Monday, October 19, 2009

The 2010 Venezuelan votes: how to assign the district seats

And now, after a series of 6 posts we come to the most difficult issue to address: how to design the unity candidates to the nominal districts for the National Assembly election of 2010, over 100 of them.

In a series of posts
we have discussed the problems with the new electoral law of Venezuela, how the government has modified the electoral system to try to obtain again a crushing majority at the Assembly, how gerrymandering is now a reality. We also tried to guess what is the message that the opposition should hold to counter the massive electoral machinery of chavismo, and we observed how necessary was the unity of the opposition in an electoral alliance if it wanted to have a chance at winning a bare majority.

Thus we came to the posts on how to elaborate that electoral alliance. First I discussed the system to establish the electoral alliance in what I called the "list seats", the seats who were supposed to allow for minority representation in parliament but who, with the new electoral mechanic, have now become a bonus point to enlarge the winner's majority. I proposed that these seats, not even a third of all the contested seats, should be decided through a political party negotiation with the input of some sector of civil society. The objective was to use these seats as safe seats and offer them to important political personalities that ARE ABLE AND WILLING TO CAMPAIGN STATE WIDE AND NATION WIDE. In other words, something as a supra campaign team marshaling its multiparty composition everywhere to demonstrate the purpose of unity of the opposition.

There are about two dozen of "safe seats" and thus no political party should get more than 3 of these seats, to make sure that their motivation to campaign for the less safe district remains. The nominees should include about half a dozen of local or national figures not linked directly to any political party. They should all be nominated as soon as possible so they can start campaigning while the names of the other 100 or so seats are decided. And this is the subject of this post.

How to chose a candidate?

I will list the different methods briefly with their advantages and disadvantages. The objective is for the reader to understand that there is no good method with the current political situation of Venezuela and that as such all methods should be considered and applied according to the different states. One thing is certain: a healthy dose of primaries must be implemented as it is the only way that the general nomination process will be validated in public opinion. For that it would be desirable that no less than 50 seats, half of the total nominations remaining, should go through a primary system.

The smoked room negotiations

Advantages: the cheapest method, and up to a point the fastest. If well managed, with generosity and transparency, it could even be the fairest.

Disadvantages: the parties that do not get the nod could accuse the "winners" of all sort of manipulations. This could damage unity enough that it might push some parties to launch their candidates anyway, the more so if "secret" chavista money comes to finance them.

Applications: yet, in some cases can we really afford a primary or even an opinion poll to decide the nominees? Think about some nearly hopeless states like Trujillo or Cojedes, why bother spending time and money in financing some sort of popular nomination process in states that will most likely go to Chavez? Not the favorite method by any means but one that applied with enough transparency could serve in some small red states, 4 to 6 of them.

The opinion poll selection

Advantages: it is a method that served well in 2008 to select some governors and mayors candidates, for example Ledezma who went on to win Caracas. It is cheaper than organizing a primary. It also allows to ignore the problem that comes when you decide what voter base should be allowed to vote in a primary.

Disadvantages: it still costs some money since at least 2 different pollsters must be commissioned in every district. And experience shows that when polls results are close then a third pollster is called to the rescue. When polls are close the "losing" side is very, very reluctant to concede. In addition individual districts represent at best 10% of the voter share (we will discuss that later), so minority parties risk not to be high enough to get a candidate and thus lose any motivation to campaign. Remember, we need everyone's effort and any political organization that has a blip on the radar should be offered at least one "spokes person" seat in the next assembly (luckily we are talking here of at most half a dozen of such seats, for Bandera Roja, ABP, MAS, and 2 or 3 more ). There is a complication with that method: do we put the names or political parties in the polls to be made? Using several candidate names could risk muddling the results and not give clear winners.

Applications: this method applies best to the top half states in population, where polling methods are well established and where there are many seats to provide thus allowing for a reasonable fair participation of all, leaving room for some negotiation so every side is reasonably happy. Also, if gerrymandering indeed takes place and is announced too late for effective primaries to be organized, it will be the only way to sort out the names in the new districts. Furthermore, if primaries are held but suddenly the CNE changes the districts, polls are the way to go to "reorganize" the primary results.

A primary system

Advantages: there is clear popular expression and the losers will have a hard time not recognizing the results. If they try to sabotage the final result by running anyway, public opinion will sanction them, at least the way public opinion stands today. It is also the most democratic way to do a nomination process, an excellent propaganda tool against the PSUV primaries that will be murky at best. And SUMATE is willing and ready to organize primaries if enough funds are provided.

Disadvantages: unfortunately this system has many problems. Who runs the primary (not all like SUMATE)? Where do we find the funds for a rather expensive process? When do we hold the primary since the CNE will reveal the new districts as late as possible? How do we ensure that even the losers get at least some representation if they got a significant number of votes overall? But most importantly WHO WILL VOTE? Political party militants? everyone?

