive such strategies.

The Center Right

Sarkozy's UMP alone has made a rather respectable score considering that it is an outgoing administration. In fact Sarkozy gets 10 points more than Chirac did in 2002 when he did not even reach 20%! A truly shameful result for a president seeking reelection. A number, by the way, that goes along way to explain his lackluster second term. At the very least this places the UMP in a very favorable position for the next legislative election even if Royal were to win in the second round.

The Center

The Center used to be a force to reckon with in France, during the 4th Republic and during the 5th where it got a very strong boost under Lecanuet and even reached office with Giscard D'Estaing though he was definitely on the right of the Center. But the Mitterrand years polarization laminated the center. It is still too early to see if Bayrou more than respectable 18%, a success that the Liberals of the UK would envy, will be transformed in a revived centrist option. The first requirement for that would be that the Socialists were to accept to share power with the UDF of Bayrou, and that is far from acquired.

But the main weakness of the Center is that it is formed by many right of center folks that do not like much Sarkozy but in the second round will likely go back to the right anyway. Also there were a significant number of socialists voting for Royal as a pragmatic vote since all polls showed that Bayrou would win against Sarkozy whereas Royal would lose. My prediction is that at the very least half of Bayrou voters will go to Sarkozy but 30% to Royal at most. That would be enough for Sarkozy to win. Segolene Royal needs to make an electoral pact to try to get an endorsement from Bayrou, which probably means that he would become her prime Minister if he wants. I do not see the socialists accepting such a pact, nor even Bayrou voters going for it. In such case Sarkozy would still get nearly 50% of Bayrou voters and Royal would climb up to 50% of that share, while she might lose from her radical left...

Other

This is really a small hunter's movement, a rural curiosity, and it probably would go towards Sarkozy or abstain. It is loosely considered a center right ecological option.

The Center Left

The French Socialist Party is more and more looking like a Social Democrat party and a Royal victory would likely accelerate such evolution. Also, after having been supported by many leaders of the old fashioned left in a less than lukewarm fashion, she will be very tempted to accelerate such a renovation. However, together with the Greens, we find that this is a rather meager score for the legislative majority that she will need, but we can call it Center Left as of now.

The surprise here is not really a surprise: the collapse of the Greens who barely get 1.5% after the 5.25% of 2002. What happened? first the Greens are victim of that need to vote pragmatic at the first round to make sure that Royal would reach the second round. The trauma of 2002 when Jospin was eliminated at the first round is still too fresh. But the Greens have made another big mistake which eventually explains their disaster tonight: they have associated themselves too easily with the Socialists since 1997. No serious Green party can expect to maintain its originality and its ecological message if it ties its fate to a mainstream party for too long and too tightly. The Greens enjoyed too much the Socialists offerings of some of the perks of power undue for a rather small group; and they lost a lot of their attraction. It is likely that the Greens will experience a crisis in their movement and that we could even see a more independent Green movement emerge.

But back to the Socialists. Their score is relatively good. Indeed, they regain their position in French politics but they are in fact weak. Their weakness comes from two angles. First the rather surprising strong Sarkozy score, passing the magical 30% is bad news per se. But also they do not have a "reserve". Mitterrand in 1980 counted on a Communist Party with more than 10% that could be counted on to automatically transfer its votes to his name on the second round. This is not the case as the Radical Left is now a divided mosaic of prima donne that need to be individually courted. In other words, the "historical vote reservoir" of the socialists has disappeared without fattening much these ones.

Segolene Royal faces thus a difficult second round campaign and her rather somber demeanor tonight, where she was far from exulting, showed that she knows she is far from becoming the First French Female President. And even if she manages it, she is far from assured to get a majority in the coming legislative elections. If Sarkozy can afford not to court too much the Bayrou voter, Royal has to find a way to gain over their good will. Her victory goes through the center this time, not the Radical Left.

The Radical Left

This one tonight, through Buffet of the Communist party was already saying that Ms. Royal had to reassert the values of the Left if she wanted to win. Ms. buffet is not misjudging the situation, in fact she understand it very well even if she is saying exactly the opposite of what she should be saying according to logic. She knows that in fact Royal does not even need to request for her vote and Buffet already gave her the Communist Party endorsement. No, what Ms. Buffet knows is that if Royal makes a pact with the Bayrou camp this can send the Communist Party of France into oblivion, and thus her blustery warning. She must prevent such a pact even if she is forced to support such a pact in the end.

The situation has considerably changed in the Radical Left. The Communists have ceased to be the dominant force there. Now it is Besancenot and his Revolutionary Communist League (LCR in French) turn to become the standard bearers of the radical left as he manages almost half of its votes. Now France is the only Western Country, as far as I know, whose main Radical Left political expression comes in part from Trotsky ideas, even above traditional commie jargon. However what is more remarkable is that Besancenot retains his 2002 percentile which means that in absolute numbers his score increased and that LCR could become someday a 8-10% movement once the other minor parties dwindle into oblivion. This would complicate considerably the Socialists games to retain or gain power.

The question is whether this Radical Left which has attacked the social blandness of Segolene Royal a lot will be able to convince its voters to vote for her. I think that at least a 80% of them will go and vote anyway. But I also suspect that there will be enough of these radicals that will prefer to see a right wing government in the hope that in 5 years from now they will be stronger, betting on a renewed polarization, on gaining more and more over the immigrant poor neighborhoods (which is far from a proven theory).

Conclusions?

The election, for me, is for Sarkozy to lose. There will be a only debate on May 2 and unless Sarkozy stumbles badly there, it is difficult for Royal to overcome what seems to be a 54-46 advantage for Sarkozy, something that has been constant in all polls for weeks and something that can be confirmed by tonight's results (if I include my predictions here and some other I did not write down, I get a 5% advantage for Sarkozy, already less than the 8% predicted by polls. Even a 5 % is still a more than decent margin in French politics).

But even if Sarkozy messes thing up (and he well could if he gets exasperated by an "anti Sarkozy front" promoted from some leftist sectors) the victory of Ms. Royal would be a hair thin victory of a completely atomized camp whereas Sarkozy hair thin defeat would be within a more unified camp. Thus the legislative elections would become a "third round" where any majority could pop out. A weak government would follow and France would have to postpone for a t least a couple more of years the long overdue reforms.

