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Venezuela: electoral fraud as an official policy

By Daniel Duquenal | Venezuela News and Views

28.10.05 | The news today was not surprising. Actually, as far as I am concerned, it was oddly reassuring. But I am getting ahead of myself. First, the news (in English here). The TSJ, High Court, of Venezuela has declared that the electoral manipulation colloquially called "Morochas", are the law of the land. The so ill called "twins" were invented by governor Lapi of Yaracuy for the 2000 elections. Briefly, it means that one political party uses a loophole in the Venezuelan Electoral system that allows it to run under two names and thus make its votes count twice if no other party uses that stratagem. Or in really short: with 40% of the votes you can rake in 80% of the seats at stake. End of minority representation. Period.

The regulars readers of this blog have been fortunate enough to have access to this information, which today is top news in Venezuela, since July 5 2005 when I posted a complete review on the way the electoral system was gutted of its representativeness. In that post I argued that in addition of the electoral treachery already amply denounced as coming from the unacceptable partiality of the Electoral Board CNE towards chavismo, there was also gerrymandering to a large scale and the "morochas". The tables made for that post are still the best ones to be found around to illustrate how unfair the Venezuelan system has become as to the rights of the minority, to an extent never seen in our democratic history.

Thus today decision by the TSJ is not surprising, and expected by this blogger who considers that no matter what decision would be taken it would be done to favor the governmental side. Simply, VERY SIMPLY, it shows once again that the Chavez controlled powers of the state, from the executive to any small judge, will do all of his biding, be ready to swallow any snake oil, in order to make sure he remains in office until kingdom comes.

The question of course is what will the opposition do, but that is the subject for another post. Instead tonight, now that I have finished to publish the main news, or outrage of the day as you might prefer, I will indulge in a long second post (two posts in one!) of "historical" nature where I will try to demonstrate how today decision of the TSJ is a refusal of our history, of our constant search for more democracy until we finally surrendered to an egomaniacal liar called Chavez, a gifted but deeply flawed man whose only ambition is to perpetuate himself in office for ever and ever.

And thus why I am strangely relieved: we have reached the electoral dead end. Now it is time for new things.

A Venezuelan short history of its electoral system

Speaking of fair elections in Venezuela before 1958 is not realistic. Yes, there had been some elections which had a modicum of fairness; and the 1946 constitutional assembly election which were the first real one ever with one man one vote system. But the passions of the time make these elections interesting but not necessarily constructive. In fact they ended up fast into the 1948 coup that brought the last (?) dictatorship in Venezuela which lasted until 1958.

Electoral systems

It certainly is besides the scope to lecture on electoral systems. Let's just summarize the two basic ones.

In the "winner take all" system, we have in general single district voting and the winner, no matter how many votes, is elected. This system which risks polarizing very much the electorate is tempered from extremes either by a two round balloting which forces the creation of coalitions (France), by tradition and a strong judicial system (England) or by strong federalism (USA). The main advantage of this system is that it creates a strong bond between representative and elector, diminishing the rule of political parties, though it is not always the case.

The proportional representation system has long been thought to be fairer as all get a representation. Unfortunately it has an inherent weakness in that it favors atomization of political organizations which can eventually reach fatal political deadlock as no stable coalition can form. This is how Weimar Germany fell into the hands of Hitler, how Italy and Israel became such unstable parliamentary systems until they had to change the electoral system to create a more stable executive power. Germany has tried to combine the best advantages of both systems. Germans elect half of their representatives on a proportional list among all parties which reach at least 5% of the vote. The other half is elected on single district "winner take all", on the condition that they do make that 5% nationally.

That German system was in the mind of the Venezuelan legislators in the early days of Venezuelan democracy but its eventual attempt at implementation could not bring itself at demanding that minimum 5% national wide vote, and was thus twisted out of all meaning yielding the system that will give chavismo more than a "winner take all" prize with barely 40% of the vote, as it happened already in the local elections of August 2005.

