Thursday, December 08, 2005

Dec 08/05 - On missing the real story: a somewhat misreported election

PMBComment: the usually alert and savvy team at the Economist must have forgotten to read the very harsh post-election reports of the OAS and the EU (both posted below in this blog) when they neglectfully state in today's article (read below) that: "...the president will be pleased that monitors from the European Union and the Organisation of American States observed no major disturbances." This grave omission renders this whole article futile….but I will use it as context to continue analyzing the outcome of the less than fair and transparent elections.

I have a feeling that - some in the international press and within certain foreign ministries - in the beating-the-dead-horse dash to lash at the "hapless' opposition leadership (i.e. the heads of AD, Copei, PJ, MAS…and I forget the others) fail to account for the fact that - months ago - polls began to predict that the abstention rate for this “all important” parliamentary election would be in the neighborhood of 80% (Keller). Such projections came as a surprise then to many given the purported popularity of Mr. Chávez and the costly, desperate - and ILLEGAL - attempts by the government to get the vote out (i.e. buy, cajole and concoct).

The sad truth is that the parties we all love to mock had stopped being players in this game a long time ago. Their late and unrehearsed exit might have actually saved them somewhat from the deserved consequences of their habitual foolishness.

Clearly the population was long intending on going against Chávez's wishes of being "legitimized" once more by a less than perfect election. The parties were willing to negotiate principles and admit illegality just to go back to a National Assembly in which they have been less effective and noticed than the inventory tags on their chairs. Ergo, the last minute decision by a these “political parties” to boycott the election is NOT the story AT ALL!

The REAL STORY is that the vast majority (83% and counting upwards as we await the final tally of null votes) of voting age Venezuelans opted to BOYCOTT the quintessential act in any democracy because they had no other means to effectively express their opposition, fear, lack of confidence, or loss of patience at the way the political elite – those in power and those sensibly powerless – have been conducting the affairs of the state.

The clear losers here were the authoritarian government and the political parties that failed to hear and interpret both a nation’s plea and its deafening silence.

The TRUE STORY here is that after 7 years people are feed up with all things Chávez
. This may not mean they are ready to go back to the now "100% demonized past", but it certainly means that Chávez has been robbed of the weapon that made him so menacing. No longer can he state ANYWHERE that his crooked brand of populism is backed by those he proclaims to be helping.

This Sunday’s election proves that the only gullible people around are those that failed to understand the true story by the time the polls opened, or worse those who continue to insist on the contrary after the votes were counted and the damming observer’s reports were delivered. PMB

Note: Chávez has used his histrionic talents to obliterate the demonstrable fact that 97% of everything in Venezuela – paved roads, ports, schools, oil installations, parks, hospitals…and so on, predates his oil-bonanza-blessed-but-corruption-tainted-pseudo-revolution). Demonizing the past has been quite easy because the decrepit parties have been unable to defend their many deeds or unwilling to expiate their many misdeeds. Furthermore, hoodwinking the population into believing that a future without him was simply a return of the past, has kept him popular longer than would have been the case if a palatable alternative had been forged from among the 85% of the population that said ENOUGH is ENOUGH this past Sunday.

The Economist

Chávez’s clean sweep

Dec 5th 2005
From The Economist Global Agenda

In an unusual election victory, Hugo Chávez’s party and its allies have won all the seats in Venezuela's national assembly, thanks to a boycott by most of the opposition parties. While some of Venezuela’s neighbours are warming to the fiery, anti-American populist, the best others can hope for is to stop him from becoming a regional menace

A FREE and fair election in which the president’s supporters win all of the seats in the legislature? It sounds more like the kind of contest Saddam Hussein used to “win” in Iraq with 99% of the vote. But on Sunday December 4th, the party of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, and groups close to him seem to have done just that, after all but one of the opposition parties pulled out of the election. Mr Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) won 114 seats out of 167. Allied parties took the rest. Now there is no parliamentary opposition to the president, who has run the Latin American country since 1999 and hopes to stand for another six-year term next year.

At least the opposition can claim that this election does not amount to a nationwide endorsement of the left-wing president and his “Bolivarian revolution”. Turnout was just 25%, which will allow the anti-Chávez parties to call the poll illegitimate. But the president will be pleased that monitors from the European Union and the Organisation of American States observed no major disturbances.

In reality, Mr Chávez’s win has as much to do with the hapless opposition as it does with the shameless way in which he has bought his popularity. There is considerable resistance to the president and his overbearing control over Venezuela. But the opposition, much of it drawn from the discredited former elite, has been divided, lacks strong leaders and has been regularly outmanoeuvred by the wily president.

