August 13, 2008

Ten reasons why November matters

Juan Cristobal says: In some opposition circles, wanting to get elected to office amid the swirl of inhabilitaciones and decree-laws almost amounts to treason. The conventional wisdom seems to be that only someone completely absorbed by his or her own personal ambition could fail to see this. "It's an outrage! Running for a time like this!"

It's a compelling argument, that one. On the face of it, it's true that the Mayorship of Naguanagua is peanuts next to the advancements of Chávez's "frog-in-the-water" brand of authoritarianism. But taken as part of a medium-term strategy to end this madness, the coming elections are indeed important. When you think about it, we should be glad cool heads in the opposition are focused on November and are not getting overly distracted by the rojo, rojito rags Chávez is waving in our faces.

The way I see it, our current goal should be to do everything we can to tackle the myth that Chávez has a lock on Venezuelans' hearts and minds.

So why are November's elections important? Let me count the ways.

1. We have a shot at winning more votes than chavismo: Before December, Chávez loved to boast about how he beat us eight or nine times in a row. It helped create a notion in the minds of the electorate that he was invincible at the ballot box. The Revolution could not be turned back, or so we were led to believe. "Whine all you want, but this government is backed by an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans," goes the story.

Have you noticed how he doesn't do that anymore? Have you noticed we've stopped being referred to as "the squalid ones" every two days?

While last December's narrow defeat shattered Chávez's unbeaten record, it didn't exactly do in the chavista election machine. We need to work on a streak here...2D, the regions this year, the Assembly in two years' time, you complete the sequence...

Winning in November could be a major step in cementing the view that the opposition is a viable political force. It could also do wonders for the belief in ourselves and for our shaky morale

But winning could also help bring in swing voters. After all, there's a reason Venezuelans support Brazil in the World Cup - we love a winner, we hate losing. Winning in December may create the idea that if you back the opposition, you're playing the winner card.

2. Local governments provide a platform for opposition ideas: I agree with most of the opposition curmudgeons that our politicians have failed to deliver a clear narrative on their aspirations for our country. Part of the reason is because only a handful of them have any ideas at all. But it's also true that the few who do have them don't really have a platform to talk about them, much less implement them.

Holding an elected position gives you a platform, a podium from which you can talk about ideas and actually implement them. And with the chance to put ideas into practice comes visibility.

Think of it this way: if you conduct a political opinion program, who would you rather showcase: the under-secretary general of an opposition political party, or an elected opposition governor? If you're a reporter, what do you choose to cover first: a speech by an opposition politician in a political party's headquarter, or a speech by the mayor of a big city?

3. Local governments keep the party base motivated and employed: We can argue until we turn blue, but all of us agree that our political parties are not what we want them to be. Having strong political parties is a pre-condition for having a viable democracy. And in order to have strong parties, we need to have good people working for them.

As I've
met party activists and volunteers, I've always been impressed by how passionate most of them are about public service. While I share some skepticism toward the bigwigs, I'm a believer in the rank-and-file, the folk who organize the smaller groups who march, distribute flyers, paint walls and devote a lot of time to party activities. Rendered invisible by the cogollo-centered media, these people's energy and idealism perseveres even in the face of the incredibly hostile medium of the broader anti-politics opposition.

But it's hard to keep them motivated and energized when they have to work 9-to-5 and then organize in their off time. And it's really hard to have a functioning political party without a motivated grass-roots organization.

Let's grow up a bit. It's neither the lust for power nor the chance to fill their pockets that's driving some of these people to run for municipal council in Guatire or for State Assembly in Yaracuy. It's their desire to conjugate their love for their country and their faith in the possibility of political action with the need to get a paycheck on 15 y último.

Winning lots of seats in municipal councils and state legislatures for people who have earned it will only make our parties stronger. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me to see the morale of the chavista base plummet after lots of them lose the jobs they won in 2004.

4. Local activists can help us reach distant communities: We've talked about it before, but it's worth repeating: nothing beats local knowledge when trying to reach rural bastions of chavismo. Too often, we can't compete in the countryside for a simple reason: we have nobody in any position of influence there at all.

We may not win the governorship of Guárico, we may not win the mayorship of Municipio Juan Germán Roscio, but win a few seats in the municipal council and, little by little, you go from being totally absent from large chunks of the country to having, at least, a beachhead. A concejal's power is, to be sure, very limited, but he can nonetheless serve as a spokesman for micro-level complaints that, today, find no voice whatsoever, a champion for rural people who have, so far, had simply no one "important" at all to support them in the face of chavista excess.

The people who manage to win there, if they do their job right, could deliver that Municipality in the future. Little by little, they can help us eat away at the massive chavista advantage in the countryside that remain the opposition's biggest obstacle to winning nationally.

