Thursday, December 01, 2005

Dec01/05 - Venezuela's electoral meltdown: a sort of primer for those trying to understand it

Ballot box picture courtesy of the FT, question marks courtesy of the CNE

PMBComments: as political events develop in Venezuela at a speed unforeseen by many, the press reports coming out of Caracas appear to be frozen in time. Note after note cling to conventional wisdom that has been obliterated by a series of events that have demonstrated – beyond doubt - that the 80% of the voting age population that had apparently opted not to vote in Sunday’s parliamentary election have much more power that the political leadership – from both extremes – that was intent on going to the polls no matter what law or principle had to be violated.

As I said in an earlier post, there will never again be an election in Venezuela like Mr. Chávez likes them. Venezuelans will not turn out to vote again unless there is a legal, neutral, competent electoral board (CNE); unless there is a trustworthy voting mechanism that eliminates the possibility of fraud and retribution; and unless all parties field candidates concerned about the future of the country and the welfare of its citizens. If all these conditions are met, we can even do without the OAS or the EU.

As a primer for many who do not understand what they read, hear or see coming out of Caracas. I have taken a randomly selected – fresh out of the oven - article from the Financial Times and done a thorough dissection to add some commentary hopefully useful to those scrambling to understand what is going on.

I picked a note from one of the most informed, talented and courageous foreign journalists based in Caracas. I sure hope that by leveraging – i.e. commenting upon - an article, editorial or opinion I can shed even more light on a life-and death crisis. If you want to read the original article without the inline commentary, click here. PMB

Black is original article, red is PMB inline comment

Venezuela voter boycott to hand Chávez easy win

[Read this headline well…voters “boycott” an election and someone i.e. Chávez, can claim an easy win. He wins what? An election with no voters!]

By Andy Webb-Vidal in Caracas [keep in mind as you read that Webb Vidal is among the best journalists covering this ongoing crisis!]
Published: December 1 2005 18:24 | Last updated: December 1 2005 18:24

Hundreds of international observers will [I venture to doubt it] this weekend fan out across Venezuela to stand watch at polling stations during Sunday’s legislative elections. But their task looks likely to be a lonely one. [Real lonely because there will not be an election taking place. Similar things have happened before; even in Venezuela i.e. May 28, 2000 elections had to be postponed for lack of everything]

In some areas, no more than a trickle of voters is expected all day. In others, the observers might be surprised to encounter anyone at all. [This is at the heart of the real problem. For weeks polls have been showing that between 70 and 81% of the eligible voter were not planning to vote. This not only frightened the opposition political parties, but was a real source of concern for an autistic government that nevertheless understood the devastating effect of a miniscule turnout on its campaign to portray itself as both popular and legitimate]

“Forget it, I’m not going to vote,’’ says Daniela Montoya, a shop assistant from San Antonio de Los Altos, a town near the capital Caracas. “There’s no point because the electoral authorities would fix the result.’’ [Many chavistas held this same view – ergo the high abstention-potential numbers - even though the current Chavez-biased CNE has never once ruled in favor of the opposition]

The elections to choose the 165 members of the National Assembly, which has only one chamber, look set to usher in a new phase in the political maelstrom that surrounds the populist President Hugo Chávez. [Correct. This indeed was the intention…a veritable constitutional dictatorship…with dreams of a constitutional reform to make Mr. Chavez perpetually re-electable, and a military doctrine to ensure that this was the case]

Five of the biggest opposition parties pulled out their candidates this week alleging that the National Electoral Council, or CNE, is unable to ensure that voting is secret. [The CNE tried some fancy “use and abuse of statistics” when they dismissed the 4 who announced their decision as an insignificant 0.67% of the 447 organizations that had fielded candidates. This futile numbers game was a give away as to how nervous the CNE (and their bosses in Miraflores palace) were. With Primero Justicia, and a few others, out now, it is probably only 3% of the organizations…but guess what? They are the ones that really matter!]

“Given the nature of this political earthquake we can’t responsibly ask for your vote without the capacity to defend it,’’ announced Gerardo Blyde, a leader of the Primero Justicia party. [I am not a geologist, but earthquake sounds ok. I will not comment on the errors of PJ, hopefully they learnt a BIG lesson. Mr. Blyde’s original haste and failure to read public sentiment almost lead to the immolation of the youthful, and at times promising, political party. A well drafted exit statement saved them from self-inflicted irrelevance]

Government officials say that opponents have withdrawn as part of a last-ditch effort to create a political impact because they were inevitably going to lose. [All is fair in the war and politics. The masters of electoral trickery were simply outwitted. Did we expect the opposition to play the game blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs for ever?] Buoyed by a huge increase in government spending, Mr Chávez’s approval rating stands at about 50 per cent, according to recent opinion polls. [Have Venezuela based foreign journalists or diplomats ever seen this support for Mr. Chávez come out spontaneously and enthusiastically to the streets of Venezuela? Say 750,000 in Caracas, 350,000 in Maracaibo, 150,000 in Valencia, 5,000 in San Juan de los Morros? I have not. But a picture, or a film clip, is worth thousands and millions of words. I am dying to see physical demonstration of this supposed popularity. My guess is that people are scared, option-less and hungry, and it pays to say you like a man that has ordered pain to be inflicted on those who say they oppose him, i.e. Maisanta List] and “They knew they were going to be defeated,’’ said José Vicente Rangel, vice-president. “Fine, they can go to hell then.’’ [JVR did not say “al infierno” - although they do have the bad habit of demonizing their opponents - he sent millions of Venezuelans “al carajo”, which since Mar del Plata seems to be the destination of choice…left to their own volition they might actually build a jail for political prisoners called CARAJO]

