Electoral systems tend to reflect the political culture of a country, though there is always the question of the chicken or the egg. Indeed, sometimes it is difficult to decide whether a political system has been shaped by its electoral system or by the cultural values of the people. If it is not the intention of this long post to be a description of world electoral systems it is still good to visit a few electoral principles to understand better what chavismo is trying to do in Venezuela.
The basic debate in any electoral system through history has been to decide if it was more important to ensure a stable governmental majority or a genuine representation of all the trends of a society. The two extremes are thus the "winner take all" of Anglo-Saxon countries or the absolute proportional representation of which Israel is the prime example today.
In the anglo-saxon tradition of single circumscription, winner take all, the objective was always to create a clear parliamentarian majority. When the system works well, the representation of minorities is not necessarily a major issue as many mechanisms exist to temper the iron rule of winner take all, in addition to the risk that the winner does not dispose of 50% of the total expressed vote. For example the US has got around this by creating a strict separation of powers where the Supreme Court makes sure minorities get some form of protection from the abuse of the majority, and with the introduction of a wholesale primary system which allow the expression a many political currents within the main parties. As such the Dem and GOP can be seen as mere expression of a political coalition.
Another way to create diversity while still ensuring that a clear parliamentarian majority happens is the two round balloting systems such as the French one. In these systems the first round vote allows for the expression of diverse tendencies which reach an agreement among themselves to create a majority in the second round. In theory, you do not get a proportional representation, you may even get distortions as bad as the anglo-saxon system but due to alliances necessary for the second round vote every political party is guaranteed at least a spokesperson in parliament.
On the other side we have the belief that expression of all political tendencies of a country must appear in the parliament of that country. Today Israel offers an example of such system where people vote for a list and the list gets a certain number of representatives according to a direct correlation with the vote percentage they get. The basic weakness of these systems is that invariably they result in the dispersion of votes and as years pass it becomes increasingly difficult to create a stable governmental majority. Unless such systems evolve toward a presidential form of rule, they quickly risk to become paralyzed. That happened in post war Italy and more spectacularly in Wiemar Germany allowing Hitler to reach power without ever reaching an majority of the vote.
Post war Germany did not want to abandon the principle of proportional representation but did not want to go back to a paralyzed assembly and thus they invented what is in my opinion one of the best electoral system existing today. Half the chamber is elected on a winner take all system and half on a proportional system. Yet, that proportional list is limited at the federal level and in addition requires political parties to reach 5% of the vote. Thus, small but significant parties are ensured of a solid representation, but the winners are ensured of reaching a stable government provided they reach a political agreement to form a coalition. Historically in Germany since the war two parties have been enough to reach a stable majority. The beauty of the system is that it not only allows a significant proportional representation but it also maintains the major advantage of the anglo-saxon tradition, the direct contact between the representative and its circumscription voters, something missing in resolute proportional systems where people vote for lists, not for names.
The Venezuelan original choice
In 1958 Venezuela retained its strong presidential system, for better or for worse, and thus chose a proportional representation for its Congress thought to be more fair and more in tune with the contemporary Zeitgeist. Even the Senate, who by definition is an unfair system (consider that a California Senator has the same worth as a Delaware one), was elected in such ways that some Senators were not elected by state but according to how many votes did they party get. That is, if a party got zero Senator but 10% of the vote it would get at least one Senator. The House was elected on a strict proportional system but somewhat tempered by the fact that the states were the basic circumscriptions. In practice since a majority of states had less than a dozen representatives what happened is that you needed at least a 5% of the vote share to ensure that you would get a seat of two. Yet at the national level the House, like the Senate had some representatives elected according to the nation share of political parties. That way all would get at least a spokesperson.
The system served well a country without democratic tradition where the political class was asked to learn to debate according to rules, and not according to how many guns a given caudillo had. But by the late 70ies the system was already wearing down as it suffered from two factors: 1) increasing presidentialization and 2) lack of contact between the elector and its representative as this one hid behind the party who decided after all who would run. Eventually an important electoral reform was enacted, trying to get something a little bit more representative, along the German system model. As such it was decided that within each state about half would be elected according to districts within a circumscription.
To explain this reform I have imagined the following circumscription, which could represent a medium sized state like Bolivar or Anzoategui.
For clarity I have decided that this state has only 257 electors and that this population has not changed since the mid 90ies until today. The state elects 9 representatives. Thus 5 are elected in in three individual districts and 4 on an "at large" list that is supposed to be proportional. The quotient of previous vote was eliminated and as such it is quite clear that one objective pursued by that reform was to eliminate very small parties. In this imaginary circumscription it is clear that any party that gets less than 20% of the state vote risks highly not to get a single seat, depending on how those votes are spread.