The major problem with a primary system is really to decide who can vote. Opening the vote to all might sound good but by allowing militant chavista to participate in a truly polarized society could result in all PODEMOS and chavista dissident to lose as chavista will be directed to vote for the candidates chavismo think it can defeat best. Only in opposition strongholds (Miranda, Zulia, Nueva Esparta, Tachira and maybe Merida, Carabobo and Caracas) can we consider an open roll based on the CNE electoral registry. But in a state like Aragua, Bolivar, Monagas or Lara, expect chavismo to try to influence the result.

The primary electoral roll

From the above you can deduct that the the two main problems of all of these selection methods reside in the primary system: which states will hold primaries and who can vote in these contests. I will leave the first problem for the next post and will discuss only the electoral base to close this text.

The proposals next are reflecting my personal opinion more than what the reality should be. I, for one, do not agree that primaries should be open to all. After all the PSUV will not open its eventual primaries to all so we have no lessons to get from that quarter. But then again, who can vote?

SUMATE has in its database the folks who signed for the recall election of Chavez in 2004. This is roughly 3 million potential voters who can already be told that they have the right to vote. In addition, political parties have data base of their militants that can be crossed easily with the 2004 list to supplement this one. Finally, SUMATE and political parties could open registration drives for a week or two, and add easily up to half a million more voters coming mostly from PODEMOS and disaffected chavista and NiNi. In other words, in a couple of weeks SUMATE can provide the opposition with a voter base of maybe 4 million voters.

The objection is of course that "many people are afraid to put their names on any opposition list". Well, too bad. It is time that folks take a stand, that NiNi stop being the profiteers they really are. We all know that the state is organizing a political apartheid since 2003 and sticking your head in the sand once more will not protect you from becoming a second class citizen.

However there is a counter argument that can be made to open voting to all. After all, if you vote in a primary you will need to vote at least in your home state and there will be a record of that. The new list generated will not differentiate whether you voted because you support the opposition, you are a disaffected chavista or you were told to vote for a given candidate to make sure s/he does not win the primary. That is, the fear of people to appear in an anti Chavez list works both ways, for the chavista and non chavista Venezuelan. In other words, it is possible to scare away the chavista vote so that its effect will be small on the final outcome.

In the end it is a political decision that must be made by the political parties, SUMATE and significant representatives of the civil society, without minimizing the potential consequences. One thing is certain, even if opposition primaries are held in only a few states but that a large participation is observed, this would be a very bad omen for chavismo and motivation for the opposition.

Further notes on Primary vote

There is an additional problem with primaries, the need to decide who wins. A two round ballot? Too expensive and time consuming for the present strength of the opposition. Should we just allow for the winner to be nominated outright if s/he gets at least 35%? OR should we allow the political parties to decide the winner from the top two vote getters? See, primaries are not the sure solution.

Could we just assume multi seat districts and candidates distributed on a proportional way? I would go for the open list per party that is, every party names a list and you mark your vote for a single name, the seats being allocated first on party vote strength and second on votes obtained. This would make useless a second round balloting except in single seat districts. In addition in case the CNE redraws late the districts the results could still be more or less used in most districts.

My final proposal?

I think primary could be held in the states that are held by the opposition since some logistical support could be found there (chavismo supposedly could not complain too much since their abuses is ALREADY well documented). In particular for Tachira, Carabobo and Miranda (Zulia could be done with a poll since we all know that UNT would be first and PJ second). If anything the state police and some state facilities could offer the safety required for holding the contests. Of the states held by chavismo the only ones where primaries would be justified would be Bolivar, Merida, Anzoategui and perhaps Lara. Of the small states Yaracuy and Barinas are the only ones where I see a primary being of any use, if anything because a primary would be a first step for the opposition to start rebuilding there.

Polls should be used for Caracas, Aragua, Lara, and Anzoategui and maybe Falcon and Monagas.

The following states would be better served by a negotiated arrangement: Trujillo, Portuguesa, Guarico, Cojedes, Amazonas, Delta Amacuro, Sucre and Vargas (though Vargas can be included in the Caracas poll).

If no more than a 8 states go to primaries we can risk a open to all vote. But if we decide to make primaries in half the states or more we might consider using SUMATE data to which we add the political parties data.

Primaries should be held on a regional basis by necessity, to marshal the opposition scarce resources effectively. 3 or 4 primary regional dates should be fixed over a maximum of two months, to be completed no later than May of next year.

The vote should be open list by parties, people marking one cross in front of one name of one list only. In districts with 3 or more seats, no party can run a complete slot. That is, 4 seats, only 3 names, 3 seats, only 2 names. That is perhaps the less painful way to ensure that minority parties reach a seat somewhere. Candidatures would be distributed by party result, the top getter name of the list receiving the nomination. The substitute name of a nominated guy from a different party (Venezuela elects the main guy and its substitute, which I totally disagree with). That way all will get something, if anything the substitute seat for when the main representative travels or something.

In next post I will start posting some tables to illustrate the complexity of the primary process in some states.

-The end-

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