Monday, May 08, 2006

The problems in the Venezuelan electoral system (part 1)

As a brief summary: the majority of the people in Venezuela do not trust the electoral system, even large chunks of the chavista side who are aware of the problem but shrug a shoulder as they benefit form it. But there is more to it than the legal aspect of how to run elections: there are also not so easily measurable aspects that aggravate the general situation. Resuming all would be too long, and for that, in particular the legal stuff, the reader can be referred to the pages of SUMATE. Here, I just intend to highlight which are the main problems in my humble opinion.

The Real Problems

There are two real problems in Venezuela that make it almost impossible to run a decent political campaign where the country can be offered real choices. The first one is the governmental abuse of the state resources and the second one is the Maisanta list that makes it very difficult to counter the Chavez campaign.

The governmental advantage

It resides in two very simple things: the use and abuse of state resources, and the control of the media. I could of course start decrying all sorts of political and populist measures that office holders are tempted to execute to garner the support of the people, but that is par for the course even though Chavez greatly exaggerates. Thus belittling all the populist and vote buying measures that chavismo is taking would be vulgar and even sound outlandish, even if indeed Chavez activities on this respect overcome any of those seen in the past. Until close to election day we can expect all sorts of new social programs (Misiones), all sorts of long delayed infrastructure construction started years ago, as far as Caldera last term, that surprisingly come to completion in the few weeks before the election. Some of what Chavez was supposed to do during his 8 years in office will come to a close in a span of barely more than a quarter. None of them by the way initiated by himself, all a follow up as creativity in building is not a hallmark of the Bolivarian Revolution. But here I am more interested in the insidious ways in which the state participates directly to sustain the Chavez electoral campaigns, the things that are not as obvious for the foreign observer, things that are not legal, or barely legal but always crassly unethical.

The state as the financier of the Chavez campaign

This is very easy to understand. When, say, a president of the US does make an electoral trip for his reelection, he is obliged to foot the bill for Air Force 1. That is, even though probably all the expenses of that trip are not covered by the Political Friends and Action Committees, at least the gas bill for the flight is paid back. After all there is a national security concern for the guy that is occupying the White House that must be paid by the state, but at least there is an effort to cover as much as possible the costs related to campaign issues.

This does not happen in Venezuela. Chavez flies right and left and the state picks all the tabs. As it also picks all the tabs in political rallies where dozens to hundred of buses are rented by state agencies to ferry the pro Chavez “crowds”, now professional, to the different rally stages. And let’s not speak of all the party goodies (cash, red shirts, food, booze, fireworks, etc…) which are distributed at these meetings and whose tab payment the Venezuelan electoral board, CNE, has consistently failed to investigate properly.

Never in the history of Venezuela has the state been paying so much to promote the figure of the president. Never have so many public buildings harbored so many pro government slogans. Never have the ministries hallways been plastered with so much office holder propaganda. Never has public transport ferried so many administration supporters where needed. Never.

The control of the media

There was a time where a case could be made that the Venezuelan media held an unfair advantage against Chavez. This did not stop him from getting all what he wanted, but it sure made a good story for the pages of sycophantic rags such as Le Monde Diplomatique. This situation has not only totally changed but it has reverted into an advantage for Chavez that the private media never held, even in 1999-2000, the highlight of the confrontation.

Today the balance sheet is as follows:

TV. Only RCTV and Globovision present opinion shows that criticize strongly the government. Venevision and Televen have been neutralized and have no opinion program worth mentioning. Meanwhile the government who originally held only VTV has now added to it, even through cable all across the land, ViveTV, ANTV, and Telesur. The first three are nothing more than a semi permanent talk show supporting Chavez and trashing the opposition in a way that this one cannot do on Globovision and RCTV. ViveTV is leavened with some “documentaries” which are meant to reflect the joy of the people now liberated from the shackles of neo liberalism and the empire. On TV now (and I am not counting the regional TV stations) the government disposes of a total majority, and a militant one at that. It remains to be seen if opposition candidates, as per law, will be allowed to run adds there or even participate on given talk shows on an equal footing with Chavez. To add insult to injury, VTV, Vive TV, ANTV, Telesur and the other are financed at 99 % Venezuelan tax payer expense, something that would not be tolerated for a second for, say, the BBC or PBS or DW or TVE. Of course, whether “the people” watch state TV is another matter and that seems to be a problem for Chavez as poor neighborhoods seem to be spotting more and more satellite dishes.

