Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Venezuelan election of 2006: a road map for the opposition?

So here we are after an election that looks like a catastrophic 25% margin advantage for Chavez. Or an election which is luckily no more than a 25% margin advantage? What are we to believe and what can the opposition do with this? Perhaps we should start first looking at the reality in front.

The naked political reality of Venezuela

The reality for the opposition is stark. In front of them they have a ruthless state that will use any of the sate resources, any legal tricks to make sure that the opposition has as little a chance as possible to win an election. In addition it is a ruthless adversary that has demonstrated since February 2004 that it will use force if necessary to stop the opposition from making any progress. And if observers doubt about this, they just need to reflect at the current state apparatus that is so morally and economically corrupt, where so many people would have to account for so much, that well, thinking that they will surrender power as if nothing is just a delusion.

But that does not mean the opposition should stop fighting. Gandhi fought against greater odds. Toledo fought against greater odds. Aung San Suu Kyi has been fighting against much, much greater odds for already 11 years. So it would be unconscious to lower the fight, to let Chavez get away with murder. Even if we know that under Chavez conditions will become worse before they get better. That is the way such regimes, systems, evolve, be it the Raj, Fujimori or a leftist military regime as in Burma.

But what is even more discouraging for the opposition is that in two years Chavez has been very successful at increasing the fear. Public servants fear so much to lose their job that they do not care much (the private sector is not hiring). Misiones have increased very cunningly the fear in the poor by giving them just enough to keep them alive and telling them effectively that if Chavez loses, they will lose their meager mision benefit.

This is not a small feat. Venezuelan family structure is rather nucleated in large and shifting groups, due in part to a very large amount of out wedlock children, compounded with many elderly who have no access to social security. In the lower classes of society this can become quite dramatic as dozens can depend on a couple of bread winners, lowly paid at that. Thus it is easy to imagine that with Barrio Adentro for primary medical care and a couple of “becados” from any of the work/study programs, you can help considerably a large family group. That is, by spending on 2-3 folks, you can tie as many as 20 votes, even if some in those 20 do not like Chavez at all. It is not that expensive to buy votes when you think of it. In front of this blackmailing power, what can the opposition offer besides “Mi Negra”? As long as oil money keeps flowing in, Chavez will have bought/blackmailed enough people, who added with his hard core semi religious following, will give him for quite a while a 51% majority, even without overt cheating. Two years have passed since the Recall Election. Only today does the opposition realize the price it is paying for its failures then.

Still, it is also a reality that the opposition in spite of all the build in advantage for Chavez of the electoral system, in spite of the significant irregularities observed by the EU or the folk on foot, still managed to get 37% of the vote and if it decreased its percentile number from 2004 it managed to increase its real numbers. Damaged? The opposition is. Dead? Far from it. In fact now are washed away the coup monger accusations of 2002: Chavez cannot anymore accuse the opposition of being anti democratic now that it has recognized its victory. Even if the price to pay for that is to legitimize retroactively the two years of illegal rule since the scandalous frauds of 2003 and 2004.

Still, there are several things that the opposition can do.

Clearing up the air

The first and urgent task of the opposition is to address convincingly all the irregularities that have occurred on December 3. As the days pass not only it is becoming obvious that too many strange things happened that could have inflated the electoral result, but it is also clear that the opposition leadership is not too willing to pay much attention to it. True, even if we add up all of the possible double voting, military intromission, etc, etc, it is still hard to think that the total of “stolen” votes would be much more than a few hundred of thousand. The audits were clean this time, true, but what about double voting? What about centers without opposition witnesses where the voting clerk could have pushed the button as often as needed? What about a certain strange abstention similarity?

I was rather surprised that for the first time in my Venezuelan voting life the “indelible” ink was all but gone by the early evening. That is right, always the color and even the smell of the ink would accompany us for up to three days after voting. This time there was no smell and had I wanted to, I am sure that by 3 PM a little bit of Clorox would have allowed me to vote again.

Now, and again, that is not enough to change the result of the vote, but it sure could explain that convenient result (just above Uribe!), that surprising victory in Zulia where Chavez never dared to do an all open rally. I for one think that chavismo added to its credit some votes. Maybe not a million, that would be too obvious, too difficult to hide, but just enough in punctual areas where they new that no one could audit well. I understand that, and I am not bothered much by it in that I knew it would happen and that the objective was to hold the fort and get as much as possible. The problem resides elsewhere. Those guys who one month ago still were saying that they would not vote because of their distrust of the CNE, if once again they feel that their vote was not properly counted, well, forget about them ever coming back to the ballot box. It is an emotional issue, they do not care whether Chavez stole one or one million votes. What they care is that the opposition leadership does something about it.

