November 23, 2007

The times they are a'changin'...

Quico says: A couple of months ago, my feeling was that if there was any way for the oppo old guard to blow their survey lead ahead of the constitutional reform referendum, they would find it. So far, my expectations have been confounded by a highly unusual outbreak of oppo good sense. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles: the old guard seems to be sitting this one out.

Leopoldo Puchi? MIA. Antonio Ledezma? AWOL. Ramos Allup? May or may not have emigrated.

These people are not the public face of the opposition in the run up to December 2nd, and what a difference it makes.

For years, Chavismo invested tons of money and thousands of cadena hours on a concerted effort to drive up the opposition's negatives. They were shooting on an open goal, and they succeeded: tarnishing the opposition "brand" so badly that, by the start of this year, not even 10% of Venezuelans wanted to describe themselves as "opositores." That old guard's image was buried completely by the immense amount of mud slung at it, as well as the ineptitude of its own attempts at a fightback. It reached a point where simply exiting the political scene was the only viable option they had left.

Today, the public face of the opposition is the Student Movement. It may not be fair to put adolescents in this position, or wise. Katy may not like it, student leaders themselves may not want it, but it's not really up to them.

Como dijo el filósofo de cuyo nombre no me quiero acordar, "men make their own history, but not under conditions they choose." Ready or not, history has thrust these kids into the position they're in, and they just have to run with it.

One thing is clear: these chamos have learned the lessons from the failures of the leadership they've replaced. Where the old oppo was maximalist, the Student Movement makes a point of not calling for Chávez to step down before his term is up. Where the old oppo played into the government's hands by personalizing the debate, ceaselessly "Chaveztizing it", the students center their message on civil rights. Whereas the old oppo never saw a red rag it didn't want to charge, the student movement isn't scared to step away from confrontations that can only play to the government's advantage.

Gloriously, they've left Chávez without a credible target, without a reasonably demonizable enemy. His attempts to lump the kids in with the old guard are vaguely pathetic. It's just not credible to slam people who hadn't reached adolescence when Chávez first came to power as "widows of puntofijismo." There's palpable confusion as chavistas realize tried and tested polarization techniques have stopped working somehow.

And so, for the first time in the Chávez era, the government is approaching a vote it seems likely to lose. According to Datanalisis' José Antonio Gil Yépez, Datanalisis, Mercanalisis, Datos and Ivad are all showing the NO side 12 to 16 points ahead, and rising. Crucially, unaligned voters ("NiNis") are trending against the reform by as much as 5 to 1. No chavista proposal can survive a NiNi rout on that scale.

Of course, none of that matters if people don't turn out to vote. The interesting thing is that, as people become increasingly aware that the YES side is way behind, an air of excitement seems to be building about voting. There's a buzz in the air in oppo circles, a feeling that we're facing a whole new ballgame here. And that excitement takes the oxygen out of the abstention movement. Refusing to vote when, deep down, you know you're about to get drubbed is easy: electoral sour grapes mascarading as political strategy. Abstaining when, deep down, you know you're about to win is something else altogether.

We've never been in a situation like this before. This time it's for real: if chavismo wants this election, it's going to have to steal it. And it won't be able to steal it subtly: the gap between the sides is too large for electronic fraud to be concealable, given the existing hot audit procedures. With half the votes being hand counted, everyone (Venezuelan and foreigner, chavista and oppo, civilian and military) is going to be able to tell.

Terra incognita, folks. How will Chávez react? does a semi-delusional narcissist react to a massive, very public ego blow?

Badly, is my guess. Very badly.