December 2, 2005

Open thread

Light posting today and tomorrow...discuss among yourselves...

December 1, 2005

The Mariches Effect

by Diego Bautista Urbaneja
translated by me

It's as though a fragile equilibrium was broken. Until last Friday, the arguments for and against voting on December 4th just about balanced each other off. Some were going to vote and some were going to abstain. I don't know in what proportion. What's for sure is that the government was on the brink of achieving its goal, that is, for not everyone to vote and not everyone to abstain. That way, they would win without having to steal the election, with manageable turnout figures that could, if needed, be manipulated. CNE was ladeling out "concessions" to the opposition adequately, alongside arbitary moves and causes for mistrust, keeping the oppoosition split and allowing the government to achieve its goal without real problems. What was going to happen was not, incidentally, anyone's fault, it was just a function of the way that various opposition groups debated with one another about how they should react faced with parliamentary elections under the conditions created by CNE.

MARICHES. That "equilibrium" was broken in the now famous voting simulation in Fila de Mariches, where it was shown that the voting machines do store the sequence of votes allowing CNE to infer how each person voted, and violating the principle of the secret vote. This created a new situation.

The doubts, which for part of the electorate had been subsiding through the improved conditions that had been "achieved" (we need to keep this kind of question between quotation marks) and the arguments in favor of voting, shot up virulently. The balance of positions we talked about went up in smoke, and a psychological avalanche was unleashed in favor of abstentionism.

After Mariches, it was no longer possible to ask the voter to go to the polls, unless new conditions were met by CNE. The opposition had to ask for changes in electoral conditions, and it was in a strong position to do so.

CNE's decision to do away with the finger-print scanners, which re-established the secrecy of the vote, could have meant a significant increase in the credibility of elections. It could have translated into an unexpected increase in the number of voters.

CNE's strategy might have been broken in one of two ways: through mass abstention or mass voting. What happened in Mariches opened the doors to the first of these scenarios, a price CNE could not afford to pay. This is why they did away with the finger-print scanners. But they stopped there, making it their final "concession", to see if they could keep the opposition divided. And indeed, limited though it was, doing away with the finger-print scanners might have opened the doors to the other option: mass voting.

But it didn't work out that way. Right now, CNE is paying the price for its cynicism. Many will feel emotionally satisfied. They will feel that, for once, CNE didn't get away with it, though we do not know the price we shall have to pay for it.

But we made the wrong move. The right move would have been to take advantage of the withdrawal of the finger-print scanners to call for mass voting, breaking the government's divisionist strategy, and forcing it to either lose or try to steal the election. This didn't happen. On Monday the fifth we'll have to face the results of what we've done.

¿Qué está pasando, Dios mio?

With Primero Justicia's decision to pull out of Sunday's vote, four out of the six main Opposition parties are out of the race. MAS appears split, its leadership's ability to persuade anyone to vote is questionable. Only Un Nuevo Tiempo, the Zulia-state regional party and Governor Manuel Rosales' personal vehicle is still clearly in.

The political parties' leadership has been typically incoherent on this whole affair. First, they spent a year and a half convincing their supporters CNE had cheated and couldn't be trusted. Absurdly, they decided to take part in the parliamentary elections anyway. But since they'd already convinced their followers CNE would cheat, they unsurprisingly found it impossible to enthuse them about voting. In the end, they were forced to reverse their position at the last minute to avoid a humiliating defeat. You can call it "responding to the grassroots" if you want - but if the government exploits it shrewdly (which they will) the pervasive distrust in Jorge Rodriguez's CNE could demobilize the opposition for years to come.

One big question is how this will all play out in next year's presidential election. Having pulled out this time, the Oppo parties can hardly participate next year unless conditions improve considerably. But then, think how easy that makes it for CNE to allow Chavez to run virtually unopposed. Just refuse to go any further to meet opposition concerns than you went this time and...ta-da!