The opposition parties pulled out less than a week before the election, after an audit of voting machines found a piece of software that could record the order of votes. This, combined with electronic fingerprinting at stations, meant that each vote could, in theory at least, be matched to an individual. That the ballot might not be secret matters in a country in which the government has used voting data to deny jobs and government services to opposition supporters.

The national electoral council announced that it would pull the fingerprinting machines, but this was not enough to keep the opposition groups in the contest. Noting that four of the five members of the electoral council are Chávez supporters, and under pressure from their activists not to take part, they claimed that there was no possibility of a fair vote. Mr Chávez characteristically called their boycott an American-backed coup attempt.

In reality, the parties that pulled out knew they were highly unlikely to win in any case. Mr Chávez’s MVR and its allies already controlled a narrow majority of seats before the election, and the president is genuinely popular, though his approval rating has fallen from around 70% earlier this year to around half. Mr Chávez claims to be destroying the old order, in which two main parties cosily swapped power and enjoyed its perks. Thanks to the attention he has lavished on Venezuela’s poor masses, his supporters worship him.

In 2002, a coup briefly removed Mr Chávez from office, before loyal sections of the army helped restore him to power. The next year, he successfully stared down a long strike by workers at the state-owned oil company. In 2004, opposition parties finally succeeded in a long campaign to bring a referendum on his rule. But Mr Chávez won 58% of the vote in that contest, in a poll whose fairness was cast into doubt by the opposition (but not by all outside groups that analysed it).

Although Mr Chávez is successful at the polls, he has ridden roughshod over the usual checks and balances that make a democracy. He has used the levers of state power even more enthusiastically than his predecessors. The army is loyal directly to the president. The judiciary, including the supreme court, is packed with his supporters. A 2004 law increased regulation of the media and threatens journalists with jail terms for “illegal” conduct (though it has not been widely used). Now, with a two-thirds majority in the assembly, Mr Chávez can change the constitution at will. This will probably result in yet more state entanglement in the economy, and fewer limits on the presidency. Mr Chávez is almost sure to cruise to re-election in December 2006.

Oddity or role model?

How does he get away with it in an era in which most Latin American countries are consolidating vibrant, if imperfect, democracies? The short answer is oil. Venezuela—the only member of OPEC from the western hemisphere—is the world’s fifth-biggest oil exporter. High oil prices have handed the government an enormous windfall. Mr Chávez has used the revenues not only for lavish social spending at home, but to try to buy influence abroad, especially around Latin America.

The Venezuelan leader is friendly with Fidel Castro, and Cuba gets cheap oil from Venezuela in exchange for the services of thousands of Cuban doctors. Néstor Kirchner, Argentina’s president, seems to be drifting closer to Mr Chávez. Venezuela is buying Argentine debt, which helps Mr Kirchner continue to snub the International Monetary Fund. Mr Chávez is also on pretty good terms with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's president, a more moderate left-winger. With the added support of Uruguay’s new left-wing president, Venezuela hopes to join Mercosur, a regional trading bloc. This could be another forum for Mr Chávez's petro-diplomacy, though it might also be a way for his neighbours to tame him somewhat.

For if Mr Chávez is a generous friend, he is an irritating enemy. Most prominently, he feuds with the United States, which he believes at least tacitly supported the 2002 coup against him. He is likely to use Mercosur membership to oppose the American-sponsored Free-Trade Area of the Americas. His animosity towards the capitalist superpower, and particularly towards George Bush, extends to insulting America’s friends and courting its enemies. Mr Chávez recently called Vincente Fox, the Mexican president, a “puppy” for his support for America’s free-trade plans. His relations with Colombia’s conservative president, who is fighting an American-backed war on drugs and leftist guerrillas, have often been tense, though they have recently improved. He has been friendly with China and Iran. Some Americans worry that talks on nuclear co-operation with Argentina could help the Iranians, via the Venezuelan conduit, to build a bomb.

At just 51 years of age, Mr Chávez may be looking beyond winning next year’s election. As long as oil prices stay high, he will probably be able to purchase enough domestic and foreign support to stay in power, especially if the opposition continues to be as disorganised as it has been in the past several years. Failing a plausible way to replace him, Latin America’s liberal reformers can probably best hope merely to contain him, making him (along with Mr Castro) a hemispheric oddity rather than a leader of a new, and worrying, continental trend.

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