The Venezuelan system

The elections of 1958, 1963, 1968 and 1973 were very simple. You were given a multicolored sets of large pieces of paper and a smaller ones. With the large one you elected the president and with the small one you elected town hall councils, state legislatures, and the two chambers of Congress. Needless to say that you had no idea who you were voting for in general and that political parties were ruling it all. This system bears a large responsibility in the rise of mediocre governments and corruption.

At least in this system minority representation was respected. Not to mention that illiterates could vote for the color of their choice.

One voted by state which of course set the minimal percentage of votes to obtain rather high, 100/[number of seats per state]. For example a state that elects 5 representatives forces a political party to ensure at least 15-20% of the vote to have its voice heard. However once the vote was held, an extra amount of representatives were allocated according to the national results and the average number of votes per representative. Thus any party that did manage a couple of points nationally but no state seat would manage at least one at large seat, and thus one voice, if feeble, in Congress.

In 1978 some changes did happen. The city municipal councils were elected in a separate event in 1979. And instead of getting a set of colored papers, a large unwieldy cardboard with the colors of all parties and candidates had to be stamped by the voter: "el tarjeton", which to this day is the main feature of Venezuelan voting.

But it was not enough. The never ending crisis that started in the early 80ies eventually forced a new change: now governors and mayors would be elected for the first time, in separate elections together with their legislative bodies, every three years.

The results were overall quite positive as for the first time people got a real voice into who was collecting garbage and fixing potholes. Unfortunately this late start at reform has been squelched by the more than renewed centralism that is at the heart of Chavez project where all eventually depend on him or on the people he appoints (their incidental election becoming a mere formality).

The present system

The system who rules Venezuelan election started in fact with the elections of 1998 which for the first time separated congress from president and completed the development to the long sought aim of a direct link between the elector and his representative by electing now more than half the representatives through uninominal districts. Unfortunately for this system, while it showed the increasing democratic and responsible nature of Venezuelan politics, it elected the man that would end all of this: Hugo Chavez.

The system also brought a new way to organize elections and hold them. In 1998 for the first time elections were made automatic by having the "tarjeton" go through a scanner. But more important the Electoral Board was completely revamped and became the CNE. It is a paradox that the freest elections in Venezuela history, the one less susceptible of fraud actually resulted in the election of an authoritarian system which has not stopped into his designs to control electoral results ever since! The 1998 results have not been criticized, unlike almost all results prior 1998 (in particular 1968 and 1993) and certainly not as much as the referendum of 2004 or even the 2000 flawed elections.

In his 1999 constitutional changes for some reason Chavez maintained the electoral system. It was a small price to pay for public opinion to accept that the presidential term went from 5 to 6, PLUS immediate reelection! But in 2000 Governor Lapi found the flaw in the electoral system: the now infamous "morochas" or the ability to be counted double by the side which applies it. This has been a divine surprise for chavismo who now has managed to enshrine it and add this to the battery of other election manipulation it already disposes of: fake electoral registry, refusal to count ballots, no control on state financing the chavista campaigns, no control of official propaganda during campaigns, partiality of all electoral personnel, and so many more. But all has been documented in the SUMATE reports (visit Sumate Files for this) or in the post mentioned which paints in simple tables the effects of the "morochas" and electoral gerrymandering of Venezuelan districts.

The traditional tendency since 1958 was to increase the link between the elected official and its voter and at the same time find ways to represent significant minorities. Maybe the success was uneven but Venezuela had a model electoral system by the area standards for many decades. Now we are back to a single leader deciding who is candidate or not, when elections are held and how they are held. We are back to almost Gomez times for this matter, but of course a modern era Gomez, in the mass media age. It is not a bold statement to write that the December 2005 elections will be the least democratic elections in Venezuela since 1958, an election which is likely going to give 80% of seats to no more than 15% of the electors if recent polls about increasing abstention from both sides of the political divide. There will be a price to pay for that.

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