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Elections in Venezuela? You mean, this is an electoral campaign?

By Daniel Duquenal

Sunday 18, April 2004 - Part 6: what we are campaigning about. These days, as the Recall Election seems near its last sigh, we must start looking in earnest at what is our only chance to demonstrate to the world, in a peaceful way, that Chavez is not wanted by the Venezuelan people.

The regional elections, now almost certainly scheduled for early September as the Electoral Board, CNE, admits its inability to get ready for the August date, are turning to become the real referendum. In this rarest of climates one would think that the opposing Coordinadora Democratica, CD, would do its outmost to present a united front. Indeed, with single candidatures against Chavez it would become more difficult for a CNE sold to Chavez to manage a fraud big enough to steal the elections. The CNE can easily transform a 5 % loss into a 1 % win, but a 20 % loss would be more difficult to hide in a situation where international observers would be watching like hawks.

Regardless of the shameless gutting of the recall election signature drive by the CNE, in spite of all the warnings and observations from the Carter Center and the OAS, it seems unlikely that the electoral fraud in September can reach the same magnitude, not that chavismo will not try it. Thus the complaints of those that say that without a Recall Election then there is no point in running in the regional election sound hollow. If you want to claim that fraud has been committed against you, you must make sure that the fraud does happen by running. There is no better way to initiate real international pressure than to allow fraud in large scale to become apparent. For recent memory, see Fujimori "reelection" in Peru. A few months after he found himself in exile in Japan.

Considering that what is at stake is in reality the referendum on Chavez rule, how are the sides dealing with it?

Chavismo is out buying votes

One main problem that chavismo faces is that all the huge financial effort of last year to block a recall election has been lost with the Human Rights violations of February 27 and on. Thus, they have to plan yet a new massive spending campaign. Pushing back the elections to September is actually favoring chavismo, for all the crocodile tears that its leaders shed. The attitude of the chavista candidates speaks volume: they are rather quiet for people supposedly campaigning, just making sure they remain in the news while money reaches their followers. They seem to know that their score depends much more on what Chavez will do for them than on what they will do themselves.

It is interesting to observe that the one that has been making the most noise is Acosta Carles, the burping general, who is running in the well managed state of Carabobo. This state was kept in 2000 by its governor, Salas Feo, at the height of Chavez popularity in Venezuelan. This explains the lousy performance of the ex-general having his body guards jumping all dressed up and pointing guns in a club pool where the only adversaries were bathers in skimpy swimsuits. But the objective was very clear and simple: stimulate class warfare, rich versus poor as a tool to gain votes. The army and the "people" united against the aristocrats. After all, Acosta Carles is very white and one thing that can darken him is to demonstrate that the other whites do not like him. A couple of days after, Acosta Carles was received by the National Assembly (minus the opposition) as the main speaker to commemorate the return of Chavez on April 13, 2002. Certainly his disgraceful actions a few days earlier were well liked by chavismo. The electoral campaign in Carabobo could well become the script for a civil war if Acosta Carles keeps this type of politicking.

But chavista candidates elsewhere can remain cooler. The fraud will work in their favor. Rumors abound that Chavez has decided that the opposition will gain 4 to 5 minor states to "demonstrate" to the world that there is a working democracy in Venezuela. This time he is not going to lose any of the big states, three of them being now in the opposition hands. It is all quite simple, really. Once upon a time fraud was committed in totalitarian regimes with scores of 99.5 % votes. In modern days authoritarian regimes such as what Chavez aspires too, 60 % will be enough. In a country where the rule of law has ceased, 60 % of the votes give you 4/5 of the states and 95% control of what goes on in the country.

So, what is the opposition doing to counter that 60 % goal?

The Coordinadora Democratica is cackling.

The CD is very aware that the only way to minimize fraud is to present a united front. That is the only way to make it very difficult to lose states where they get a 20 % advantage, which is at least the case in 3 out of 4 states today. But will it do so?

The main problem of the CD is not that it is a hodgepodge coalition raging from right to left. The problem is that some among them think that there are enough votes to share so that they all have a chance to win. Indeed polls show that in every state anti chavista forces are ahead. But polls show also that chavismo nation wide is still in the mid 30 %, and in some states above 40 % which makes it a formidable foe if the opposition runs divided, thanks to the winner take all electoral system.

The CD is also victim of its success. Some participants of the CD think that they have resurrected their political fortunes, independently from the CD action. This is the case of old parties, in particular Accion Democratica, AD. This party, the main responsible of the situation that allowed Chavez to reach power, and unapologetic at that, thinks that people saw the light and will return to its fold. Sometimes it seems that AD main adversary is not Chavez but the "upstarts" that are trying to prey on the dissatisfied chavista voters that are looking for new options. Chavismo and AD coincide in that their main enemy is not the each other, but folks such as Primero Justicia.

These internal tensions are probably the reason why some unsavory candidates have suddenly found favor by a majority of members of the CD, something rightly decried by many and illustrated by clear headed commentators such as Milagros Socorro. One can only be dumbfounded watching the chutzpah shown by Claudio Fermin presenting himself for the office of Major at large of the Caracas Metropolitan area. Granted, the present holder, Alfredo Pena, has not been a stellar mayor. But perhaps of all opposition office holders he is the one that has had to face the strongest onslaught from chavismo, in part for having been an earlier supporter of Chavez and thus now a "traitor". One could deal perhaps with Claudio Fermin asking for some form of primary election. But no, what we are seeing is Claudio Fermin reproaching minor problems such as trash collection, to a mayor that had had to literally battle several times open assault to his town hall. What gives Mr. Fermin? Not to mention that Mr. Fermin has a rather checkered past himself, as a disavowed ex-mayor of a Caracas district, with a name that has not been cleared from suspicion of misdeeds.

What AD is doing in Caracas with Claudio Fermin, is also seen elsewhere in Venezuela, sometimes in agreement with another player from the past, Copei, or the MAS. One would believe that AD is unto something and that they really think that Chavez will share stuff with them. Others are not convinced. In particular when AD does not show any remorse from some of its past actions when in power. It is perhaps the biggest mistake of AD to think that people will vote for them against any chavista candidate. Many might just stay home.

I will translate a portion of an article from Marta Colomina a few Sundays ago:

Polls are already revealing that the elector will vote for the unity of the opposition, and that many will abstain if the atomization of candidacies and parties keeps going on. Citizens are not willing to forgive the repetition of errors of the past. The ones that will forget about the Recall Election and break unity, will be a political suicide. The bad thing is that with his suicide that no one will feel sorry about he will have contributed to legitimize and strengthen the dictatorship of Chavez.

Carlos Blanco on the same day goes one step further:

It is about choosing, and forgive my insistence, between collaborationism and resistance.

Strong warnings for AD and its ilk!

Not to mention this cartoon by Rayma:

Clearly, campaigning about street holes, at least at the governor level, might be very counterproductive. People have their mind set: for better or for worse they are voting for or against Chavez. This is going to be quite an electoral campaign, with or without fraud.

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