The withdrawal is unusual [as usual] since it follows a decision by the CNE not to use controversial fingerprint machines to identify voters. [This was actually a last minute decision taken under duress and presented arrogantly to the five main political parties by Jorge Rodriguez, the Psychiatrist-President of the CNE, as a “concession”, when it has been a mayor reason for the fear and distrust the population has had all along – remember: chavistas included!]. Officially, the machines are to ensure that voters do not vote twice but last week a group of opposition technical experts released a study that claims to demonstrate that electronic machines can record the sequence of votes. That sequence, they say, can be matched with the order of voters recorded by the fingerprint machines to determine a voter’s choice. [Clarification: an opposition technical expert with a given name and all, Leopoldo González, demonstrated in front of the CNE - and observers - that this could be done…no claims, an actual live demonstration. After this faux-pas, the overly cocky Mr. Rodriguez had a 3-egg omelet on his face. Not eliminating the dreaded machines was not an option].

Government-made electronic databases that detail the political preferences of most of the people on the electoral register, presumably [This is not even denied by the perpetrators] compiled during last year’s recall referendum, have recently surfaced. Yet the CNE’s withdrawal of the fingerprint machines, a decision recommended by the 400 visiting observers from the Organisation of American States and the European Union, appears to have had the effect of further undermining confidence among voters, rather than improving it. [It actually left the political parties very exposed. The population had already decided not to turn about to vote. The parties – for once – listened to the thunderous apathy of the electorate}.

“It’s hard to observe an election where almost no one is going to vote,’’ said a foreign diplomat in Caracas. The opposition parties’ boycott of the election will mean that abstention could reach 80 per cent, according to some analysts [The Keller poll had 81% likely abstention when all parties were happy-go-lucky about participation despite the multiple violations of the electoral statute and even the Constitution; so this quoted foreign diplomat – to be credible - must assume that nothing changed with the purported “boycott”. And while I am at it, how do you call what the CNE has done with Venezuela’s electoral system? Gutted? Yes, this is the apt word. “Voter boycott” is not only a misnomer, it fails to pin the blame were it really belongs]. In turn, that will allow allies of Mr Chávez to win a larger majority than expected. [No comment]

José Vicente Carrasquero, a political analyst in Caracas, predicts the government will win more than a two-thirds majority. [They will win 100% of the mock vote they will have to hold instead in Miraflores Palace and surrounding ministries]‘’Under these circumstances, in which more or less everyone else has disappeared, it would be a defeat for the government if they don’t end up with 90 per cent,’’ he says. “But it will be a Pyrrhic victory.’’ [A monumental defeat would be a more accurate and colloquial description]

A majority of more than two-thirds in parliament will allow the government to push through reforms to the constitution, such as removing limits on the number of times the president can be elected [as mentioned above]. Some opponents fear that could make Mr Chávez president-for-life. [And what would that make the 80+% that are not going along with this failed ploy? Eunuchs-for-life? I sure doubt it. To bad Mr. Ceausescu is not around to coach the Chávistas as to when to stop playing with the masses] As political commentator Teodoro Petkoff puts it, Mr Chávez will end up with “a Soviet or Cuban-style National Assembly, one that’s dominated by one party”. [And ZERO democratic legitimacy which is what has served as convenient cover for the Lulas, Dirceus, Kirchners, Zapateros, Kennedys, Delahunts, and Chiracs of the world to serve themselves from Venezuela’s mismanaged and badly distributed oil bonanza.]

An end to representation in the formal organs of government might foster a more radical opposition movement. But Luis Vicente León, director of polling research company Datanalisis, says that the opposition will end up more demoralised than before as it will have lost the little influence it already had. [It has ZERO influence right now! The government with a slim majority has passed a number of laws and measures that require a qualified majority without even acknowledging that this is was the case or an impediment. The current CNE and its creator – the “supreme” Court – are testaments to the opposition’s absolute irrelevance in a country were, as SUMATE stated in one of its ads this week, “I vote, you votes, he votes, we vote…but THEY DECIDE!”]. Opposition parties will be left in control [nominal control?] of only a handful of municipalities across Venezuela.

There appears to be no mood among the public to mobilise on the streets in protest as in 2002 during the build-up to a coup that briefly toppled Mr Chávez. [I would hold my judgment. But wait and see what happens if the Government pretends to ignore the political “earthquake”]

“It’s the worst of all possible scenarios. They are going to lose the few representatives they were going to have,’’ says Mr León. “It really is a catastrophe for the opposition.’’ [Mr. León sounds as blindsided as the CNE. The fact that he did not have this “unusual” scenario in his polls seems to be freezing his usually good analytical skills.]