Thus if Royal does well in the debate I might find myself voting for her in two weeks while hoping that Sarkozy wins. But if she does not convince me I will find myself voting for Sarkozy hoping that her showing is good enough in the second round so that she will still be able to modernize the socialist party. In other words, if I vote for Sarkozy that might mean that he indeed will win by an 8 % margin.

Again, no simple answers. You gotta love politics :)

--- --- --- --- --- ---

1) Or you can go to the pages of Le Monde and look at the great interactive charts.


-The end-

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Venezuela and France : who has the best voting system?

Before I give a review of the great French results, the first thing that strikes me is the difference in the quality of the vote between France and Venezuela.

In a way it is not fair to compare both countries as France has a much longer democratic and institutional tradition than Venezuela, predating even the French Revolution. But the abysmal difference between the way French people and the way Venezuelan people perceive the results of their elections tells us quite a tale.

In short: after a mostly manual vote, counting every little paper one by one and communicating the results via phone call to the Interior Ministry in Paris (yes, that is right, the Interior Ministry, not some "independent" organization such as the CNE is supposed to be), 2 hours after polls close the said Interior Ministry publishes its first result with 63% of the ballots counted and gives a result that nobody contests. Oh, sure, some are not pleased by the result but I did not hear anyone on the news or TV sets mentioning the words "fraud", "unfair advantage", "sold out" or some assorted variation. All candidates have already recognized the results, even before the Interior Ministry announcement, as exit polls were scrupulously announced at 8 PM, Paris time.

Let's go by steps.

First, the French vote with little paper ballots such as in the picture next. That is right, when you get inside the poll station you are to lift yourself a ballot for EVERY candidate and go behind some curtain to stuff an envelope with a single one of these papers and then drop that envelope in a transparent ballot box. Now, how primitive can you get? True, this time there were some centers that were asked to try automatic voting but the first reports were rather negative: the French, well, they like their paper vote.

In Venezuela we all vote now automatically and yet half of us do not like it, do not trust it, would rather vote on paper as we used to do. And guess what? With automated voting we still have to make long lines wheres the frogs make at most a one hour line beofre voting....

In the French provinces polls close at 6 PM, but in major cities they close at 8 PM. Nobody complains about that and somehow everybody manages to vote in the allocated time. Amazingly there are very few polling stations that have to remain open after 8 PM, EVEN today when voter participation might have been the largest under the 5th Republic. In Venezuela the CNE is constantly tampering with voting schedule, which does not help in developing trust as suddenly the arrival of bus loads of people are reported... Oh! and no military around voting stations in France, whereas in Venezuela the military is increasingly intervening in the polling stations deciding how things should be run.

In Venezuela the CNE was created as a "fifth power" to guarantee the transparency of the elections. It has dismally failed as half of the country does not like it. In fact if we look at the political composition fo the country we can observe that the overwhelming majority of the opposition to Chavez does not trust any result emitted by the CNE and we can see that many within chavismo actually do not mind at all the partiality of the CNE, implicitly acknowledging the possibility of fraud. In France, amazingly, it is the Interior Ministry, a political position, which manages the elections and all agree with the result. Food for thought for Tibisay Lucena, CNE head, as she has been invited to observe the French elections. Hopefully she will learn something about it, or at least wonder how come people do not trust her in Venezuela.

And to finish the speed of results publication. In two hours the French Interior Ministry gives the participation and the results of 63% of the counted ballots. In Venezuela we are still waiting, as far as I know, for the complete and exact results of the legislative elections of 2005 where barely 15% of the people voted.

The lesson? Trust has to be earned and in an election it is important that all of the country trusts the electoral system, not only the side that wins as is the case in Venezuela. In 1998 nobody contested the result of the election that gave Chavez a victory. Yest, NONE of Chavez successive victories after that date has been truly recognized, has been considered as actually representative of the country political composition. As long as the CNE does not manage to get a 90% approval of the way it handles elections, the country will not find political rest. And as we can see from the French example, the problem is not really that the CNE is filled with pro Chavez people, after all, in France it is a political appointee that manages the elections. The problem is that as long as the CNE does not stop acting as appointed thugs it will never gain the trust of the country.

But of course we all know that it is part of the Chavez strategy: as long as the opposition does not trust the CNE, and it has plenty of reasons not to trust the CNE, then the opposition will remain divided between an abstention party and a voting party, simplifying greatly the fraud activities of chavismo.

-The end-

A historical vote in France: Sarkozy and Royal in, Le Pen to the trash can

At exactly 8 PM Paris time the first round election projection came in: Sarkozy won with 29.6% and Royal made a good second position 25.1%. In third Bayrou with 18 %.

But the best results are in the participation vote which might have been an historical high (it is at least 20% above normal in the Americas and Polynesia) and Le Pen falls to 11%. If we add to this some of the not very democratic minority candidates we have no more than 20% of "extremist" vote in France. With today vote France succeeds in renewing its political cast while refreshing its democracy with a good campaign, a good debate and an exceptional participation.

Caracas result

I have been told that the Caracas embassy gave 55% to Sarkozy. In other words, this is the highest vote ever on the first round for a center-right or right candidate in Venezuela. Courtesy of the Chavez effect? The participation was also very high: people had to stand in line for up to one hour, something never seen at an embassy vote in Caracas. Confession: for personal and work reasons I could not go to Caracas so I did not vote!!! But fear not, I will be there, the deities willing, for the second round.

(to be updated later in a new post)


-The end-

Friday, April 20, 2007

Nuremberg at El Poliedro: how can dialogue be possible in Venezuela?

These past few days have given us a lot of material for future discussion. One piece to discuss without fault was the show yesterday at El Poliedro, the big sports/concert arena of Caracas. Chavez does not like to use it that much as on occasion he has not been able to fill it up all the way. But Thursday night was a no miss affair as he was swearing in new members of the PSUV party; and as it is the case in such mass movement of a proto-totalitarian nature, people walk over each other to be the first ones to sign in and access to the high positions as fast as possible.

So, Chavez got a good crowd and interesting pictures to promote his new party (for those who are into this sort of things, even if the picture I chose here as a chilling big-brotherish feel). But Chavez being Chavez he could not resist holding the podium for hours, blocking exits for people: in chavista events once you are in you cannot leave for "security reasons"; I know that from many people that have had to attend such events. Obviously a camera that would catch people leaving a Chavez speech would be very bad for his image. And Chavez being Chavez, well, he again made one of those announcements that makes wonder where we are really heading.

