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Where to go for the straight skinny on Venezuela's election

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 David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.

The Latin American Program of the Wilson Center, in collaboration with the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance commissioned a report on the Venezuelan elections. I think it provides the most objective and insightful analysis of the documents that have been circulating recently (You can access the webcast, podcast, Spanish language report, and Spanish and English Executive Summaries here). The authors are Mexican scholar Jose Woldenberg and Chilean diplomat Genaro Arriagada. Both bring a wealth of experience but are not part of the fray in debate on Venezuela. Thus they provide a perspicacious objectivity that is too uncommon in international commentary on Venezuela.

The document starts with a review of the Election Day voting infrastructure. As have most international observers and serious national commentators, they argue that it is solid and trustworthy. Beyond the normal review of Venezuela’s technologically advanced electronic platform they point out that the system also calls for in vivo observation of the vote count. The opposition has approved of the system whereby the heads of the voting tables were selected and have access to their names.

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The one shortcoming they find is the possibility that there could be tables without opposition witnesses which could theoretically allow a group of PSUV observers to end the night by voting in place of the registered voters who abstained. They point out that in the 2010 legislative elections, electoral centers that had just one table, showed a 67 percent to 30 percent advantage for the PSUV over the MUD. Presumably, the lack of MUD observers in such small voting centers allowed for fraud. They responsibly point out that there are other potential explanations and one immediately comes to my mind. Electoral centers with only one table are likely to be in the upper reaches of barrios or in far flung areas of the interior which tend to be overwhelmingly pro-Chávez. So the two thirds majority in these centers does not strike me as ipso facto evidence of fraud.

Most relevant in this election is what is happening in the weeks and months before election day. Mr. Woldenberg and Mr. Arriagada focus on the media and come up with a nice turn of phrase arguing that there is a “new balance of power” in the media. They mention – appropriately, in my view – that in terms of print media the situation is roughly balanced. Anybody who visits Venezuela will immediately notice that the opposition print press is vigorous. However, in Venezuela as in most places, broadcast media has by far the greatest impact, since most people do not consume print media in any form. 

The authors go through the familiar issues of the revocation of opposition media outlets and the creation of pro-government outlets. They also mention the continuing overuse of “cadenas,” which refers to governmental information, usually presidential speeches, that is carried simultaneously on all channels. They point out that from 1999 to 2012 there had been over two-thousand cadenas with an average of 45 minutes. They also mention the obligation of all broadcast outlets to carry 10 minutes a day of public service messages which generally turns into pro-government propaganda. Perhaps most importantly, they mention the “environment of self-censorship” that dominates private television channels other than Globovision. This will resonate with anybody who has watched the robotic news delivery and soft-ball interviews that now characterize Venevisión and Televen.

One thing that I missed in this otherwise excellent section was any contextualization regarding viewership. While everything they say is true, it is not clear to me how much viewership government media has – some analysis suggest less than 5 percent – nor how many people actually watch or listen to cadenas. If it is as minimal as my everyday experience would suggest, this government advantage might be less important than it appears.

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The authors point to the lack of control regarding campaign financing and the “war of surveys.” I agree with their assertion that the wide discrepancies among pollsters does not facilitate informed public opinion. They suggest that after the elections perhaps pollsters could get together and discuss their methodologies and criteria.

While I think such peer discussion is always good I think this suggestion confuses a political and economic problem for a technical problem. Survey research is not rocket science and the discrepancy between Venezuelan pollsters comes not from technical and methodological flaws but from political commitments and economic premiums paid by political parties for specific results. Much more relevant for addressing this problem, in my view, is citizen and scholarly accounting of pollsters track-records. Efforts such as those of political scientist Iñaki Sagarzazu to track pollsters biases (see his blog here, and his posts on this blog here and here) have the potential to increase accountability among Venezuelan pollsters and make it less profitable to sell made-to-order results.

The authors point out one element that strikes them as curious that touches on an important point. They point out that in most contexts it is political challengers that seek to polarize and the government that calls for moderation and unity. However in Venezuela the opposite is true. Chávez seeks to polarize and the opposition calls for moderation.

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I would add that this has been Chávez’s campaign strategy for years. If Chávez can polarize the Venezuelan population on the basis of class – rich versus poor – he will win every time since the majority of Venezuelans are poor. This has been enormously effective simply because most people in the opposition are convinced they are the majority. In past electoral campaigns they have gleefully answered Chávez’s efforts to polarize with polarizing rhetoric and actions of their own, convinced that if the population simply “wakes up” to the danger of Chávez and turns out to vote, they will sweep to victory. When they lose big the only available explanation they have is electoral fraud, which generally paints them into a corner in future electoral competitions. The Capriles campaign represents an important innovation insofar as it has understood and broken with this logic, even if many people that support Capriles have not.

Woldenberg and Arriagada discuss the possibility of political violence and suggest that armed “collectives” represent one of the most important threats. They might be a real threat, but I would contest the claim that they are an important threat. The armed collectives in the Western barrios of Caracas are relatively small and do not have significant capacity. But it is true that even a handful of people with guns can inflict damage. The authors deserve praise for not conflating these collectives with Venezuela’s militia as they often are in international analyses.

The authors go through four possible scenarios defined by whether Chávez or Capriles wins and whether the loser recognizes the defeat. Of course the two most important scenarios are those in which the loser does not recognize the defeat. The authors should be commended for including the possibility that the opposition does not recognize a Chávez victory – something that is left out of Patrick Duddy’s contingency memo (which I will be analyzing soon).

They provide some interesting observations that make this look relatively less likely. Of course the opposition would be most likely to cry fraud if the election result is very close. However, if it is close it will also increase the premium for staying in the electoral game given that elections for governors and mayors are two months later. As well they suggest that Chávez’s sickness also increases the likelihood that members of the PSUV seek to stay within the electoral game.

In sum, this is an informed, insightful, objective, and up-to-date review of the conditions of Venezuela’s current electoral cycle.

–  David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.


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