Monday, February 1, 2010

The Political Folly of Electoral Abstentionism in Chavez's Venezuela


Venezuelan Playwright, Author, and Journalist Ibsen Martinez

I would like to take a first look within this blog at the upcoming 2010 parliamentary elections in Venezuela, which likely will take place in September of this year, though scheduling remains in the hands of the regime. Before I get into the subject of this first post, in which I will introduce the perspective of a highly-qualified Venezuelan observer on an important trend to track within the process; namely, that of "abstentionism," I want to draw everyone's attention to some very fine background work that already has been prepared for an easy review by anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with the situation.

Venezuelan blogger Daniel Duquenal has done an excellent job of putting together a series of posts, all but one in English as I view them today, which introduce and explain the elections in significant detail and from a variety of perspectives. Readers will be able to learn the ins and outs of Venezuelan electoral law in both theory and practice--yes, they differ markedly and in the real world often work to the advantage of the regime--as well as learning both the recent and long-term historical context within which the elections will take place. Daniel is concerned with combatting problems of voter apathy, electoral fraud, and more and he is hoping, read "pleading," that the Venezuelan opposition will present a unified front to the regime, something that is particularly important given the new electoral law which denies minority parties representation unless they receive at least 25% of the vote. And there are still other problems to confront as well; especially gerrymandering of districts. You can see a basic overview of Daniel's work on the 2010 elections in Venezuela here. I recommend it highly.

As a first topic for review of the upcoming vote in Venezuela I would like to introduce the phenomenon of Electoral Abstentionism here, which has played a more prominent part in the politics of Chavez's rule over the past decade than many would appreciate. Chavez has, quite simply, not only benefited from the willful apathy of many in the Venezuelan electorate who oppose the direction of his administration, he has in fact counted upon it as a given advantage enabling him to rule almost by decree. But this recent trend in Venezuelan politics appears to be changing, as the article I am presenting today will show.

Ibsen Martinez is an award-winning newspaper columnist, journalist, and playwright from Caracas. He has been with the staff at the Caracas newspaper El Nacional, once considered close to Chavez but which has clearly stood in opposition to him since at least 2000, for over fourteen years. He also has been published internationally in papers such as Miami's El Nuevo Herald, and both Letras Libres and El Pais in Madrid.

The following editorial was published yesterday in the Bogota, Colombia newspaper El Espectador. Martinez takes a good look in this particular essay at the phenomenon of abstentionism in recent Venezuelan political life and gives his reasons why he believes it will no longer be a boon to Chavez this year or in the future. Since almost all knowledgeable observers of Venezuelan politics under Chavez seem to view abstentionists--the so-called ni-nis--as an important part of the political milieu of Venezuela, Martinez's perspective may be worth keeping in mind.

"The Three Strikes"
By Ibsen Martinez
The Best Poll is the Election

After a Chavista decade, for Venezuelans of any political banner it is simply exhausting to contemplate the prospect of a new electoral struggle. Nevertheless, today there is hardly anyone in the entire country who wants to avert the annoyance of another contentious campaign with more fervor than Hugo Chavez himself.

The reason why is that everything indicates that the parliamentary elections in September of this year may mean that his desire for reelection in the 2012 presidential election will appear to be indefinitely put on hold.

Even though some foreign media-especially European-still uphold the idea of Chavez's electoral invincibility, the fact is that, strictly speaking, since December 2006 Chavez has not received an electoral landslide of the kind to which he had become accustomed since 1998, when he won the presidency of Venezuela for the first time. Indeed, Chavez won by a landslide in the referendum convened in 1999 to validate the Constitution arising from the Constituent Assembly that year and, later, in the same convincing fashion, in the controversial recall referendum of 2004 called by the opposition.

This reporter judges that the accusation of electronic vote fraud which the political opposition could not validate then--neither before their fellow Venezuelans nor to the international community--was not the effective cause of that triumph.

Rather, in that "victory" the conventional vices of Latin American populist opportunism were acted out within an electoral trance. Most particularly, the extortion of the vote of the state bureaucracy in a country where the Petro-State employs 70% of the economically active population worked. There was, moreover, a grotesque element that conditionally determined the outcome in favor of Chavez, the "Tascon list," so named after the surname of the Chavista deputy who made it famous. It was, simply, a list of millions of citizens who, in 2003, signed the petition for a recall referendum.