This time the target was Sucre governor Ramon Martinez. Since recently public lynching have become a state media policy, now it was the turn to Chavez to confirm this by attacking, insulting, berating and what not the Sucre state governor who was already a governor when Chavez was a nobody. Martinez is somebody who greatly contributed to the rise of Chavez to power, someone who was a frequent guest to Alo Presidente. But those were the days. Now the least of the words hurled against Martinez was to ask for a Recall Vote on him.

Now, I certainly do not mean to defend Martinez, his reputation of a crook is only too well established and he has been laughing too much at those who have been insulted by Chavez. Nobody is expected to come out to defend him, himself becoming a victim of the system he so happily created and used to remove his own enemies. The Niemoller principle will apply to him without mercy as he was an active participant in the prosecution of others.

No, the reason for this post is to reflect about what is in store for us if Chavez can so vilely attack on of his heretofore close ally. The ire of Chavez is so intense that one can wonder if there is any possibility of dialogue left in Venezuela. If such a faithful follower as Martinez (or Aragua's Didalco Bolivar) are treated worse than crap, can we expect dialogue to ever occur between chavismo and anyone not linked to it? This is indeed one of the surest signs of our slow glide toward some modern tropical totalitarianism. We see these symptoms everywhere, from the horrifying attacks on Martinez accused among other things of belonging to a sect (?) to the orchestrated campaign against international media, a campaign echoed in Internet and by any public servant showing up at any media or political function. Always in such case the character of the person is attacked, the arguments never discussed back. There is no more pretense anywhere from any of the chavista emissaries: the marching orders are to tag anyone of imperialists, reactionary, paid for US agent. In any of their variation. There is no message anymore, just unbridled disqualification as a human being. A threatening fist.

You can listen if you can stomach it, the video of the Chavez attack on Martinez put by the now infamous Lubrio Bracci(1). This guy, who is lined up with the chavista media, puts up in Youtube with a reasonable speed some of Chavez worst speeches, and apparently with great pride. That is, it does not seem to occur to Lubrio that there is something inherently wrong, inherently dehumanized in the way Chavez deals with people now. It has become normal for these people to treat badly anyone dissenting with them, be they Chavez or Chavez supporters the difference is not even a blur. Even the non Venezuelan supporters of Chavez seem to be hardening under such pressure. Look at the latest trip of modern age Tokyo Rose, Eva Golinger just geared to denounce the US conspiracy, perhaps barely addressing the wonders of the chavista pseudo revolution. Even alleged intellectuals like Greg Wilpert give a rather pitiful spectacle of themselves when confronted by verbally bland but hard as nails logic of Quico. It is that permeation of chavista intransigence, of utter disdain and even ill wishful thinking of anyone not toying the party/Chavez line that is to be worried about. That shows to us how far the totalitarian seed has been panted and has started germinating.

When I saw the pictures of yesterday rally at El Poliedro the historian in me immediately thought about Nuremberg. Not the Havana sea front of Castro events, at least on this respect Castro has managed to be more of an original. No, chavismo is slipping fast into the uniformity that characterizes totalitarian regimes. Look at the sea of red. Look at the idea of organization that the arrangement of El Poliedro seats manage to instill into the rather rowdy and messy Venezuelan crowds. I cannot remember in recent Venezuelan history such an organized or coordinated meeting in such a scale. Chavismo has been working hard at training his people to look more and more like a fearless organized militia, a new storm trooper of the XXI century, all ghoulishly red. A little bit also like the terror bearing Cultural Revolution militias of Mao's China.

Thus I leave you with that picture in Nuremberg while I remind you that barely 70 years separate them.





--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

1) I am putting as a foot note the comments on the video. It is 20 minutes long and there is really no need to watch it all, unless you desperately want to find something that resembles a message. Well, there is one but it implied, not directly stated “do not do as Martinez or Bolivar or I will apply that method to you too”.

The opening sequence gives you a panoramic of the Poliedro. Observe the progressive crescendo against Martinez, who is only named at 1 minute in the segment, after already quite a piling up of criticism/attacks. Observe how Chavez shuts up the audience at 1:50.

Hear from the crowds at 5:00 the "Asi, asi, asi es que se gobierna" (this is how one should rule, particularly chilling there). And thus for 20 minutes, but by 5 minutes you got the complete feel of the event, the rest being repetition to sear in the mind of the attendees the power of the caudillo.

2) Pictures collected from Yahoo news


-The end-

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The future of medicine in Venezuela

There is an interesting operation undertaken these days by the government, a frontal attack against private medicine. The reason is quite simple: the government is unable, absolutely unable to build a comprehensive health care system and the very relative success of private clinics is a slap in the face, a constant reminder to the government that it cannot provide the services that clinics, even in remote small towns like San Felipe, can provide. Oh, private clinics do not always offer a great service, but in Venezuela if you can afford it you get private health insurance and if you cannot afford it you will still try to visit private clinics for some ailments, even if you need to borrow money for that. The curse of public hospital treatment is one undertaken for major medical problems when, well, you have no other choice but wait for days or weeks on end until finally someone pays attention.

Now, in all fairness that situation predates the arrival of Chavez into office. After a definite great medical progress in the 50ies, 60ies and 70ies, the sate has failed to keep building on its previous successes. With the continuous population growth and health care costs increase (whether you are commie or neo-con, medicine is more expensive today) the governments cannot keep up. Chavismo is no exception. But, instead of speaking the truth to people, instead of explaining that medicine is an expensive argument and all should chip in according to their means (Canada or Western Europe style) Chavez has embarked on the legend that medicine should and can be excellent for all and completely free. This is a very dangerous myth that is already coming back to bite him in the rear, and the reason why now he thinks that putting his hand on the private medical system could be a palliative for his failure to build good hospitals, or attract good doctors.

