Saturday, November 26, 2005

The silence of certain defeat 

Listen to the debate over what is going on in Venezuela long enough and ther is one common opposition refrain that you are sure to hear over and over. That refrain is that Chavez is a "dictator", a "strongman", or at very least an "autocrat". Of course, in Venezuela there are free and openly contested elections, there is complete freedom of speech, there is freedom of association, and there is certainly a large and vibrant section of Venenuelan society that openly opposes Chavez. So how can anyone possibly justify using the afore mentioned adjectives? The response generally given is that Chavez controls everything in Venezuela - that is there is no seperation of powers and the executive, in this case Chavez, controls everything. It is this supposed total control of the entire system of government that makes him something less than a normal democratically elected President.

Is there any truth to this? No. For example, he can´t control the courts because under the Venezuelan constitution judges are named by the National Assembly, not the President. The opposition retort will be "get real, everyone knows he controls the National Assembly". In fact, the National Assembly is often referred to as a "rubber stamp" body. Is it? Again the answer is clearly no. All the members of the National Assembly are elected in contested elections and have their own mandates. Many are pro-Chavez and many are opposed to Chavez. But it is their decision who they support. And as they are elected with their own mandates and serve out their terms no matter who they support or how their allegiances change over time they are in no way controlled by Chavez or anyone else. In point of fact, the pro-Chavez forces have a very narrow majority in the National Asssembly precisely because a number of deputies who were elected on pro-Chavez platforms later changed their minds and are now opposed to Chavez. And of course they were completely free to do this. That is how the republican form of government works.

The National Assembly is not the only example of this. There are many other office holders who oppose Chavez, some of whom won office by being pro-Chavez. A prime example is Alfredo Pena. He was elected mayor of greater Caracas as a pro-Chavez politician. He later changed and became rabidly anti-Chavez. So much so that the police force that he controlled, the Metropolitan Police, played a central role in the April 2002 coup. Given the huge thorn he was in Chavez`s side one would think that if Chavez truly controlled everything he would have been removed from power. Was he? Again, absolutely not. He served out the term he was elected to serve. He had his own mandate and was perfectly free to change his political allegiances as he saw fit.

So what we see is that Chavez most definitely does NOT control the National Assembly or many other branches of the government for that matter. In fact, the support that he enjoys from a bare majority of the members of the National Assembly is political support. They support him because they are politically aligned with him, not because they have to. In other words, Chavez "controls" the National Assembly in the same way that George Bush "controls" the U.S. congress. He has the support of most of its members because people who support him are the ones that won most of the elections. As all the polling for the last couple of years has shown Chavez enjoys the support of a large majority of the Venezuelan electorate. So politicians who have his backing generally win elections, those who oppose him generally lose. There is certainly nothing sinister or undemocratic about that. Its the way democracy is supposed to work.

Why do I bring all this up now? Simple. The entire Venezuelan National Assembly is up for election next Sunday, December 4th. So the opposition can gain control over the major part of Venezuela´s governent. If they win a majority in the Assembly they will actually control the most important parts of the government. For example, they would have complete control over the budget process and they could also gain control over the judiciary by virtue of controlling court appointments. Simply put, two weeks from now the Chavez administration could be completely stripped of its ability to do much of anything and the Bolivarian process would come to a screetching halt. And all the opposition has to do is, in the inmortal words of Al Davis is, "win baby, just win".

So given how high the stakes are you would think the opposition would be extremely excited about these elections. Venezuela should be bubbling over with election fever, right? Well, you probably would think that but you couldn´t be more wrong. Traveling around Caracas there is hardly any campeigning or electoral propaganda to be seen. There is some, mainly by pro-Chavez candidates, but not much. Here are a couple of the banners and posters for pro-Chavez candidates that I ran accross:

And they are having a big rally in the heavily populated section of Caracas called El Valle tonight. When I enquired about how little campeigning there is by pro-Chavez candidates I was told it probably results from there confidence (overconfidence ?) in winning.

Then, in an effort to be fair, I tried to see what the opposition was doing. While I was in Altamira I passed through one of the opposition`s main rallying locations, la Plaza Francia. But there was absolutely no political activity in sight, anywhere. None. No people, no posters, nothing. In fact the closest thing to something polical I saw was this rather bizarre traveling advertisement for soap:

So while the opposition is potentially one week away from being able to turn Chavez`s government upside down they are doing next to nothing. Why? Probably because they can read the polls. And the polls have consistently said that Chavez is looked upon favorably by most Venezuelans and his political party, the MVR, is far and away the largest political force in the country. Knowing this, it is assumed that in all likelyhood pro-Chavez candidates will win a large majority. How hard to you want to campeign if you are almost certain to lose anyways?

So what we have in Venezuela is a healthy and normal democracy. There are no "dictators" or "autocrats" here, only a highly popular president who consistently wins elections and whose coattails help elect others aligned with him. The despondence of the opposition comes not from living in a respressive society - it comes from not having a program that resonates with average Venezuelans and therefore not being able to win elections. They simply can´t compete in the market place of ideas - which is really what a democracy is. It is long past time they recognize this and quite projecting their own failings on Venezuela`s democratic political system which is, in fact, working just fine.


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