Violating the secrecy of the vote, the Venezuelan electoral college, herein named the National Electoral Council, unconstitutionally ceded to the pro-government deputy Luis Tascon the list of all opposition voters. The list already had been maliciously challenged by the college for alleged errors of form, forcing the opposition to collect signatures again.

This list, which still circulates freely today in compact discs obtainable from street vendors, has served over these years, neither more nor less, as a detailed register of political opponents and a means of terror. It is consulted by the government before awarding contracts, making appointments in public administration, granting passports and so on. As a result, from those years onward, a virtual political apartheid has prevailed in Venezuela that has not passed without having electoral consequences. The most important and certainly the most tragic for the opposition, was the expensive toll that militant abstentionism reached on the eve of the parliamentary elections of 2005.

Yesterday's Abstentionists Retarget their Aim

In that year the political leadership of the opposition, collegially composed of what remained of the old bipartisanship and by numerous groups of so-called civil society, instead of turning out its constituency, chose to get behind the general feeling of frustration and despair of the mass of voters opposed to Chavez.

The latter, still imbued with the so-called "anti-politics" that made possible Chavez's coming to power, was convinced that the electoral college was capable of twisting any outcome in favor of the Bolivarian leader.

People asked contemptuously: "Why vote?," and the political class could neither say nor do anything worthwhile faced with the question. The parties, consciously persuaded for the worse in knowing themselves despised from the beginning by the average voter, decided to throw away all reason and flatter the common opponent.

The strange idea of boycotting the parliamentary elections then emerged, with the specious argument that a militant abstentionism would "delegitimize" the regime and hasten its fall.

The result of such nonsense has been what Chavez has counted upon for four years with an assembly joyously at the service of all his designs. In contrast, the radical abstentionism of the opposition has now lost all its belligerence. Those who were the leading spokesmen of abstentionism in 2005, today are working the hardest to reverse the effects of this monumental miscalculation.

Thus there is now a consensus, not only among the opposing political leadership, grouped together in a body called the "Democratic Committee," but among the masses adverse to Chavez, who are committed, if not to win, to at least regain a presence in the Assembly as a way of making the already serious and undeniable political crisis that lives inside Chavismo more profound. A crisis which may well hinder the aspirations of Chavez to seek re-election in 2012.

Since 2007, Chavez's Votes Have Not Grown, Only Fallen

Consider: In December 2006, Chavez won the presidential elections with seven million three hundred thousand votes, 62.8% of the ballots cast. Just one year later, in December 2007, the referendum with which Chavez sought approval for a series of reforms to the "world's most perfect constitution," lost by a narrow margin, with an abstention rate which exceeded 37%. Most significant was that, in just 12 months, Chavez "lost" almost three million votes. Two million seven hundred and seventy-nine thousand, to be exact.

"They like the guy," was the unanimous opinion of the analysts, "but not the socialism he proposes." Since that date, the opposition has come in with greater numbers in all confrontations, despite the enticement to mischief of the electoral college. The years in which Chavez's electoral dominance expressed itself monotonously in a ratio of from 60 to 40 in favor of the Supreme Leader have ended, and now all the polls speak of a clear opposition majority in voter intent. This predominance clearly nourishes disenchantment in Chavez's own electoral universe: the poor.

Thus it is that today, with the 100% devaluation of the Bolivar, the rationing of water and electrical energy as the product of waste, union agitation in the iron and steel sector, rampant crime, a silent war between factions of the "Boli-Bourgeoisie" that expresses itself in the bankruptcies of many banks and, last but not least, the rupture of trade relations with Colombia all worsen the rejection of Chavez by over 80% of Venezuelans of voting age, voices usually very laconic and even-tempered all foreshadowing that the lists of the opposition will be able to wrest control of the Assembly from Chavez in September.

For the first time the "Chavez aircraft carrier" does not look capable of carrying the parliamentary candidacies of his always unknown candidates on his shoulders.

According to the rules of baseball, the Venezuelan national pastime, a batter has only three chances to try to hit the ball out of the diamond. Each time he fails, the umpire calls a strike. When three strikes are called, we say the batter has been put "out" and must leave the game.

In the breaks between one inning and another in the contests, the tens of thousands of attendees at the final games of the Venezuelan baseball championship chanted every night at the ballpark in Caracas, as the umpire would shout "out" to a batter: "One, two, three: Chavez, you're out!"

The three strikes are devaluation, rationing, and insecurity. Three non-ideological reasons to leave the Bolivar reborn without parliamentary representation.

Things are changing for Chavez in Venezuela. The signs are everywhere.



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