Because the main failure of chavismo is that the best doctors either work for the private sector or leave the country. Indeed, there are many good doctors that still do help in the public sector, by teaching or consulting a few hours a week for a dismal pay, compensating on their private practice. But very few of those are willing to embark in the political misiones which are left at the mercy of the second rate Venezuelan medics and Cubans. The people know that, and in spite of 4 years of Barrio Adentro you still find a lot of humble people in the hallways of private institutions. When you read Miguel or Katy writing about the return of measles in Venezuela, you get a pretty good idea how bad things are really in some of these health misiones.

But this latest attack is not only ominous but also vile. The hook, to justify this to the hoi poloi, to make them believe that if the government were to take over private medicine all would have access to it, is that they charge too much and thus their prices should be regulated. If they do not accept regulation, the implication of course will be a takeover. And thus all the fancy clinic of Caracas would become public hospitals to be shown to the world as the creation of the bolivarian masquerade.

That private medicine is expensive is true. That it is exploitative is not true because, well, medics cannot charge what they would charge outside of Venezuela. First, the market cannot bear it, incomes in Venezuela simply cannot be compared to foreign incomes, courtesy of years of unrealistic monetary policies. Second, the proliferation of insurance companies has put a restraint on some of the fees charged by clinics. In fact, with my health insurance I am very aware that I pay less for treatment than what I would still pay in the US even with an insurance. If it seems expensive for me is because in real dollars my income is not even the one of a specialized US worker.

But there is something even more troublesome and yet untold here. When a government who now openly discriminates on political preferences, who has declared that the army should be socialist and only socialist, a few are wondering who will have access to these clinics once they get into chavismo hands. some even suspect that some clinics will be reserved for the dignitaries of the regime such as some Cuban hospitals where only the party crème de la crème can go.

Weil resumes very well in this cartoon, the idea that only members of the Unique socialist party that Chavez is creating, PSUV, will be the ones allowed into the nationalized clinics.



-The end-

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Oil production problems in Venezuela

I have been very busy these days so no posting time. However I could not pass on a couple of choice items.

There is the rather dismal failure of the Margarita pseudo summit, reported here by Miguel. And I will pass on the video where Uribe and Lula are laughing at the silliness of Chavez.

And there is a little gem from Maria Anastasia O'Grady, ever sharp on Venezuela matters. I have observed that lately the pro Chavez lobby in Venezuela is making a frontal attack on any guy form the foreign press that does not like Chavez. I have even received reports from faithful readers of similar activities on this corner of the blogosphere from the pro Chavez cheer leading squad. So I am sure that it will be soon enough the turn of Ms. O'Grady to be crucified, as in character assassination since her arguments as those of the other "victims" of this campaign, are nearly unobjectionable. By the way, crucification of critics seems an appropriate activity I suppose for a Chavez posing under crucifixes these days.

Since the Wall Street Journal is for subscriber only, I give a hat tip to A. who sent me the article posted below, after the "click"

A Crude Power Grab
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
April 16, 2007, the WSJ

In two weeks' time, Exxon Mobil will complete the transfer of operations at its Cerro Negro facilities in Venezuela to the state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, known by its Spanish initials as PdVSA (pronounced pay-day-vey-sah).

The Dallas-based company isn't voluntarily relinquishing control, nor is it alone in doing so. President Hugo Chávez has decreed that all six U.S. and European oil companies running exploration and upgrading facilities in the country must turn over operations to PdVSA by May 1, and that they must surrender majority ownership of their projects as well. As to the compensation that Venezuela will pay for these expropriations, negotiations are still under way.

Mr. Chávez has been brimming with bravado as he has shredded these oil contracts and told foreigners to step aside because he's in charge now. But he'd better relish the thrill while it lasts. The move is not good for Venezuela and it will probably end up hitting the commandante of the revolution in the pocketbook. Corruption, incompetence and mismanagement have already taken a big bite out of PdVSA's productivity since Mr. Chávez began politicizing the company in 2001. High oil prices have mitigated the damage to his balance sheet up to now but they won't protect him forever. Meanwhile, this latest assault on property rights threatens to accelerate the steady deterioration of the Venezuelan oil sector and the broader economy, which remains heavily dependent on oil income.

Venezuela nationalized its oil industry in 1976. But in the 1990s, the government decided to sign 25-year contracts with foreign oil companies to form "strategic associations" with PdVSA, for the purpose of exploiting the rich reserves of tar-like heavy crude in the Orinoco Belt.

In the past decade, Exxon Mobil, BP, Conoco Phillips, Norway's Statoil, France's Total and Chevron all have set up shop in the oil-rich region, extracting the thick, black gold, sending it by pipeline to the Caribbean coast and "upgrading" it to make it lighter and therefore useful. U.S. companies send their upgraded Orinoco crude to Gulf Coast refineries specially designed to transform it into gasoline.

The foreign oil companies sank some $17 billion into the strategic associations with mutually beneficial results. The four projects together produce roughly 600,000 barrels a day from a region that, while rich in reserves, offered Venezuela little income potential before upgrading processes were mastered with sophisticated financing expertise and foreign technology.

The Chávez government says that it doesn't anticipate any production problems stemming from the change in operatorship or ownership. From a strictly technical point of view, that forecast may be defensible. It is certainly true that both oil extraction and the upgrading processes could be run by any oil company. Still, given the performance of PdVSA under Mr. Chávez, it is highly unlikely that productivity, investment and income won't suffer.

One problem already looming is labor. Last month Dow Jones Newswires' Peter Millard reported that, though PdVSA has said that it will retain the 4,000 employees who staff the strategic associations for the foreign companies, union leaders are warning that many of the chemical engineers and processing managers are unhappy about proposed pay cuts and are launching job searches.

A shortage of human capital is already pinching PdVSA. In 2002 Mr. Chávez fired 20,000 workers -- many of them skilled -- because he didn't like their politics. Those employees were replaced with politically compliant candidates and production never recovered. OPEC says that Venezuela now produces 2.5 million barrels a day, one million barrels less than in the pre-Chávez era. According to Mr. Millard, this year Nigeria replaced Venezuela as the fourth-largest oil supplier to the U.S.

Declining production at PdVSA may also be tied to a politicized management environment that takes it cues from the state. The Chávez government is notorious for graft and low standards and it would not be surprising to find that similar business practices had crept -- or rushed -- into the state-owned oil company. Nor would it be surprising to see those practices migrate to the strategic associations that will now be run by PdVSA.

