Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The problems in the Venezuelan electoral system (part 3)

The not so real problem

The CNE question

THE Venezuelan electoral board, the now infamous CNE, remains THE issue. Serious polls show that the CNE is one of the least trusted institutions of the country. At least through the opposition electorate there is no trust that one’s vote is actually counted. The act of voting has become meaningless for a majority of the country. Natural abstention had climbed from the 40% when Chavez arrived: now it floats close to 80%. Running a campaign is very difficult when people think that the umpire is sold out to the Miraflores side. Volunteers and donations are hard to come in such cases as people, understandably, do not want to waste their time or money.

Last week were sworn in the 5 new board members, 4 for Chavez and one supposedly not from Chavez. Well, all five of them come from a very leftist background, as inquired by Tal Cual, and the supposed 5th member who tokenly represents the opposition might not be such. I would dare to say that the balance of power in that new CNE is not 4 to 1 but rather 4 to 0 (1).

Does it matter?

First, who thought that Chavez would accept a CNE that would be fair and balanced? Whoever deluded him or herself into thinking that a 3 to 2 CNE would be named is now cruelly disappointed. I am not. I am actually surprised that they did not go ahead and set up a straight 5 to 0. But I suppose that outside projection still matters some to chavismo. Further, the preliminary declarations of three of the new arrivals have confirmed to the country that they want to pursue the Rodriguez policies: finger printing machines, no manual ballot counting, limited auditing, etc… Trust in the system is not coming back anytime soon.

This being said it does not matter as chavismo has amply demonstrated that it does not play by the democratic rule of respect to minority rights, minorities (?) which are at best tolerated until the time comes to dispose of them one way or another (as it has been seen for the “minorities” within chavismo, disposed off on the first opportunity). Thus a 3 to 2 CNE would have behaved exactly as a 4 to 1 or 5 to 0: nothing would happen at the CNE of real importance that it is not approved by Chavez. Wasting time discussing as to whether Jorge Rodriguez is controlling the CNE through Tibisay Lucena is a waste of time, totally irrelevant. Tibisay Lucena is controlled by Chavez, as well as at least 3 other members. That the line of command might go through Rodriguez is ancillary evidence. The CNE is a partial umpire that roots for the Miraflores team and there is nothing that can be done nicely to convince them to rise above their moral mediocrity.

Legalities are just a political problem

The way the CNE acts is through a variety of legal artifices that border legality and sometimes breach it. SUMATE and others such as the European Union have observed plenty of such instances. If SUMATE has a whole catalogue of them, the EU guys, for example, were astounded at how voting hours were manipulated and how strangely voting increased in some places during that extension. Had it not been for that irregularity, the official abstention result for 2005 might have been up to 5 points higher!

The CNE is backed by a whole bunch of seedy lawyers which make the 1999 Florida ones look like babies in diapers. Any rule that might be bent to accommodate irate opposition candidates is quickly circumvented by a new rule. Or, even better, a given concession comes in too late to have any effect on the ongoing campaign and electoral process.

But all of these are simply a decoy behind which chavismo hides to justify its abuses, including those detailed earlier in these texts such as illegal state financing. The real problem here is a political problem and its solution must be a political solution that can go above the law if needed. After all the law is Chavez and he can change it as he wills.

How to deal with the CNE

I am allowing myself to digress some here from the intent of this series of post: my intention is simply to illustrate the ways into Chavez and his followers have gutted elections of their meaning (Castro himself said that elections were a waste of time and Chavez did side with that thought during his early political years when he preached abstention). But by describing ways in which the CNE can be confronted I hope to illustrate the turpitude that resides in the CNE main seat.

The solution against the fraudulent CNE machinery is elsewhere: confronting the CNE with reasonable demands, properly documented in front of international observers, setting a deadline for those demands to be fulfilled, explain to all why, and then forget abut the CNE. Let SUMATE deal with the CNE and go out motivate voters, rouse the country. When the dead line comes, then we will see.

What is important is that the opposition does not get mired in a sterile debate about naming a suitable CNE: it is not going to happen the good way. For memory, the Chavez named CNE of 1999 failed miserably in organizing the 2000 May election. These had to be suddenly postponed to August and in the debacle a new CNE was named on the spot. This could happen any time before December 2006 if the political situation does require it. To get rid of Chavez, who cares if elections are postponed by a couple of months!

I am allowing myself to offer a concrete plan. I am sure, I truly hope, that political “experts” in the opposition can come up with something much better.

Step 1. Have all presidential candidates gather and name a commission which includes, or, even better, is led, by SUMATE. Name it officially as your link to the CNE. Confront the CNE with its unwillingness to deal with SUMATE and measure their mettle. Force a political crisis if necessary right now if the CNE refuses to receive your representatives and SUMATE. Since SUMATE is included among others, the CNE should yield. You provide a face saving device by mixing up your representation with SUMATE and SUMATE walks in.

Step 2. Set clear and precise conditions to participate and set a deadline(s). An early deadline should at least be set as to what pertains the campaign process. The CNE will try to dodge the issue and then concede it when it will be meaningless, in front of observers so as to look good. Opposition candidates need to have at least 2 months of real campaign. September 1 should be a goal for certain changes such as a better control of public finances, access to state media and access to the electoral rolls to check for fraud there or target electors the way chavismo is doing (the chavista camp has all the info the CNE is refusing to yield to the opposition, make no mistake: chavismo claims they just “got it” by chance through the signature processes or “leaks”).

Step 3. While opposition candidate(s) campaigns discuss the actual voting process in the background (do not let it become the campaign theme). Be it the finger printing machines, or the voting audit range, make sure to reach an agreement at least 3 full weeks before election. To withdraw from the election is it essential that it is made early enough to make sure two things: 1) that Chavez is uncomfortably alone long enough on the trail to start looking ridiculous and 2) to have time to organize a quick abstention campaign. But this deadline should be short enough to make sure that Chavez does not have time to add a surprise move such as putting on the ballot a referendum.

In other words it is essential that the opposition candidates maintain the CNE on the defensive. And there are ways to do that, one of them is limited and strong negotiation that the CNE cannot afford to break at this point.

Conclusion 3

The CNE is the boogey man displayed by chavismo to hide the real problems of Venezuelan elections: the unfair state advantage in financing all sorts of vote buying social programs (“Mision Spigot” as Francisco Toro calls them); the unfair state advantage in financing the Chavez campaign itself; the legal and emotional set up to hinder the opposition campaign against Chavez. In front of that strategy the CNE is a mere agent.

Besides, directing complaints against the CNE is a waste of time for an additional reason: there is no certainty at all that Chavez wants an election come December. All the recent activities and provocations, from Peru to Tibisay Lucena at the CNE head, indicate that Chavez might be looking for a conflict that will serve as an excuse to take away cumbersome electoral processes which absence in Cuba has never stopped Fidel from being received as a dignitary by more than a sucker. This blogger is not adverse at thinking that Chavez wants to force the opposition out of the electoral arena, and if a conflict with the opposition or the Empire is needed, so be it. But there is no way that Chavez will ever again run in a free and fair election.

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1) Carlos Blanco in el Universal of Sunday does get that 4 to 0 count. I did write it in an early draft before I read it there. I report this in case someone read the Blanco column, not to state who got the idea first, but rather to amuse myself with the cliché “Great minds think alike”.

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