Now the major flaw of this system was actually the district configuration. In a country where streets do not have a name and even less of a sequential numeration, urban areas are very difficult to split in individual districts. Thus district 2 is an urban district in our example and elects three, 3, representatives. Now, if each elector voted only once in district 2 it would not matter: people would just vote for one name in the list. The lists would be allocated their number of seats according to vote and those with the most vote within a list would be the elected folks. But that option was not selected: amazingly people are allowed to vote in a district as many times as there are representatives in that district. In this district 2, when you vote, you vote three times. Since in Venezuela there is a tendency to vote according party lines in overwhelmingly most circumstances the winning party carries ALL. That is, with 40% of the vote of district 2 you can carry 100% of the seats.
Supposedly this was solved when taking into account the list vote, that is, the representatives at large. The representative distribution in that "list vote" would depend on how many votes would elect on average a representative. That is, if you carry the 3 seats of district 2 you are much less likely to gain representatives from the at large district since your average vote per representative would drop to the benefit of those who did not get a single district vote. Below an example to understand this complexity (right hand click on image to enlarge in a different window).
Trying to simplify I have decided that there are only 6 political parties in this state, three pro Chavez and 3 NON- Chavez (not ANTI, just NON). Equally that the there are three parties for Chavez does not mean that they all engage easily in coalitions, as it was the case in this imaginary 2000 vote of the above figure.
District 1 and 3 are easily decided, the main pro Chavez party carries both seats. Note that district 3 is the most pro Chavez district, you will see the importance of this later.
District 2 got a majority for the non Chavez party 1. It gets the three seats. Note that this urban district is non Chavez majority anyway.
Now when we look at the list vote, that is representative at large, even if pro Chavez party should get 2 seats it only gets one because its average drop (note, there are different ways to calculate that "average" and that can affect the final repartition but I am trying to keep it simple here). As for non Chavez 1, it gets zero seats becasue it already got 3 seats in district 2. Its representative average is just not high enough. This system allows for 3 minor parties to get the seats they were not allowed to get on the "winner take all" of the district vote.
Now, look the columns on the right and you will see that the system is still reasonably fair. If as expected the vote list is slighly different than the district vote (personal character there affects the outcome), the overall percentage of the vote is generally reflected in the seat percentage (last column on the right).
We can thus say that the 1998 and 2000 voting system was still considering minority representation though it squeezed out the very minor parties, parties that until the early 90ies were guaranteed at least one spokesperson in Congress (for those old enough, remember Borregales?).
The first electoral cheating
In the 2000 vote the governor of Yaracuy found the first flaw of this system and used it to obtain 100% of Yaracuy representation even though he got only slightly more than 50% of the vote. This was very simple, run the districts with one party name and the vote list with another party name, the famous "morochas" (twins). That way the list vote is not punished by the success of the district vote since apparently we are dealing with two "different" parties.
In the example below I use the same numbers as above except that I assume that chavismo used the morochas system. Pro Chavez 2 and 3 form a coalition, 2 running only in the district and 3 on the list alone. I assume for effect that pro Chavez 1 does not participate in that coalition.
The non Chavez parties obtain the same number of votes as above but there is some difference in the pro Chavez vote becasue we can assume that some disgruntled voters did not follow the electoral consigns and voted for pro Chavez 1 in protest. Yet the result leaves no doubt: with the exact overall number of votes the pro Chavez folks get 7 representatives, 78% of them while their list share was ONLY 44%. The injustice is quite clear! A party that got 30% of the vote only gets now 10% of the representatives. In fact, depending on how you calculate the "average" non chavez 3 seat could end up with pro Chavez 3!
This morochas system as applied fully by chavismo in 2005 though the withdrawal of the opposition made the point moot. However, had the opposition run anyway, in 2005 it would have gotten at least 40% of the vote but probably no more than 20% of the seats, even with its own morochas.
The new ways to cheat
The new electoral law that was voted a few months ago was designed to create a built in advantage for chavismo. This one has realized that once the "morochas" system is applied by all parties in Venezuela it becomes in all practical aspect an anglo saxon system, a winner takes all system. The threat here is that the opposition could win an overwhelming legislative victory with say barely 55% of the popular vote. That is also true for chavismo but we already saw what happened when they got 100% of the Nazional Assembly.
Thus the new system made legal the "morocha" system but in addition allowed the gerrymandering of the districts by the electoral board, CNE, as it pleases. Until now, districts had to follow historical lines around the political divisions of counties and parishes. In the new system the CNE is allowed to break down parishes and counties to create electoral districts at will, and AS LARGE as it wants to create them instead of the tendency to evolve to single representative district. In other words Chavez wants large districts because as it was the case before the elected representatives depend more on the party (PSUV/Chavez) rather than any direct contact with the inhabitants of the district. Not to mention of course that the multiple voting favors the winning side, something that chavismo hopes to be no matter what.