The expropriation also threatens to destroy a business model that provides more than the pumping, processing and refining of oil. The marketing divisions of these companies play a crucial role in placing product and keeping transaction costs low. The loss of these networks will also harm Venezuelan competitiveness.

Finally, and perhaps most important, there is the damage to Venezuela's investment profile. PdVSA is already hurting for cash because profits that would otherwise be plowed back into exploration and development are being siphoned off by the government to advance political and social causes. In a robust investment climate, this misallocation of capital might be compensated for by the private sector. But so far investors have had a predictably bad reaction to their loss of property at the hands of Mr. Chávez. Mr. Millard reports that output has fallen an estimated 60,000 barrels a day to 440,000 at the 32 fields "as the companies affected by PdVSA's takeover halted new investments."

Mr. Chávez seems to think he can solve this by inviting China National Petroleum Corp. into Venezuela. But, as Mr. Millard reported from Caracas last week, CNPC has a dismal track record in the Venezuelan oil fields. In 1997 it committed to two oil-field blocks with a plan to raise production to 50,000 barrels a day in each field. By March 2006, one field was yielding 16,500 barrels a day while the other was still running at its 1997 production rate of 4,400 barrels daily, even though CNPC had doubled the number of active wells to 84. One former PdVSA project manager said that in 2001 CNPC drilled six dry wells at Caracoles, a field with 218 million barrels of proven reserves.

Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson said last month that if the terms of compensation offered by Venezuela are not acceptable to the company, it would leave Cerro Negro entirely. That would mean eating a loss, but with Mr. Chávez pulling stunts like he did in January, when he slashed production quotas for the foreign companies so that he could meet OPEC cuts without hampering PdVSA sales, the risks of walking away may be lower than perceived. In the end, an Exxon exit would probably end up costing Venezuela even more.


-The end-

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Virginia Tech post

Some might wonder about such an odd title for a post but this blogger got his M.Sc. at Virginia Tech many years ago. It has been long enough that even the alumni association has stopped trying to keep in touch with me. But I still remember quite well Virginia Tech, including Norris Hall where I took a class one quarter.

How could I not remember Virginia Tech? For a young man fresh out of Venezuela it was quite a cultural shock. Blacksburg was in the middle of nowhere and the only activities turned around the huge campus, spread there, in some mountain large hollow, and how so cold in winter from someone from the tropics. But in the two years I spent there I discovered that I loved cold weather and missed it later: only in Blacksburg could I ever enjoy the truly exotic pleasure of skating over a frozen pond, something that was even denied to me when I lived in Boston. One winter we even took the perilous journey through a mountain road to reach a frozen lake and skate in the middle of a white nowhere of woods, skipping the dangerous edge of an ice fishing hole in the middle.

But Blacksburg was more than the gorgeous Southern Fall, or the dazzling springs, springs never to be seen as such in the other places I lived in the States. It was also a cultural experience that taught me more about the US in 2 years than the rest I learned in the more than a decade that followed. Blacksburg was Red Neck country, and little of Deliverance too on the outside. It was still an area of wet and dry counties next to each other. Blacksburg had a state liquor store which looked from outside as a porn shop as I had seen in France. And leaving with my booze in a brown anonymous package I felt even more embarrassed than after leaving empty handed a porn shop. Foreign students of the time commented in wonderment about a referendum held in a neighboring county as to whether a restaurant could serve wine in a dry county.

And there was my discovery of the campus bookstore; they would become my favorite hang outs in any campus that I attended next, where eagerly I would await for the batch of incoming text books to find that rare university press gem that you could only find there before Amazon appeared.

There was nothing much to do in Blacksburg socially, so I went to the next two activities. I bought a TV to get used to accents. I was watching Archie bunker reruns and I confess that it did help me when I moved to the New York area for my PhD. I also learned to cook so I could entertain (and be entertained in return). I hosted my first cocktail party which included an assortment of Venezuelan beers that I had brought from some holiday, with a slide shows of beaches that today are polluted. Then they looked like paradise. This is what I remember the most, and miss the most from Blacksburg: the ability to entertain easily. We saved so much time in our lives, all was so close, so convenient that we could spend plenty of time in such social activities. Well, mostly foreign students from all around the world forced to speak an unifying English among us. Our US friends often preferred to hit the local McDonald or the famous VaTech football and basketball activities. The regular group included the following countries: France of course, but also Viet Nam, Thailand, Peru, India, Mexico, Germany, and other who I have forgotten. Not forgetting a little bit of US always, discovering more of the world than they would have ever expected before coming to Grad School at VaTech. But somehow I was the only one from Venezuela. There was also the bi weekly card playing sessions, French folks alone, lots of wine. Something that I was never able to do after Blacksburg.

For a Venezuelan it is difficult to imagine a safer place than Blacksburg. Maybe it was boring (there was only one watering hole worth mentioning). But for two years I rented a basement apartment without iron grids at the windows and many a day in summer I went for work forgetting to close the window. I never got robbed but I did get some rain through the window and soaked furniture. The only times that I got scared at night sleeping with my open window was when the neighborly skunk was visiting the garbage cans of the building across the field. For two years I could leave anything I wanted in my car: nobody would break in to steal it. When weather allowed I rode my bike, never afraid of cars cutting my way, running me over, never afraid of been robbed (you rarely see bikes in San Felipe). I did not even bother locking up my bike if I were to only spend a few minutes in a store.

Thus when my Mom called me this afternoon to tell me that she had recognized Burrus Hall my heart froze for a little instant. Oh, I do not know anyone anymore in Virginia. I bet my adviser is retired, or moved or forgot about me. Any friend I had is long gone, not only from Blacksburg but often from my life as is the case with all those friendships we create in our campus years; few of them unfortunately can resit the academic diaspora. No. My heart skipped a beat because in the misery of Venezuela today I was suddenly brought back to perhaps the two happiest years of my life, when I was happy and I did not know about it.

Inasmuch as the horror of today is a true terror, in a place where no one would have imagined such a thing, what I also grieve is the death of Blacksburg and Virginia Tech. Known before to the world through the Hokies and their sports exploits, known to the cognoscenti as a haven of peace and intellect, now Virginia Tech and Blacksburg will be known as the place where dozens where shot for no reason on a very cold spring morning, with flurries dusting the violence.

