Regional Elections: Not an easy choice

March 29, 2004

The regional elections have become a very divisive issue for the opposition. In contrast to the pro-Chávez forces where a single leader sets the path and the tone, there are dozens of different hidden and visible agendas within the opposition and its candidacies. Whether to participate or not is not an easy choice; the petition for the recall referendum represented a simple and transparent process that has become absolutely opaque in the hands of the Electoral Board. Can anyone trust a process run by these people? I certainly can’t, there have been too many tricks, too many manipulations, too many delays, all designed to stop the recall referendum against President Hugo Chavez from ever taking place.

There are many issues floating around, so I will deal with them separately so as not to mix them too much, although there are obviously intertwined:


-Too many candidates


Opposition parties have registered too many candidates for most positions up for election. This obviously shows the lack of coordination on the part of the opposition, but what else can you expect? The opposition is united by a simple goal: Removing Hugo Chavez from office. Parties in the opposition range from the Bandera Roja, an extreme left-wing party that accuses Chavez of being neo-liberal on economics, an also includes the social democrats, the social Christians, Primero Justicia a party of yuppies concentrating on delivering services to the people, the socialists who backed Chávez’ election and ends with pragmatist Enrique Mendoza, whose track record as a public manager is excellent, but has no well defined ideology.


Besides ideology, there are issues of personalities, regional rivalries and many frustrated politicians who could care less if Chavez stays or go as long as their own political careers move forward.


Finally, there is the issue of timing. While everyone was worriying about the recall referendum, all of a sudden people had to scramble to register for dozens of races across the country, with no time to negotiate agreements. In the end, many parties chose to simply register everyone they could think of and if later an agreement is found, withdraw candidates from races or specify that that party’s vote will go to a particular candidate.


Thus, it is easy to understand the various sides on the issue, from those that think that the opposition should not go to the regional elections if the recall vote is blocked, to those that registered their candidacies but are willing to withdraw it if an agreement is found.


However, we have to take our hats off to people like Andres Velasquez and Antonio Ledezma who had legitimate and valid aspirations to run, but withdrew for the sake of unity. If more people acted with their selflessness, the opposition would be way ahead in this race.


-The “living room” candidates


Venezuela has a long tradition of what I like to call “living room” politicians. These are people who sit around theoretically solving all of the problems of the country and somehow think that they have a sort of God-given right to be elected to a particular office just because they choose to run.


In fact, Hugo Chavez and Carlos Andres Perez represent the antithesis of this type of politician. Whether one likes either of them or not, they both went around Venezuela, visiting every town, village and city, shaking hands, listening to problems. This grassroots work made them extremely popular and it is no surprise that they won elections running away.


In the other extreme we have Claudio Fermin and Francisco Arias Cardenas. Fermin was AD’s Presidential candidate in 1993, after being a fairly mediocre Mayor of the Libertador District of Caracas. He came in a surprising second in the Presidential race, and proceeded to vanish from the Venezuelan political scene until the next election came around. Fermin ran for President against Chávez and Arias Cárdenas in 2000, getting less than 3% of the vote. Now, after being essentially invisible for the last four years, he is running for Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas, a position held by an opposition figure.


Fermin says he has a right to run. Of course he does! But his candidacy is not too transparent in my mind. He has not participated in any opposition activity, nor in the efforts related to the recall referendum and has appeared to be more critical of the opposition than of the Chavez administration, despite his claims. Thus, his candidacy splits the opposition, sends a confusing image and may help elect Chavista Juan Barreto as Mayor of Caracas. To me he has become a living room politician; he thinks he has a right to be elected despite his absence from the Venezuelan political scene in the last few years.


The same case can be made for Francisco Arias Cardenas. Arias Cardenas was, with Chávez, one of the leaders of the 1992 coup. He distanced himself from Chávez in 1996 because he decided that the electoral path was the correct one, which Chavze opposed. Arias ran for Governor of Zulia and did a decent job, teaming up pragmatically with then Mayor of Maracaibo and current Governor of Zulia Manuel Rosales. He later backed Chavez only to split from him when another 1992 coup leader, Jesus Urdaneta, resigned from his position as head of the political police accusing Chavez of doing nothing to fight corruption.


Arias Cardenas became the opposition candidate after the new Constitution was approved, but since then has played an extremely ambiguous role. Twice he was reportedly being considered as Vice-President by Chávez, negotiations that Arias accepted took place. Arias is running for Governor of Zulia state against popular Governor Manuel Rosales as well as the pro-Chavez candidate General Gutierrez.