5. Local governments still get significant funding: We face a behemoth of a financial machine in chavismo, one that constantly bends the rules to not give regions their fair share. Recent moves by Chávez will probably mean state and local governments will face diminishing powers.

And yet...

The Constitution says that state and local government will receive up to 20% of each year's budget (the so-called situado). To shortchange local governments, Chávez has typically passed budget laws that assume oil prices will be much, much lower than the market price. That way, large chunk of oil income do not go through the normal budgetary procedures, and therefore, state and local governments don't get their fair share.

Still, while the assumed price of oil is low, it's still the case that it has been growing year after year, and with it, the funds available to state and local governments.

It's true that the recent decree-law allowing Chávez to name special regional envoys diminishes the power of state and local governments. But Chávez has yet to place a complete stranglehold on their budgets. If he does, and if things in November go well for us, he will have to deal with an army of very committed, very squalid, very pissed-off governors who have the legitimacy his Miraflores-appointed flunkies will never have: the legitimacy that comes from popular election.

6. It gives democratic legitimacy to key opposition figures: It's always surprised me how chavismo has gotten an incredibly easy ride in international public opinion considering the amount of crap it's pulled. To a large extent, the reason is that Chávez has successfully sold the view of his opponents as a cabal of coup-plotting extremists who hold no appeal to the grass-roots. "He might be bad," international public opinon thinks, "but we can't be seen to back another Pinochet."

Winning local elections in places outside the Sifrino Enclaves will put a stake through the heart of this particular canard. Imagine Carlos Ocariz standing in front of the European Parliament, say, or the Brazilian Senate and introducing himself as the elected mayor of the biggest shantytown in Venezuela and the third biggest in Latin America before ripping into chavista authoritarianism. That's rather different than Marcel Granier doing so, don't you think?

One time, I was in a meeting with a bunch of Chilean senators opposed to Chávez. When we asked them what they knew about the opposition, they told me they were fully aware of the opposition because they had met with Henrique Salas Römer a few times.

Did I mention the year was 2005?

Needless to say, Salas Römer was not a factor in 2005, and he is not much of a factor now. But the fact is that by virtue of his (dismal) performance in the elections of 1998, this was the face of the opposition to them.

Foreign political circles can be of help: they can open doors to foreign media outlets, they can put Venezuelan issues on the forefront and they can put pressure on their own governments to moderate their enthusiasm for Chávez. So while foreigners will not come and save us, they can sure be of help.

After all, the group of senators I met ended up being instrumental in putting pressure on the Chilean government so they would not support Venezuela's bid to the UN Security Council.

7. It forces the government to work with us, or at least, through us: Have you noticed how Chávez doesn't usually broadcast his Alo, Presidente show from Zulia or Nueva Esparta? If he does, he usually does it in the confines of a chavista municipality.

Has there ever been an Aló Presidente from Chacao or Baruta? This show requires logistics, an advance team that takes care of security, that sort of thing. Chávez generaly shies away from having to negotiate these and any other aspects with people from the opposition.

The same can be said of infrastructure projects and social programs. If he can avoid having to deal with unsympathetic authorities (and up until now, this was easy to do), he will do it. But if we win half the country, if 65% of the people end up being governed by local authorities sympathetic to our cause, this will force him to acknowledge us as authorities, at least on a basic level.

8. It is one more step in putting together a coalition: We're all pissed about the Inhabilitados, about the constant abuse of power by chavismo. One thing we can do is try to win back the National Assembly in 2010.

Think about what it would mean. Everything, from the passing of Referenda on controversial laws to the replacement of key figures in the TSJ, to the naming of a new Comptroller to convening a Constitutional Assembly - it would all be on the table. After November, winning the Assembly should be our number one goal.

But... in order to do so, we need to build a strong coalition. November will be a crucial test on whether or not our politicians are up to the task.

9. It is crucial in turning out the vote in future elections: This is related to the previous point, but also to any Referenda coming our way, as well as the Legislative elections of 2010 and the Presidential election of 2012.

Last December, our dismal performance in the areas outside major metropolitan areas cast a shadow over our victory. In order to address this, we need to improve voter turnout in these key areas.

There is no doubt that regional and local governments can assist in this. Anything from providing transportation to information to canvassing neighborhoods with activists can be accomplished better if the local government is on your side and not harrassing us, like they usually are. And in a close election, this type of "trabajo de hormiguita" makes all the difference.

10. It would grab the headlines abroad: Last December, Chávez's aura of invincibility was shattered, and international headlines took notice. From that point on, references to Chávez past electoral wins usually carry the tagline that he was "narrowly defeated" in a Constitutional referendum.

That "narrowly" hints at the feeling that Chávez almost won the Referendum, that he is still very popular. Another loss in another election - deemed as crucial by Chávez himself - will work to shatter any remaining doubts about Chávez's hold on popular consciousness.