Saturday, October 15, 2005

The December 4th elections: to be or not to be 

I was actually going to do my first analysis today of the Venezuelan legislative elections scheduled for December 4th. However, events have overtaken me and everything is now on hold. Currently there is a very important Supreme Court case regarding those elections they may significantly alter them and possibly lead to their postponement.

The issue before the court is whether or not the use of “morochas” by some political parties is unconstitutional. According to the Venezuelan Constitution elected offices are to be in proportion to the overall vote. So while there are Assembly seats that are elected by district there are also Assembly seats elected by list with a given party’s district victories subtracted from its list victories to keep its total number of seats won proportional to its percentage of the overall vote. But if a given party creates a second political party (ie the “morocha”) and runs only district candidates on one party line and list candidates on the other then the district wins won’t be subtracted from the list wins and the two parties – which are really one party – can get a disproportionate percentage of seats. In short, the “morochas” take a small victory and magnify it into a large victory.

The “morochas” were first devised and used by the former opposition governor of Yuracay state, Eduardo Lapi, to help the opposition win more seats in the last round of the legislative elections. The idea was then picked up by Chavez’s party, the MVR, and used in the local elections this past August allowing the MVR to win a greater amount of seats than it would have otherwise won (the opposition in the state of Zulia also used its own “morochas” and was successful with them). Given that the pro-Chavez parties are likely to get the greatest number of votes they stand to benefit the most from the “morochas” as it will magnify their victory margin and even give them a chance of getting a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly which they couldn’t otherwise get. So some opposition parties have brought suit to stop the use of the “morochas”.

The Supreme Court is to make its decision this coming Thursday. Just a superficial reading of the Constitution would seem to indicate that the “morochas” are unconstitutional and the opposition should win the case. The relevant clause is:

Article 63: Suffrage is a right. It shall be exercised through free, universal, direct and secret elections. The law shall guarantee the principle of personalization of suffrage and proportional representation.

Now lawyers could probably argue forever as to exactly what “proportional representation” means in this context. But I believe in taking these things at face value – which means that the electoral system in Venezuela has to be designed in such a way that if you get, say, 55% of the vote you get something very close to 55% of the seats. In that case the Supreme Court would have no choice but to rule the “morochas” unconstitutional and prohibit their use in the upcoming elections.

Now the head of the National Electoral Council, Jorge Rodriguez, has said that if that happens the elections may need to be postponed. And that would seem reasonable, after all if that is the decision then there will probably be a big and lengthy fight over which pairs of parties are really “morochas” and which are legitimate political parties. It’s unlikely that would be sorted out in time to allow for early December elections.

But those are just details. The main question is if their use is prohibited who wins and who loses. The obvious answer to that is that the opposition wins and Chavez and his supporters in the MVR lose. Whatever the margin of victory the MVR obtains, it won’t be magnified by the “morochas”. So if the MVR gets 55% of the vote they’ll get about 55% of the seats and not the 65% or 70% they may have gotten with them.

However, based on some preliminary analysis of the possible results the effect would not be that profound. Several weeks ago Ultimas Noticias did an analysis of the upcoming election. They assumed the same voting pattern as the regional elections from last year and worked out how many seats each side would win – assuming the use of “morochas”. The bottom line is that with that same vote the MVR and its affiliated parties would still come up 3 or 4 seats short of getting the highly desired 2/3 majority. So they would still have a simple majority, allbeit a larger one. So what will happen without the “morochas”? If the MVR runs an effective campaign (which is not a given at this point) they should still win and get a simple majority. So in this scenario the “morochas” aren’t decisive – the 2/3 majority is out of reach in any event and the primary thing at stake is the size of the MVR majority.

Based on this it doesn’t look like there will be earth shattering consequences not matter how the court rules on Thursday. It will though be better if the court upholds the Constitution and rules the “morochas” unconstitutional as it should (after all, the courts in Venezuela don’t want to be seen as blatantly favoring one side over another in electoral contests as they are in some countries ). And once they take this baby step who knows what they’ll do next. Maybe force political parties to hold primaries as is also required by the Constitution?


On other electoral matters there is some rather confusing news regarding a post election audit of the vote count. The CNE president, Jorge Rodriguez, has been widely quoted as saying that there will be a manual count of 1% of the boxes containing the voting confirmation receipts that the voting machines print. Yet at the same time he said that one box per voting center would be have its votes manually tallied. But if that is the case then it would be a lot more than 1% of the votes involved – there are certainly not 100% boxes of votes per voting center. In fact Rodriguez is quoted in the same news as saying in no other countries are 30% of the votes audited, implying that the Venezuelan total will be 30%. The opposition has insisted that 47% of the votes be audited. Hopefully this will be clarified going foward and I will update when it is.


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