-The end-

Intelligent political quiz of the day

For those who manage some French, Liberation, the smart set leftist paper, has a great political quiz that determines which should be the candidate you should vote for next Sunday in France.

I came out for Sarkozy with a very close second Royal. The reason? As usual on social and civil rights issues I tended to agree most with Segolene (minority rights) whereas on economical and financial issues I tended to agree more with Nicolas (fiscal restraint), the foreign aspect more or less being even. Thus, as I wrote earlier I am looking forward the second round campaign and debate to see which one is it. It is important to know for folks new to French politics, that the second round campaign is very different from the first one as that is where the alliances are cemented and where we can really see which way each candidate wants to take the country, the first round campaign being more of a wish list affair.

-The end-

The French election Post

As some of you might remember I do hold a dual citizenship and thus I will be allowed to vote at the French embassy in Caracas on Saturday 21. This is a very exciting election. For the first time I have still not decided who I will vote for. Well, I have an idea but I am not dead set on it. Why? Because for the first time since 1981 there is a real choice offered to the French people, there is a sense that we have reached the end of a political cycle that started in fact in 1973 with the election of Valery Giscard d’Estaing, a cycle where France was slowly leaving its post Gaullist period, establishing political change of majority as a matter of fact and creating a certain social consensus around important themes such as Europe, welfare state and organic foie gras.

The Gaullist period extended from the end of World War 2 until Giscard’s Election. It was the period where France realized that it had to get a stronger executive based on a stable majority. It took a generation to get this in the political culture after the preceding 3 generations under the chronic parliamentary instability of the third republic. The political generation that comes to an end with the retirement of Chirac this May was the one that created the two party state system, where a change in power became normal, where the bitterness of political discourse started ebbing some (although the new media age might compromise that). As of May 2007 France will enter into a new process of changing its mental construct to really deal with a multicultural world and a global economy. We might see the end of two strong parties with the birth of more or less stable coalitions as it is becoming the norm in many European countries.

But before I get into commenting on this year election I think it would be helpful to discuss the French electoral system some as many of the arcane decisions of the political candidates are based on that.

The French electoral and political system

France is neither a presidential system nor a parliamentarian one. In fact it constantly switches between them depending on whether the parliamentary majority agrees or not with the president. If it agrees, then France becomes a near imperial presidency. If it does not agree then we have a prime minister who rules and a president who becomes a traveling salesman for French technology and gadgets. The reason for that comes from a parliament and a president who are not elected at the same time, an inheritance of the 1871 tradition when France was not sure it wanted to become a Republic and created a constitution that could serve equally for both, meaning a figurehead President/King indirectly elected for 7 years.

But as the world changed the post-War French decided that the executive should be stronger, not as controlled by parliament as it had been for almost a century. Thus the presidential figure was strengthened by direct election and some other constitutional provision which gave the president preeminence in Foreign and Defense policies, no matter who had a majority in the parliament. This hybrid worked quite well giving France its longest period of political stability since the monarchy. Yet it did not please many politicians. Discrepancies between parliament and president forced Mitterrand to live with an opposition prime minister twice for 2 years and Chirac once for 5 years. So what did they do? They decided to cut down the presidential term to 5 years hoping that in general parliament and president will be together.

This results in that we have an April-May presidential voting followed by a May June legislative election, with the assumption that the freshly elected president would carry his/her momentum into a legislative victory to back his action for the next 5 years.

This was approved in a referendum, at which I voted NO as it altered the French system pushing too much potential power toward the president. In fact, as I will show below, this wishful thinking of the politicians 6 years ago might be proven counterproductive as early as next June when none of the candidates might be able to get a solid majority. France might end up having coalition government constituted after a presidential election, something that will undoubtedly weaken the presidency, admittedly not necessarily a bad thing.

The electoral campaign background

I will prefer to start by what the electoral campaign has not been. Two years ago it was conventional wisdom that the presidential campaign would have a major anti European contender and that the left would be very strong. Nothing of the sort is happening. All polls until today show a second round preference for a right wing candidate and all major candidates except for one are pro Europe. The expected scenario has failed to materialize.

How come? Two years ago France rejected the European constitution in a referendum that was supported by all sorts of left fringes, right wing nationalists and some mainstream politicians. The reason was that French people were mad at the Chirac government and it was a protest vote. Europe paid the price. Chirac has always been a populist. In fact he might be someone with a left heart who ended up as a right wing populist (some say, by the way, that Mitterrand was a right side hearted person who chose the left to reach power). The regional elections of 2004 which saw a socialist sweep and the European referendum of 2005 were a sanction against a lousy Chirac administration. He was not helped by being elected with an 80% vote in the 2002 accident that brought extreme right nut Jean Marie Le Pen to dispute the second round against Chirac. This sort of hid the painful fact that Chirac had posted a dismal result for a sitting president in the first round ballot, not even 20%. The final 80% was not a mandate and Chirac was never able to find the right tone to deal with this accidental victory. Many on the left who resented having to vote for Chirac in 2002 punished him at every opportunity through the next 5 years.

It is thus a traumatized French political class that started preparing itself for this presidential campaign, yet a political class that might have tried to read more into the referendum result than what it should have read. It is important to note that of the four candidates that have more than 10% at the polls, three of them are pro Europe and voted Yes in 2005 and between the three of them they constantly gather more than 50% of the voting intentions. There goes the 54% No of 2005. Also a mainstream potential candidate such a Laurent Fabius, who tried to capitalize on the Anti European vote, failed to become candidate of his party. Far from the protest vote, the French remain pro European in the core raising the hope that the new president will be able to negotiate some compromise which will allow Europe to restart its stalled machine (unless it decides to move on without the French and the Dutch).

The campaign is thus again a classic contest between right and left where the left seems to have had undeserved high expectations. However this time the protest vote might be a centrist vote through Bayrou, not without precedent in French tradition: Lecanuet, Poher and up to a point even Giscard d’Estaing come to mind. There is also a difference, the right left cleavage is paradoxically less stringent than in the past as the Socialist Candidate Segolene Royal is on the right of her party. The right left tension persists though because the right wing candidate, Sarkozy, is more on the right side of the governing UMP as he is more of an Atlantist, and economically more Liberal than Chirac.