The opposition needs to confront the CNE as of today if next time it wants voters to show up, and better voting, and it can do so without even screaming fraud. For example it could demand punition for the army abuses, it could demand an explanation why apparently in poor areas voting went much faster than in riche areas, it could start fighting against the finger printing machines who definitely worked psychologically to convince many not to risk a vote against Chavez. And much, much more.

And that would also have an advantage. Part of those screaming fraud are usually from old opposition leadership trying to find a way to retain a tiny parcel of influence as the new opposition surges with PJ and UNT. Dealing effectively with the issue will bury once and for all these dinosaurs. This observation, by the way, comes from a private discussion with a reader who also has posted here, Bruni.

No taxation without representation

In his infamous press conference of last week Chavez stated that the opposition should forget to go back to the National assembly for another 4 years. According to Chavez, political errors must be paid. And of course he is the one who fixes the sentence.

But he forgot that he committed a political error himself by claiming that he would reach the 10 million votes. He missed it by 30% and he must pay for that one. Not to mention that the conditions of his reelection make the strength of that 7 million very doubtful. Thus it is imperative for the opposition to press that issue, that they deserve representation. The graph blow illustrates the problem. To do it I have assumed that the totals shown by the CNE would be the ones for a legislative election, and that proportional representation would be kept. Thus any political party that got 0.5% of the vote is entitled to a seat (plus expected rounding up as usual where such counting systems are used).

This graph illustrates quite well the monstrosity that the MVR has become, swallowing most of chavismo with PODEMOS and PPT as rather meager allies about to be taken in. On the right (I kept to conventions proudly) there is UNT and PJ which are the only noticeable minorities. I think that UNT is on the left of PJ but I am not sure. If PJ divides this will be all made more complex.

I think there are several ways that the opposition could advantage of this unfair situation. For example the opposition could say that according to article 350 of the constitution it will not recognize any treaty that Venezuela signs from now on as it is not consulted with the majority of the country. What serious government will sing a treaty in such conditions? At the very least they would require a ratification referendum (or a big pay off).

A clear graph would bring to the people how unfair it is. Venezuelans are sensible to such arguments and if the hard core chavismo is gloating today, the soft core would not mind at all having a few opposition assembly folks. After all, that third that is not represented pays at least 70% of the taxes of Venezuela. This is a good issue to nag on and on, including bringing in civil disobedience and street rallies and protests and more.

Building up issues

The field is large. Now that the opposition has a leadership and two apparently solid parties, there is not only a way to establish proposals but to bring them to the people and get a fair hearing. Now that the cacophony of insignificant groups is over, even if unfair, it is time to move on and forge a project. If they want a say, the small guys can unite and form a third movement as explained previously.

Constitutional reform

Rosales hit on the nail by anticipating Chavez and bringing this topic before he did. Surely Chavez is upset about that show stolen from him so easily. Now, any amendment that chavismo will want to put to the vote, it will probably have to let an opposition amendment go to vote also. The democratic image of the regime would be badly damaged if the National Assembly ram through their proposal and blocks consideration of the opposition one. Already chavismo seems without a plan there except for Chavez unlimited reelection, surprisingly on the defensive for a group of folks that won so big. As to what the opposition should offer? That would be a long post by itself.

Building a platform

The other thing that the opposition needs is to build a political platform. That is, it needs to go beyond “Mi Negra”. We lost but we did the best we could in such short notice. Now 2007 should be dedicated to build a program of government that would give folks a reason to vote for the opposition in the regional election of 2008. There is not much time, we know that. Had the opposition put its act together early in 2006 the result of last Sunday might have been much different.

There are many issues to pick from: defense of private property, independence of trade unions, fair repartition of the state money, decentralization, politics out of barracks, etc, etc….

Human rights

The opposition should also be relentless in defending human rights, not only in Venezuela but elsewhere. It should coordinate a joint effort, volunteer lawyers, etc, to help anyone, chavista or not, that will cross the path of the regime. This not only brings positive image overseas, but a lot at home. And with the authoritarian tendency of the regime it is something that is sure to pay off. And they have the model on how to do it by looking at the Uson case: no more flashy TV appearance and glamour, only serious legal work, sustained and not for effect. This is what brought Chavez to talk of pardon before international courts stick their nose in Venezuela more than what they are already doing.

There are 6 long years ahead of us, let’s put them to good use. Or at least let’s force Chavez to install his dictatorship once and for all. At least we will know.

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