I have a feeling that's what's behind Teodoro Petkoff's highly critical stance against the Oppo parties' decision to pull out. How on earth will they mobilize their supporters next year having set this precedent? It's not clear to me at all - and it does look like yet another case of the Opposition planning for the next 24 hours while chavismo plans for the next 24 years.

One pedestrian reality - nearly forgotten amid the hubbub - is that we now face five years of a National Assembly made up exclusively of chavista psychophants. That's not a good prospect any way you slice it: God only knows what they'll think up.

Another almost-forgotten historic milestone is that, for the first time since Pérez Jiménez, Venezuela will have a parliament with no adecos and no copeyanos. AD and Copei will now have to spend their time outside of the National Assembly, and the experience might just imaginably push them to do some serious work on reconfiguring, reforming, and repositioning themselves for a vastly changed political reality - a task they have really put off for way too long. If they fail to do that - and lets face it, they probably won't manage it - they'll probably disappear...which wouldn't be such a bad thing, if you ask me...

Shut out of parliament, all the Opposition parties will finally get a chance to devote themselves entirely to reconnecting with a country they've been badly out of step with for years. Who knows, if they can withstand the growth of chavista authoritarianism sure to go hand-in-hand with an all-chavista A.N., it might even do them some good.

November 30, 2005

CNE? The government? Same difference...

One last one for today: The idea of postponing the election has been ruled out.

Who announced this transcendent decision, you ask? Vicepresident José Vicente Rangel!

Just minutes after Rangel spoke to journalists, CNE head Jorge Rodriguez was on the air ratifying his boss's decision...

Han llegado al colmo del descaro de poner a JVR a anunciar las decisiones del CNE...y después dicen que es invento que el CNE y el gobierno son la misma vaina...

(Sorry, but some things I can only express in Spanish!)

Hinterlaces Sez:

According to the latest Hinterlaces poll, carried out before this week's pullout by AD, Copei and Proyecto Venezuela, 71% of voters were planning not to vote on December 4th, 9 percentage points higher than in their previous poll.

Other results:
  • 75% have little or no confidence in CNE's impartiality.

  • 70% believe hand-counting votes is a more transparent system than automated tallying.

  • 43% back Chavez, but only 13% are "militant chavistas."
  • USA ex machina

    The fidelista playbook in action: Alí Rodríguez blames the US for the opposition parties' withdrawal. See? Everything bad that happens in Venezuela is the gringos' fault...

    And another one...

    For those who doubt that it's viable to cheat by manipulating the Electoral Registry, it turns out that Giovanni/Geovanny/Jovany José Vásquez, the Colombian alleged paramilitary/psychiatrist and key witness in the Danilo Anderson murder case, is registered to vote in Venezuela, and actually did vote on the Recall Referendum last year, according to the government's Lista Maisanta.

    Making Sense of the Oppo Parties' Withdrawal

    Over at Devil's Excrement, Miguel writes a very lucid post explaining the Opposition parties' decision to withdraw from the December 4th vote. (Note that Miguel, for reasons he has explained carefully, thinks conditions were safe enough to vote.) I'll sum up the best parts of his piece:

    Imagine you have been involved in some tough political negotiations. For the last year and half (and three elections) you have seen hundreds of millions of dollars spent on voting technology you disagree with, but you've come to believe a few things about it. One thing you believe, because you have been told with a straight face, time and time again, is that it is impossible to know how people voted. Then the following things happen:

    1) A group of technical people tell you that this is not the case. The sequence of votes is easily known by inspecting the hard drive. They not only tell you, but proceed to show it and prove it in front of the international observers and the CNE.

    You bring this up and the reaction from CNE head Jorge Rodriguez is: Impossible! Smartmatic, my people, my technical people, have all told me this is simply not possible. This is simply an attack on the CNE, you people are trying to boycott the whole process.