Radio. The situation is even more dramatic. By law no radio system can have a nation wide coverage. The only one is RNV which is also an all support Chavez system. In some rural areas RNV is the only one of 2-3 radio stations that can be heard. To this the government has added some private regional networks. There is no opposition radio system that covers the whole country, perhaps not even half of the country. Taxes and pressures have taken care of this. Only Union Radio does cover the main markets but it is not allowed to expand and cover smaller markets such as San Felipe where you can get Union Radio only if you subscribe to expensive Direct TV. There is also a fast growing network of "community" radio stations which are supposed to be independent but that are in fact financed by the government to some degree. These, by their very local nature, seem to have some effect.

Press. Here the opposition holds better. Chavismo has been unable to produce a newspaper that people are actually wanting to pay to read. All have failed. Chavismo can only count on sympathetic newspapers such as Ultimas Noticias or Panorama. VEA, Temas and other rags are heavily subsidized (99% state advertisement) and exist on stands because some chavistas need to buy them to know the official line and thus know exactly what to say at work. Just as people who read Granma, or used to read Pravda did: you do not buy them for information.

Controlled news. The problem of chavismo is that a majority of the population finds official media or even sympathetic media boring. Thus opposition outlets still have a much bigger audience than chavista propaganda tools. To counter that since 2004 the government disposes of the infamous Ley Resorte. With such a law the government has effectively limited the amount of criticism that can be hurled at it between 7 AM and 11 PM. Self censorship is now the rule, even in Globovision. Oh, it not too bad, major news still can pass but they must be presented in such a way that their impact is somewhat neutralized. This self censorship is also seen every day in newspapers where certain topics are just ignored as they could provoke annoying actions such as spurious law suits or visits from controlling agencies (CONATEL) and heavy fines (SENIAT).

Forced broadcasts. But the ultimate weapon to reach those who refuse to watch state TV is the forced broadcast. There are two types of broadcasts. The worst offender is the “cadena”, a forced simultaneous broadcast on all radio and TV. Any activity the government might think important is enough excuse to chain the country, leaving it with only two options: turn off TV or subscribe to cable. It is most of the time a lengthy Chavez speech at prime time, and at election time it becomes an shameless political add that lasts anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 hours. The other tool to serve chavismo is very insidious. As for the “ley Resorte” the government is allowed, free of charge, to pass on TV a certain number of minutes of “institutional” adds daily. As election approaches these adds are turning more and more like mere propaganda. A recent one shows Chavez inaugurating a new thermal plant in what can only be judged as a flagrant violation of the spirit of the law. But the CNE and CONATEL remain silent. In other words, Chavez will not need to pay for political advertisement and any protest lodged by opposition candidates will be received and promised to be investigated AFTER the election, Chavez getting at best an “exhortation” (I kid you not) to tone it down some.

Conclusion 1

The Chavez unfair advantage is huge and it is almost impossible to deal with for the opposition who can only count on the conscience of the country, and its memory of such past abuses to minimize some of the huge and unfair Chavez advantage. Never in our democratic history has a sitting administration held such a lopsided advantage in money or communication.

For the keen observer it will suffice to turn to the US control during reelection campaigns to see the difference. What we can see in Venezuela today makes these US controls a paragon of republican virtues in spite of all of their limitations. Or simply look at the Colombian example where Uribe was allowed to run for reelection only once he had accepted a very stringent law that controls some of the advantages that an incumbent presidents benefits. Apparently it is working as we are not hearing much from the Uribe opposition who is concerned about campaigning as hard as possible, which should be the case always.

(RETURN to entry post)

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