November 29, 2006

Puzzling through the Dec. 4th Scenarios

Quico says: The way I see it, the history of the next few years depends on what happens on Dec. 4th. Basically, there are 4 ways this could go:

Now, just for the sake of argument, let's look at the left side first: what happens if Chavez wins?

Well, there's clearly an irreducible core of extreme opposition supporters who are convinced the only way this can happen is fraud. The CEPS survey - for what it's worth - figures they're 7% of the electorate. That's not a huge number, but it's certainly a highly mobilized, committed and influential group.

We're talking the Poleo wing here. Their minds are made up. Whatever CNE says, whatever international observers say, whatever the hot audit says, they are sure Chavez can only win by cheating. As far as they're concerned, to concede is to collaborate.

Now, at times of heightened political tension, this segment of the opposition grows in profile and power - largely because it tends to get a lot of space in the media. Moderating voices are always put in the defensive when the Poleo branch is ascendant.

The rub, of course, is that, though loud and mobilized, they're really quite a small minority in the country as a whole. Mainstream Venezuelans are scared of them, don't see them as committed to democracy, and infer an authoritarian edge to their radicalism that's not that different from extreme chavistas'.

The government long ago figured out that when this wing of the opposition is ascendant, the opposition as a whole loses touch with mainstream opinion - both at home and abroad. When the hotheads call the shots, the opposition isolates itself in a little Globovision-centered mental ghetto brimming with frustrechera and suffused with bitter conspiracy theorizing. It makes chavismo look almost good by comparison.

So the more Machiavellian minds within chavismo (here's lookin' at ya, José Vicente) long ago realized that they have everything to gain and nothing to lose from empowering this chunk of the opposition, and long ago perfected a mechanism for doing so: provocation.

That's why, two days into the paro general in December 2002, when it looked like the protest might be running out of steam, the National Guard was sent out to bash some oppo bones in front of the cameras outside PDVSA Chuao. It was easy to foresee that this would embolden the more radical sections of the opposition, extend the strike, and aid the government's longer term goal of discrediting the overall anti-Chavez movement while purging PDVSA. Simple, clean and effective.

It's a playbook the government has run again and again. Think April 7th, 2002 - when Chavez theatrically fired those PDVSA managers, think Jorge Rodriguez demanding reparos in February 2004. Again and again, when the government calculates that the opposition might be about to over-reach, it thinks up some kind of provocation meant to propel oppo hotheads into the movement's driver's seat. Again and again, we fall into the little "Chavez los tiene locos" game.

The government's interest is to see the opposition either split or run by fanatics. So we should expect some serious casquillo in the next few days. It's easy for me to imagine situation where there are just enough electoral irregularities to send the NDroots up a wall but not quite enough to get international observers to condemn the whole exercise. If not that, it'll be some other Poleo-baiting trick.

Chavismo's goal will be to make it as politically awkward as possible for Rosales to concede.

At the very least, they'll try to engineer a situation where, if he does concede, he can't go on to lead a coherent opposition because half of his voters are sure the guy sold out. It's a very tricky situation he will face.

As JayDee put it, one of the ironies of this campaign is that we're only going to find out if Rosales is for real after the vote. It's then that we'll find out if he has the political touch it will take to stamp his authority over the anti-Chavez movement, disown the extremists, dispel the ongoing doubts among NiNis at home and people abroad about anti-Chavismo's commitment to democracy, and keep the opposition united, coherent and "governable" enough to present some kind of counterbalance to Chavez.

It's a tall order. And the governnment will work hard to raise the temperature in the hope of empowering oppo hotheads. We have to keep sight of the fact that the government's goal is to engineer a situation where, if Rosales does concede, he loses credibility with a key segment of his constituency and potentially splits the movement down the middle. Will Rosales be cunning enough to sidestep this trap?