Sunday, September 18, 2005

One step forward, two steps back. 

The Venezuelan Constitution, Article 67: All citizens have the right of association for political purposes, through democratic methods of organization, operation and direction. Their governing organs and candidates for offices filled by popular vote, shall be selected by internal elections with participation of their members....

Elections for Venezuela’s National Assembly are right around the corner in December. To that end both the pro and anti Chavez parties have been busy putting together their slates of candidates. The opposition finished putting together their list today and Chavez’s political party, the MVR, did so last week.

Right now I won’t be getting into any kind of discussion of who the candidates are or who I think is likely to win. First, there is something much more fundamental and important to discuss, namely how the candidates were selected. As the above quotation from the Venezuelan Constitution states candidates of political parties are to be chosen by internal elections – ie primaries.

How did the MVR chose its candidates for the A.N.? Simple, President Chavez and some other top leaders of the MVR sat together in a room and decided who would run and who wouldn’t. And no, I’m not being facetious, that is exactly how it was done. This very small group of people sat there and decided for a political party with millions of adherents who their candidates would be. More than twenty current MVR Assemblymen were barred from running again while other people, presumably more to this groups liking, were selected to be candidates. Certainly not very democratic, most definitely not an example of the famed “participatory democracy” and most certainly unconstitutional.

Of course, it should be born in mind that historically almost no candidates of any party in Venezuela have ever been chosen through primaries. All of them, be they from Accion Democratica, COPEI, or M.A.S. were always hand picked by party bosses. The notion of party members being able to vote and decide on who the candidates will be is entirely foreign to the Venezuelan political culture.

I personally can’t think of any examples of party primaries – save one. For the local elections of this past August, the MVR used primaries to select its candidates. This was a huge step forward in terms of militants of any party having a voice. Of course it was much work to organize the primaries. And it was messy. Not all the losers accepted their defeats with grace. And the powers that be might not have necessarily liked who won in all the contests. Nevertheless, it was a superlative example for all of Venezuela of how things should be done. And those of us who support the MVR and Chavez are proud that it is our political tendency who lead the way.

And now we are...right back where we started. Important decisions are made by party bosses while everyone else just gets to watch passively. Why these big steps backwards? I don’t know. I have not heard any rationale or justification for the change. And I certainly can’t think of any. If anything, it is MORE important that the National Assembly candidates be chosen by primaries than the candidates for local councils. After all, which is more important and in which does your average person most desire a say?

Not to mention the irony of all this. In the U.S. you have two large parties, the Democrats and Republicans, which are both widely accepted as being the parties of big business. Yet, all of their candidates are selected via primaries. So the average member of the Democratic or Republican party gets more of a say in what goes on in their party than the members of the “participative” MVR.

And what of the opposition? Would they seize the democratic high road, follow the will of their supporters, and make themselves look good versus the Chavistas in the process by holding primaries? Of course not. Lets remember, the opposition, as the saying goes, never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Their candidate selection consisted of a group of party bosses, media magnates, and wealthy business people sitting around deciding who will be their candidates – i.e. they did things exactly as they have always done them. They couldn’t take the high road an be more democratic than the Chavistas because the bottom line is they are thoroughly arrogant and elitist people who don’t have a democratic bone in their body.

Further, even though Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the opposition newspaper Tal Cual, likes to write editorial after editorial condemning alleged breaches of the Constitution is he likely to say anything about this egregious violation? No. After all he had is own political party once, M.A.S. (Movement to Socialism) under which he served as a congressperson and ran for president. And did he ever get chosen through primaries? Of course not. The last thing some one as wealthy, powerful, and “intellectual” as Petkoff is wants is for the little people to be able to decide who the candidates will be. After all, it was Petkoff’s party and if you don’t like how it’s run you can just go out and form your own party. So it has been in Venezuela since anyone can remember (and for example of this take a look here ). So don’t expect to hear any whining from the opposition about this clear lack of democracy. It is exactly how their leadership likes it.

What are the consequences of all this? Nothing really. After all, save for a glimmer of internal party democracy earlier this year by the MVR this is how things have always been in Venezuela. And the electoral authorities are notoriously lenient on these matters. They could have banned the opposition candidates from taking part in last August’s local elections as none of them were chosen in primaries. But for the sake of being inclusive rather than exclusive they didn’t. And if they were to enforce Article 67 of the Constitution for the upcoming elections they’d have to cancel the elections all together as no one is complying with it. But while there may be no consequences to this nor anything I can do about it nothing changes the huge step backwards it represents. A step backwards for which there is no excuse or defense, not even the highly overused excuse of “other guy is doing the same thing”. I also know exactly where the buck stops when it comes to this huge step backwards – Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias. This is certainly no badge of honor for him. I say this not to condemn him. Rather I say it because we should not look the other way on this simply because Chavez is doing no worse than the opposition does. That is simply not good enough from a person who should always stand head and shoulders above the opposition.


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