October 2, 2007

The state of the fight

Katy says: Six weeks have passed since the introduction of a proposal to reform the Constitution by Venezuela's President, and now is as good a time as any to size up the debate. The players have positioned themselves for what is sure to be an intense campaign period toward the end of the year, and their recent actions say a lot about what their strategies are.

As usual, the Venezuelan political scene can be divided into three largely heterogeneous groups. On the one hand we have chavismo and its reluctant allies, the radical-light Podemos party. On the other we have the opposition sector which we can divide into two: abstentionists and participants.

Chavismo's strategy so far has been to, by and large, confuse the debate. There are so many proposals included in the Constitutional reform that it makes it hard to classify it as an X-type proposal, which is exactly what the government wants. Instead of people discussing it for what it really is - a proposal about indefinite re-election and a whole lot of things that are either already in place or perfectly do-able without including them in the Constitution - the debate has ranged from issues such as the reduction in the number of working hours to whether we should be allowed to enjoy what we own. XXIst-Century Socialism appears like an all-encompassing term that boils down to one thing: Chávez.

Making the proposal about Chávez himself works to the government's advantage, as it usually does. By engaging in the formalities of a debate with certain sector of society, by threatening to continue changing the proposal and adding, removing or modifying other articles, chavista deputies hope voters will end up deciding their vote on Chavez himself. Whether it will work remains to be seen.

The opposition's participant wing has followed parallel and not entirely contradictory strategies. UNT's approach has been to simplify the proposal to "Chávez is going to ruin the country." Although they do press the issue of Chavez's indefinite re-election, they also highlight some of the other aspects of the proposal reform such as the attack on private property and the diminishing status of town halls and state governments. The message seems to be that this sucks through and through.

Primero Justicia's approach has been slightly different. While they have said they like some of the aspects of the Constitutional Reform and dislike others, they have not dwelled much on the details. Their main focus is on getting the Supreme Tribunal to say that the reform proposal must be voted on as a block instead of in parts, which is what most Venezuelans seem to want.

Primero Justicia obviously knows that voting the proposal in parts is a non-starter, so their goal is to show that it's the government, and Chávez himself, who refuse to allow people to vote for the proposals in a separate fashion. PJ seems to be thinking that, without driving up Chávez's negatives by making him look undemocratic, the message about how the reform is all about Chávez perpetuating himself in power simply won't stick.

The strategies being followed by the opposition's two main parties is not contradictory and should not be interpreted as a sign of disunity. Each party seems to be focusing on their relative strengths - UNT on the radical anti-Chávez group, and PJ on the moderates. Both groups are needed to win the referendum - this election, after all, is different in that we do not run the risk of losing one group of voters by pandering to another. Due to the "referendum" style of the election, all efforts to get people on the "No" boat are win-win.

Yet in the midst of all this rhetorical positioning, it's abstentionists who hold the key. If recent polling data is to be believed, a majority of the country rejects the reforms but only a minority is willing to vote on the issue. That minority is heavily biased toward approving the reform, so right now the government has the upper hand.

Turning out the opposition vote is a major challenge. On the one hand, abstentionists have to be convinced that their vote will have relevance and that we won't simply be run over once again. The government will try and keep abstentionists unmotivated by, for example, tempering down some of the most controversial proposals like the elimination of certain attributes of private property.

The date for the referendum is likely to be December, when people will be awash in cash thanks to hefty Christmas bonuses and other handouts. The challenge we face is a major one, and while I find people overstate the stakes involved, it promises to be one hell of a fight.