July 31, 2004

If Chavez Wins

The comments section has had some not-very-enlightening debate on how the opposition may react in case Chavez wins. With my last post, I wanted to make clear that it's not only an opposition problem, since chavismo contains its own radical fringe that may not accept a defeat. However, the problem is altogether dicier for the opposition, which seems less psychologically prepared for a loss, and less clear on what comes next if we do lose.

So what would we do if Chavez wins, as he may well? What should we do? To answer these questions, it's worth thinking back to September 2002, when the slogan Elecciones Ya! was born. It's taken 23 months of agitation, four signature gathering drives, the paro, the reparos, Plaza Altamira, zopotocientos foros in the Ateneo de Caracas and an astonishing organizational drive by the Coordinadora Democratica and Sumate to turn that slogan into a reality. For years, literally, we've been working towards August 15th. After all that, a defeat would be a bitter, bitter pill indeed.

But why was it, at the end of 2002, that the opposition started to congeal around the idea of the "electoral solution" to the crisis? Because it was clear to us that when people voted for Chavez in 1998, 99 and 2000 they were not told they were voting for a personalist, autocratic system, that they thought they were voting for a democratic government and would not have voted for Chavez had they known that, after 2000, he would veer as sharply to the autocratic left as he did. We were sure that, given a chance, the voters would remedy that mistake.

We also knew, after April 11th, that any attempt to expel Chavez from power that was not peaceful and democratic would further worsen the nation's division. That it would bring a government that a huge chunk of the country would consider illegitimate and would, therefore, only lead to further instability. We understood that the goal was not merely to get rid of Chavez, but to get rid of Chavez well. Or, as I was writing way back in October 2002,

It's critical that Chávez is replaced through an election. Aside from all the valid idealistic reasons for demanding democratic decision-making, the fact is that he does retain the support of a third of the population. Much more relevantly, he maintains the fervent support of about 20% of the electorate, the so-called chavistas duros (hard-core chavistas) who see him more as a mystical figure than a politician. If Chávez is pushed out of office unconstitutionally, by force, these people will never accept the outcome. At best, they'd be a constant thorn on the side of the next government, at worst they could start a civil war. It worries me that the most radicalized opposition figures out there don't seem to realize how much of a problem this is, and continue to push for extra-constitutional means of getting rid of the guy. Making sure that 20% feels included - or at least doesn't feel openly violated - by the transition to the post-chavista era will probably be the most important task of the next government. Let's hope they don't screw it up.

Only an election offers the possibility of a peaceful, democratic, and constitutional outcome to the crisis that is recognized as legitimate by all, because only in an election can the entire body politic participate. In a situation as badly polarized as Venezuela's, only the opinion of the whole can convince the minority of the legitimacy of accepting the majority's decision.

Today, Venezuelans can no longer say Chavez is an unknown quantity. The regime's extremism, sectarianism and authoritarianism are plain for all to see. Two years ago, the opposition gambled that, given this choice, people would rush to throw out the bum. Today, polls put that in doubt. It seems imaginable, now, that a majority of Venezuelans actually wants this kind of fuzzy-autocracy, or is satisfied enough with Chavez not to see it as a problem. If they win, well, I'll be forced to say I don't understand their ideology or values at all. But I have to respect them.

And, of course, if the vote goes smoothly and the observers sign off on a Chavez win, the opposition will not really have any choice but to respect the results either. All its bargaining power, credibility, and ascendancy over the armed forces, the international community, etc. will be up in smoke. A real Waterloo. If the opposition loses and loses decisively, its reaction will, in a sense, be quite beside the point - the Coordinadora will have no choice but to accept the results...if not in words, in deeds.

This is the beauty of the democratic system, folks. Los politicos proponen y la gente dispone. This is how it's supposed to be - and barring a catastrophic technical failure, this is how it will be.