Some claim that Arias is actually running with the silent support of Chávez. Chavez backed General Gutierrez, but he remains far behind in the polls in a state that is probably the most anti-Chávez of any in the country. While this can not be proven, it is also true that Arias only announced his candidacy when Gutierrez’ flopped. Like Fermin, I think Arias has the right to be a candidate, but he has also joined in my mind the ranks of the living room politicians who reappear only when there are elections. I hope the electorate ignores both of them.


-Can you spare some democracy?


In the end, the problem is that despite the claims, the reforms and the “revolution”, Venezuelan politics remain too much like those of the IVth. Republic: personalistic and Stalinistic. In the 1998 Presidential election, not one candidate was selected by a primary. They were all either self-appointed, creating a party around the candidate, like Chavez, Salas Romer or Irene Saez, or appointed by the top leaders of the party like Alfaro Ucero in AD.


Despite Chávez’ promises that he would introduce democracy to the structure of political parties, the opposite has been true. Chavez has essentially single handedly named each and every candidate for MVR in these regional elections. The opposition has done the same, except that it did run some polls in some states and decided to field only the candidate that were well ahead in the Gubernatorial races.


I have always believed that it was this lack of democracy that hurt the political parties of the IVth. Republic. Political parties became old as young people were not attracted to institutions that did not take them into account or where to get ahead you had to pay dues in the form of time and not ability or  hard work. Thus, politics became a job for the politicians; the rest of the people ignored it.


In the end, it is not a problem of the “opposition” or Chavez; it is a problem of democracy. Neither side is using very democratic means to select their candidates. Chavez picked his, leaving behind a trail of very upset candidates-to-be and parties in the opposition chose theirs, fielding too many candidates.


The solution is obvious; the opposition should hold primaries to choose a single candidate from those that have registered for each race. In doing so, it will strengthen candidacies and be able to claim that it is within the opposition where true democracy lies in Venezuela.


It is also unfair to accuse the opposition of not being democratic because it did not hold primaries. With the whole referendum controversy, it would have been a contradiction to enter the carnival atmosphere of a primary for all positions, distracting parties and candidates from the main goal: the recall referendum.


In fact, maybe Chavez should have taken the upper hand and hold primaries since his activists were not distracted. But being such a control freak and so removed from true democratic practices, it was just not an idea that he would come up with. 


The reality is that there was a lot of backlash against opposition candidates and the opposition this weekend that may push it into these primaries. Some parties have offered to hold primaries, others to poll the electorate to decide who should run, others may simply withdraw because they are not doing very well.


In the end more democracy is the only way to go. The electorate will certainly reward the opposition if it takes this road. It will also punish those that do not joint it.


-Opposition Fratricide


In more developed democracies, the fratricide which characterizes primaries and early candidacies is not always fatal. The reason is that everyone goes back to their same single party and decide that the bigger enemy is the candidate form the opposing party.


In this case, the fratricide may be more fatal than usual. For the first time in a long time, newspapers this weekend carried articles by the opposition attacking the opposition. This may cause wounds that will be difficult to heal, given the absence of no common goal other than getting rid of Hugo Chávez.


A good example is today’s Tal Cual’ Editorial against local newspaper El Universal, discussed elsewhere by Daniel. I was surprised not by the charges against El Universal, but more for how specific they were. Petkoff could have said the same thing implying it, without being so specific. I also found his defense of the existence of freedom of speech somewhat empty given the attacks on the media, the precautionary measures by the Human rights Commission of the OAS and the dead or injured reporters.  The opposition needs both newspapers on its side; it would be a pity is this escalated into a useless war of words.


This fratricide may even be worse regionally, where animosities between various groups go back decades, to fights that are almost tribal in nature. To have these groups fight it out all of a sudden may in the end create deeper division than ever.


-Opposition has the edge


In the end, the opposition has the upped hand in the regional elections. While Chavez has the money and the hardcore constituency, the opposition has the majority and the appealing regional candidates. Since it is Chávez that has hand picked most candidates, they generally do not represent the top choice of the electorate. Chavez is fielding 12 former military as candidates for Governors in the country’s 23 states. Some of them are stiff like General Gutierrez, or disliked, like general Acosta Carles, inarticulate, like Diosdado Cabello, others have been terrible as Governors, like Blanco La Cruz in Tachira.


But the biggest advantage the opposition has in the regional elections is exactly why it has problems with Chavez. Polls clearly show that at the national level people are looking for an alternative to Chavez that does not exist. This is not a problem at the regional level, in each State and each city, the opposition has more than one candidate that is attractive or at least more attractive than the rough or confrontational candidates that rode Chavez’ coattails to power five years ago. This is an incredible edge if the choice is narrowed down.


It is the opposition’s duty to do so. If it happens, the opposition could get as many as 16 out of the 23 Governorships and truly turn the regional elections into an alternative recall referendum.

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