The candidates and the campaign

I have not followed as closely the campaign as I used to do, I must admit it. But Venezuela has been keeping me very busy. Also there is the fact that I could find myself voting for either Royal or Sarkozy as I find both of them with great merits and great advantages. At this point, barely a few days before the first round balloting I confess that I am in that still astounding 30%+ of French people that has not decided who to vote for yet! I think that I will vote for Royal on the first round but I reserve my second round vote even if Royal makes it to the second round. Then there will be a debate and a clarification of some obscure areas of the campaign.

Thus, now that the suspense is over I can start by discussing all the candidates that I will not vote for.

The less than 10% candidates

There is a plethora of 8 small candidates who have managed to gather enough elected officials to sponsor their run (in France you need 500 signatures of elected officials to be allowed to run for president, something which is not too easy to get). Many of them such as Jose Bové thought that after the European NO they could preside over the construction of an “option altermondialiste”, and anti liberal globalization option, but it has not worked out. What we have is a cacophony of Trotskyites (plural!), divided greens, zombified communists, anti European (and nearly royalist) right and even a defender of the hunting community. All deserve equal access to French media which is more than can be said for Venezuelan media. All had to face hard questioning journalist to have access to TV, something that Chavez could do without last December. But then again France is a democracy whereas Venezuela has long stopped being one, even though it was not much of a democracy to begin with. But I digress.

All of these small candidates (none is expected to even reach a 5% total) have been squeezed for two reasons: the wrong calculation as to the European NO and because many French do not want the nightmare to have again Le Pen on the second round vote. This time on the first round people will tend to vote pragmatically instead of finding some protest vote. They will amount to little more than 20% when votes are counted and will probably split 1/3 for the right wing winner and 2/3 for the left wing winner in the second round ballot of May. That there is a potential of some abstention among them, and that as much as 1/3 will go to the right is something that must keep Socialist campaigners awake at night as usually these minority parties tended to be a socialist reservoir for the second round. This year they might not be enough as Segolene Royal seems to be in a difficult second position.

(This paragraph and picture added later) I did find a poll historical which is presented in a way as to illustrate how Bayrou vote has grown at the expense of Sarkozy and Royal, and how the small candidates remain stuck at the bottom. Even the decrease in abstention seems to favor Bayrou, who is thus a "protest" vote of sorts. The name of the pollster is immaterial as all of them indicate the same trends. A refreshing change from Venezuela polling... Click to enlarge.


The more than 10% candidates

There are four of them and I will start by the one that I will not vote for.

Jean Marie Le Pen

Unless the second round were to be between a Trotskyite and Le Pen, I cannot foresee myself voting for Le Pen ever, and even then. After Chavez, Le Pen does not look as sulfurous as he used to look and the French Trotskyites manage to look barely more democratic than Le Pen, believe it or not! So there is no point in wasting more electronic ink on him except trying to wonder about how come the man is still running after all these years. To begin with he has a stupendous ego, always a plus for a politician in the long run career. Second, he has managed, unbelievably, to convince some that “OK, I will keep the foreigners that are already here but no more will be allowed to immigrate to France”. With that he has managed to neutralize a lot of the racism associated with him. He even dared to put on some of his political adds some “colored” people, and got away with it. And thus Le Pen remains at the 12-16% that he has been holding since Mitterrand made the electoral rules change that allowed Le Pen to grow to this plateau. That deliberate strategy to weaken the right is not the best legacy that Mitterrand left to France. And Le Pen could well be again the spoiler, but I do not think so, too many people want a real second round debate to risk a first round protest vote, in particular when there is a much more palatable protest vote with Bayrou.

Francois Bayrou

He is, unaccountably, the protest vote, the maverick that came on his truck from the provinces to convince French people that he will manage the country better, keeping all the benefits that the French enjoy, while somehow paying the huge debt that France has.

But Bayrou is disingenuous. He has been a minister in past center right governments, He is not some hick from the provinces even though he tries to pass for one with his folksy fake speech (he is a writer too, although I have not been impressed by a biography of Henri IV he wrote, finding it rather boring considering the rich subject).

Bayrou also has the advantage to have a political career that does not depend as much on this year result. Le Pen is too old to have another run in 5 years. Royal and Sarkozy will have great trouble to maintain control of their party for 5 years if they lose. They lead the two main movements in France and thus have lots of potential rivals that will say “you failed, now you step aside”. Bayrou does not have a major party behind him and no real perspective to prevail in the second round if he reaches it ahead of Royal. So he can afford a folksy campaign with platitudes that he does not need to explain much. If it does not work this time, well, he can try again in 5 years.

However this is the real reason while I will not vote for it. Since he does not have a real party behind him he will not have the organizational strength to organize the legislative election of May-June. In fact he might not even have enough solid candidates to field in the nearly 600 seats that comprise the National Assembly. Thus I doubt very much that his potential victory will give him a stable legislative majority in June. His party might even be hard pressed to get even a 30% of the new assembly (which would be a huge improvement from the current handful it holds, but still not enough). This will be a problem as France is in dire need of some serious questioning and decisions on many social issues that have been postponed almost sine diem. The most likely outcome of a Bayrou victory is a France paralyzed for 5 more years as the socialists are certainly not going to be nice to him and the right UMP will just be bidding its time to force early elections and try to become a majority again imposing the Prime Minister.

Nicolas Sarkozy

There is a lot of appealing stuff in Nicolas Sarkozy. He is relatively young. He is a new generation of politician, even somehow newer that the one that should normally replace Chirac. He is energetic. He is aware of the many blockages of French society and himself being the son of immigrants he is rather likely to break some of the privileges that exist today in France, privileges that make the France of today eerily reminiscent of the France of the 80ies, the 1780ies that is.

The economical, social success of France and its stability has come at a price. Immigrants hired to pick up the garbage and do the menial jobs have now filled suburbia with their children who are not integrating well. The French melting pot is not working for North Africans and sub Saharan Africans because the French melting pot was a republican and non-religious melting pot, and the idea of the republic has been weakened along the recent decades. How can you integrate veiled Muslim women in the country of haute couture? How can you integrate Muslim boys when French culture is based on pork paté and red wine? I exaggerate of course, for the point, but there is some of it in the difficulties that France is experiencing in integrating its immigrant second generation.

