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People Power, not Elections, is the Path toward Democratization in Venezuela

By Seth Antiles

02.12.05 | The Real Value of Elections in Venezuela. Much of the international media continues to miss-read politics in Venezuela. An example is the Wall Street Journal’s November 19 coverage of the opposition’s withdrawal from December 4 congressional elections. Readers of that article likely concluded that the opposition’s decision to withdraw will mean that “Chavez’s power will remain totally unchallenged.”

Most journalists, and many analysts, never bother to ponder the question, what value does a seat in the Venezuelan congress have for those in society who aspire for their country to become democratic? What would change in Venezuela if Chavez had one hundred percent of the congressional seats versus a two-thirds majority, versus a fifty-one percent majority? The point that the international media misses is that Venezuelan elections and institutions no longer have any democratic value whatsoever. Venezuela's institutions are authoritarian, whether or not the opposition participates in them or not. Even when the opposition held 2 out of 5 seats in the National Electoral Council (CNE), their presence was meaningless. Even with the slimmest of majorities, Chavez’s CNE committed massive abuses in the August 2004 recall referendum on the presidency, which no doubt altered the results. While some observers argue that massive fraud did not take place on referendum day, all impartial observers agree that massive manipulation at the hands of Chavez’s Supreme Court and CNE took place for a full year ahead of the actual referendum. International observers did not have the stomach to stand up to Chavez and enforce fair rules of the game for fear of triggering violence. The observers were convinced —and remain convinced— that elections need to be held to maintain peace and to show the world that Latin America remains democratic.

If the opposition were to continue to play the electoral game, its role would be reduced to that of an enabler, assisting an abusive, authoritarian government to present a (false) democratic image to the world. This is precisely what took place in the 2004 recall referendum. The international press reported that Chavez won the recall referendum in a landslide victory, while little mention was made about the rampant abuses committed by the CNE that led to his victory. In recent weeks the technical wing of the opposition has discovered that the Chavez regime has had the capacity to detect how individuals vote, doing away with voter secrecy —a sin qua non of real elections. Participating in rigged elections would only serve to enable the authoritarian and strengthen his democratic image, and at the same time allow him to enhance his personnel data so that he can continue to reward loyalists and punish those who vote against him.

The Potential of People Power

The democratization process will only begin when alternative leaders arise that earn the moral authority to challenge the legitimacy of the regime. As seen in many countries throughout the world, a first step toward gaining moral authority is often through engaging in civil disobedience against unjust practices committed by the authorities.

Mass civil disobedience has come to be known as “people power.” Mohandas Gandhi was the first in the 20th century to understand what ordinary people can do —or refrain from doing— to change the course of their country. In the words of Gandhi, “even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled.” If enough people withdraw their cooperation, they will shrink the government’s legitimacy and raise the costs of enforcing its will. When mass non-violent movements drain a ruler’s source of support, the results have changed history.

Misperceptions about people power movements often lead analysts to underestimate the potential of such movements. Nonviolent action is often misread as a form of peacemaking or conflict resolution rather than as a way to wage and win conflict. When launched against a repressive ruler it is often dismissed as lacking punch. Once civilian-based resistance is seen for what it is, as a way to defeat rather than soften or persuade an opponent, the homegrown strategy and tactics that have often produced success can be identified.

For a civilian-based non-violent movement to overturn an oppressive government, three conditions are necessary. The first is a common short-term and long-term vision so that unity can be achieved among a wide array of diverse groups and activists who want an open, democratic society. A vision and unity of purpose helps to foster organizational cohesion so that leaders’ decisions can be carried out to maximum effect.

The second necessary condition is concerted planning. Organizing a successful movement is not something that can be achieved spontaneously. It requires training of personnel, the gathering of material resources, and systems for communication. It requires the strategic sequencing of varied tactics in order to probe, confuse, and eventually overthrow the opponent. At the heart of developing a campaign strategy is analysis of the opponent’s sources of support. This includes understanding ways to puncture the myths the ruler relies upon to maintain his popular support, knowledge about loyalist business groups, and his security apparatus. Tactics should be applied that weaken and splinter the regime’s pillars.

The third necessary condition for success is non-violence. Winning is impossible unless the opposition refrains from violence, because just as severe violent repression may de-legitimize a regime, violence perpetrated by people power may discredit the values and strategy of the movement. Only with non-violence can people power hope to enlist the participation of huge segments of the population.

A First Step toward People Power?

When political parties refuse to play by the rigged electoral game, they are choosing to engage in civil disobedience. They are refusing to collaborate with the authoritarian ruler in his sham election. A second important act of civil disobedience would be for massive numbers of Venezuelans to abstain from voting. If enough people withdraw their cooperation, they will begin the process of shrinking the government’s legitimacy. Sacrificing a few valueless seats in congress is a small price to pay if instead Venezuelans use the momentum to embrace people power as their strategy.

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