January 27, 2009

Reading the Referendum Tea Leaves

Quico says: I haven't been writing much about the upcoming referendum on abolishing term limits, for a couple of reasons. The whole thing's been rushed through so fast that nobody seems to have commissioned any polling, and what polls are getting made aren't getting leaked. So I'm flying blind here...(needless to say, if you have something, put it in my damn inbox - you know who you are!) It's also that, more and more, I think 2012 is awful far away, and without a massive economic rescue plan in the form of some kind of spike in oil prices, electoral considerations seem to be getting less and less relevant to Chávez's hopes of staying in power.

That said, it would be great to win. And, frankly, I'm nervous. While the underlying idea of indefinite re-election is a loser with Venezuelan voters, it's also true that hyper-polarized elections typically break chavismo's way.

Chávez knows that, and has been working overtime on "heating up the streets", pumping up the incredibly vanilla Student Movement into some kind of sinister imperialist conspiracy tele-directed, presumably, from a comfortable retirement in Crawford, Texas. The whole idea of UCAB Law Students as fascist shock troops is - how to put this delicately? - too fucking ridiculous for words...but repeat it often enough on enough state run channels, and some people end up believing it.

Hearing him talk about the student movement, I can't help but feel that Chávez has perfected a subtle kind of electoral protection racket. He constantly holds out the prospect of chaos and violence if things don't go his way, even as he gives out orders that guarantee an ample supply of chaos and violence. The subtext is clear enough, and not really different from the mobster who visits your shop, compliments you on how nice it is, and notes "what a shame it would be if something should happen to it." It's stomach-turningly cynical, but it works!

The bigger reason to worry, though, concerns Chávez's shrewd decision to extend perennial reelection to all public offices rather than just the presidency, as had been his "political concept" just 15 months ago.

Turns out that Chávez knows how to read an election result just as well as the next guy. He knows he needs to rally popular regional leaders to the cause, get them to mobilize their voters in favor of a Sí vote. This is critical in three states in particular: Anzoátegui, Monagas and - especially - Lara, places where PSUV gubernatorial candidates in 2008 far outperformed the Sí vote in 2007.

Chávez has calculated that by holding out the prospect of being "governor for life" he can entice Tarek, el Gato Briceño and the pivotal Henry Falcón into going all out for a Sí vote this time. He needs those votes; he can't win if that threesome holds back as it did 15 months ago.

Will it work? I have no idea. What I do know is that, for all the attention being lavished on the student protests in Caracas, Valencia and San Cristobal, this referendum will probably be decided in Maturín, Barcelona and Barquisimeto.

One ray of hope for our side comes from this oddly subdued statement, where Chávez said the Sí and No sides are about tied in the polls now, though the Sí is on an upward trajectory. Typically, chavista propaganda shows the government a good 15-25 points ahead of where election night results eventually place them, so in a funny kind of way Chávez's statement suggests they're getting trounced.

More likely, though, he just slipped up and revealed PSUV's real poll numbers instead.