In the example below I speculate on the following changes, based on the new electoral law:
1) less voting at large thus less possibility of minority representation: only 3 list representatives instead of 4
2) district 1, weakly chavista loses some voting centers that are anti Chavez to be added to a new district 2 that includes the most anti Chavez areas.
3) district 2 includes thus the areas most likely to vote against Chavez and becomes the district with the most electoral votes per representative.
4) district 3 has now three representatives with a weak but solid pro Chavez tendency.
In this new system, even though the two political groups get about the same vote share as above, chavismo still retains 6 out of 9 seats, thus annulling the possible advantage of the opposition now using the "morochas" system. All courtesy of old fashioned gerrymandering now legal in Venezuela.
For my last graph I use the same table as above but this time I change the total votes to favor the non Chavez option. That is I assume a slow decrease in popular for chavista parties support due to ten years in office and unfulfilled promises.
Now the opposition wins clearly but yet in spite of its unity, in spite of beating chavismo by 4 points, chavismo STILL gets 5 out of 9 seats!!!!!
Note: the morochas "coalition" allows for a repartition of seats to all groups which is why for example non Chavez 2 and 3 get each one seat even if Chavez 3 does not figure on the ballot. On the other hand, because chavismo lost the overall vote, pro Chavez 1 loses the seat it was getting when chavismo still was winning the vote.
By tweaking the vote totals a little bit more one could reach a 55 to 45 in favor of the opposition and yet still a chavista victory 5 to 4! All depending on how effective gerrymandering was, and how the political pressure targeted to some districts worked. For example in Zulia chavismo could give up altogether the Maracaibo districts and focus strictly on the oil areas, blackmail and all and carry them barely obtaining thus more seats than what it deserved in Zulia.
First, do not be surprised of such Manichean electoral system of multiple seats districts: in the US South such systems were routinely used to avoid African American to elect representatives, that is, districts were carved where more than one representative was elected, just as in Venezuela. Thus 60% of whites got 100% of seats.
Second, for all of its imperfections, the original system which I described at first allowed for Chavez to be elected and to gain a 2/3 majority in 2000 in the National Assembly with not even 60% of the vote. Now, it is not clear whether with 55% of the vote a united opposition would get a simple majority in the assembly.
Third, let's not forget the other electoral fraud already in use by chavismo, such as the shameless use of state property for the PSUV campaign. The system is pretty much sealed for chavismo, the more so as freedom of expression and information are under serious threat.
In other words, from what I have described here it should be crystal clear that the only way the opposition can win is:
- unique candidatures in EVERY district
- coordinated and focused campaigns
- civil society massive participation to compensate the abject state abuse
- presence at EVERY polling stations as gerrymandering makes a few dozens votes "added" critical enough to decide a single seat
not forgetting the notion that we need probably 55% of the vote to get a bare majority in the new parliament.
Now let's wait for the next posts to discuss ways we could reach at least an united front and how we can try to get more citizen involvement.
If electoral systems are a representation of the democratic nature of the people of a country we can say that in Venezuela the new electoral system does not reflect anymore the democratic and representative ideals of 1958 where diversity was sought and as much consensus as possible a goal. In the parliaments of the preceding decades even if two political parties on occasion represented up to 85% of the seats there was always room for small parties to have their voices heard without having to subject themselves to undesirable alliances. The system albeit not a perfect one allowed outsiders to be a voting surprise (see CCN in 1963, MEP in 1968, Causa R in 1993 or Chavez in 1998).
The main flaw of the old system, namely the lack of direct contact between the voter and its representative, a contact that was established only though political parties, was beginning to be addressed as specific constituencies began to be drawn.
But today the modified electoral law allows for the pernicious return of the political party rule since only through the strength of a strong party, or its leader as is the case of the PSUV, will someone be allowed to run for office and be elected eventually. As such the current electoral law is not even a return to the past as it is a less democratic system than the 1958 original election rules. Minority parties cannot elect representative on their own anymore, and to be elected you need to be anointed by a large group.
We are now into a plebiscite regime where the only thing that matters is the link between the leader and the masses and where it is becoming increasingly difficult for small groups to emerge as viable alternatives: they must lose some of their originality, a loss that even the use of primaries as a nomination system will not be enough to maintain.
From now on elections will be between two groups, in much harsher terms than the Anglo-Saxon systems since the link between the voter and its representative has all but been erased. "winner take all" with a vengeance!
The new system forces all parties to align themselves into two camps with two single messages, two camps where internal dissent must be muted and reserved for a post electoral moment. The winner of such an unfair and undemocratic system will in addition get an unfair share of the seats. Venezuelans still "vote" but their votes are becoming increasingly meaningless.
How can the Venezuelan opposition in its diversity can manage to create a single front?