Some measures are finally been taken. No religious symbols of any type are allowed in public schools, be they veils, yarmulke or crucifix on your chest. The idea of laical public education is reinforced to strengthen The Republic, such as it was done in the first third of the XX century. But the road ahead is long.

But that is not the only thing that ails France. The country has become again a caste society just as it was in 1788. These castes have been created by the success of French educational system in creating elites to run the state. From Polytechnique to the ENA, all the high spheres of French private and public administration are staffed by these graduates just as demographic studies indicate that the children of such graduates are more likely to enter these schools than other kids. And way much more than the immigrant kids of the “banlieus”. France suffers of a decreasing social mobility and the perception in France is that it is getting worse, and that Europe is not helping as the lower castes of artisans and specialized workers feel threatened by the famous “Polish plumber” of the European referendum campaign.

Caste systems have a way to generate their self preservation as too many people are willing to maintain the caste system as long as they are not in the lowest strata. Ask India. Thus France seems currently stuck and one if not the great failing of Chirac is not to have taken advantage of the very large majority he got in the legislative election of 2002 to drive on these divisions. But Chirac and some of his ministers such as De Villepin are products of that effete caste system. Their timorous populism made them wishy-washy leaders that did not achieve much in 5 years. Even if Sarkozy was a minister during that time, he still managed to project certain impatience with the system and that allow us to hope that an eventual victory will give him the means to tackle some of these problems. At the very least he seems to be the only right wing politician willing to discuss some of these issues in a credible way.

Thus is the appeal that Sarkozy has, a willingness to discuss a New France. That he would have the means to effect the changes is another matter, but at least he seems to have the intention and that by itself is a mini revolution. Sarkozy is a break with the right wing political establishment as most of them are still the heirs of the heirs of De Gaulle and are still stuck in a bubble from which there seems to be no escape. Sarkozy is out of that bubble, though this could also indicate that he has an adventurer side which is always very worrisome in right wing leaders that refer to the Bonapartist origin of the some of the French political right including Chirac. Also Sarkozy has shown a strong ability to insert his foot in his mouth and has had to apologize more than once even if in general some of these mistakes seem to have favored him. The main risk with Sarkozy is his potential to antagonize his very own supporters, and without them there is no way he can propel the needed reforms. His ability to reach above traditional politicians to reach some social consensus is little bit more than speculation, though there might be some evidence of a certain “popular” outlook.
Ségolène Royal

Right form the start Segolene Royal is a great novelty: she is the first woman ever in France that has a real chance to reach real power. At least since the regent queens of the XVII century. But that is also her main downfall: she is perceived as a novelty and many socialists are inclined to vote for Bayrou as he seems in a better position to stop Sarkozy in a second round. How they think Bayrou will convince all socialists, not even thinking about Trotskyites, to vote for him in May is not explained, but so goes the rumor.

Of course Segolene is much more than a novelty: no one reaches easily the top of the socialist party who has occupied for 15 years since 1981 the seat of prime minister and for 14 the one at the Elysée Palace. She made her way to the top because she has shown herself to have enough political savvy, ruthless decision and social compromise.

Once we get over the fluff of the novelty item, Segolene Royal has many appealing qualities. She is a single mother. That is right, she never married though she has several children with the same man, François Hollande, who happens to be the first secretary of the socialist party and as such had to step aside to let his ambitious wife run and he managed the successful bid of her candidacy. If her marital status is actually a plus for people like me, it is possible a downfall among some more traditional French.

But of course Segolene is more than that. The biggest appeal I see in her is that she has the potential of becoming a Tony Blair for the French Socialist. These ones are in bad need of an aggiornamento, in a need to abandon some of their doctrinal illusions that they keep from their “Jacobin” historical reference. Michel Rocard, Prime Minister in 1988 was the first one to try to bring the French Socialist to a more pragmatic approach to things. This was kept up with a limited success by Jospin in 1997 who had to work hard to convince himself of that need. Segolene Royal might be the first one that actually will believe into the new left idea, that can understand that the world has moved away from the certainties of the cold war era.

She also seems to be the more principled candidate of the lot. She has said that she will be willing to increase pressure on Iran and on states that do not respect Human Rights adequately, going as far as letting her name associated to a possible Beijing Olympic boycott if China refuses to put pressure on Sudan over the disgrace of Darfur. If one candidate of the lot might be able to resist some of the indecent pressures of Total like companies she might be the one. Finally, something that I particularly like in her program, she will try to put an end to that disgusting habit of French politicians who are allowed to hold more than one elected office at once. For example before becoming president Chirac was a representative of the Corrèze area while he was the mayor of Paris, a little bit as if the Mayor of New York were to also be a Senator from Arkansas (or the other way around?). Needless to say that such a accumulation of jobs can create very powerful local potentates, called “barons” in French politics.

Conclusion?

For the US public it is important to know that you cannot decide on French political tendencies with US values. Sarkozy no matter how right wing he is considered in France would probably feel much more at ease in the Democratic Party than in the GOP. And Le Pen would look quite acceptable for some sectors of the GOP. Whereas Segolene would clash with some of the positions of Nanci Pelosi.

There is a strong consensus in France that the core of the welfare state must be preserved, that education should be free, public and laic. There is also a consensus that foreign adventures such as Iraq should be avoided. If Sarkozy is willing to help the US to get out of Iraq it is just that, to get out of Iraq before there is more damage done. Segolene also wants the US out of Iraq but might not help much. None of them, even Le Pen, would help the US remain in Iraq past December 2007.

But for the US reader the best choice might remain Sarkozy as he is definitely the more pro US of the lot, not pro Bush, pro US, that distinction is important as French are in favor of institutions and are quite able to differentiate between who is the accidental holder of the White House or of the Congress Chair and what these institutions mean for France in the long run.

As for non US readers. Sarkozy, Royal and ever Bayrou will mean the same as far as Europe is concerned. On other parts of the world Royal might have a more principled stand on foreign policy, bowing less to French economical interests when moral and ethical decisions must be done. Chavez might want to root for Bayrou who will just ignore Latin America or Sarkozy who is more likely to put economic interests ahead of Human Rights. But Segolene Royal is not going to be kissing Chavez anytime soon. In fact Segolene is not at all of the kissing type and some macho troglodyte like Chavez is not her ideal business partner. Which probably means that I will vote for her in the second round anyway.



-The end-

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