    2) Another meeting is held with the head of the CNE, showing him the evidence that the sequence can indeed be known. On the advice of his technical people he offers to erase the hard dives within 72 hours of the vote removing all evidence and traces of it.

    You go back to your technical people and they laugh at you.

    3) At this point Rodriguez offers to disconnect the machines, which certainly does not seem to help much, since even if they are disconnected they keep the sequence which can be used later to know the votes.

    4) Finally you get him to accept the removal of the fingerprint machines. This eliminates the problem unless they somehow manage to keep a precise record of the order in which people vote in 27,000 voting centers. This seems acceptable, until the annoncement is made publicly and Rodriguez says this is simply a concession to lower abstention and threatens that even if they are being graciously removed in this election, they will be there a year from now for the 2006 Presidential election.

    How would you feel?

    It reminds me of that one bit in Bill Cosby, Himself. Cosby walks into his kitchen and catches his four year old daughter clambering up the kitchen cupboard to get a (forbidden) cookie. By the time she notices him, her hand is literally in the cookie-jar. Without missing a beat, in her sweetest little voice, she looks up and says "I was getting a cookie for you!"

    Nothing is quite so infuriating as catching someone in the act and still hearing them deny the obvious. After the Fila de Mariches debacle, the Opposition expected some sign of contrition from a Jorge Rodriguez very evidently caught in a long-running lie - preferably his resignation, but at the very least an apology.

    Instead, the overall dynamic went something like this:
    1-CNE breaks the law and lies about it.
    2-The Opposition proves CNE broke the law and lied about it.
    3-CNE grudgingly accepts to stop breaking the law (for one election only,) while continuing to lie about it and attack the Opposition parties.
    4-(and this is the part the Opposition really can't swallow) CNE presents step 3 as a concession!

    Whether anger at all this is a good reason to withdraw from the vote is up for debate...but it's certainly an understandable reason.

    The inimitable Weil

    In the meantime, Sumate issued a tough statement. Key bits:
    CNE lied to the country
    For more than a year (and three elections,) CNE gave assurances that the voting machines did not store the sequence of votes. Now they have to accept:
    1-Political responsibility for having lied to the country.
    2-Administrative responsibility for having used public funds to buy machines that violate Venezuelans' political rights.

    Sumate will keep fighting for the truth
    We have consistently demanded minimum democratic conditions for the Parliamentary vote to be a Clean Election... That's why we demand compliance with the Constitution and the Electoral Laws:
    A. Publishing the electoral registry with addresses
    B. Doing away with the finger print scanners and the electronic voter rolls nationwide once and for all; reprogramming the voting machines and auditing the source code again
    C. Hand-counting all the ballot papers

    ...moreover, the "morochas" are unconstitutional.

    November 29, 2005

    Opposition Logic

    Ten days ago, the Opposition parties had no problem going to a vote despite all the well-known CNE irregularities.

    Last week, Opposition technicians demonstrated that one of those irregularities - the finger-print scanners - could indeed be used to track who voted for whom.

    The Opposition then asked CNE to suspend the use of the scanners.

    Two days ago, CNE chief Jorge Rodriguez agreed.

    The Opposition response? To withdraw from the elections!

    Quien los entiende?

    Whether you think going to elections is wise or not, the timing of the decision is just baffling. There's no imaginable reason to think conditions were safe enough to vote 10 days ago, but not today. If anything, conditions improved a notch over the last 48 hours. So, painful as it is to say it, I think JVR has it right for once: the opposition saw the writing on the wall, realized they can't mobilize their own supporters, noticed they were on the verge of a humiliating wipe-out, and cut their losses.


    Iran and Venezuela are to sign a contract to produce two Iranian passenger car models - the "Samand" and the "Pride" - in this Latin American country, the Persian service of the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported.

    November 28, 2005

    We're being played...

    More and more, I have the sense CNE is playing the opposition like a fiddle. Today's concession, agreeing not to use finger-print scanners on December 4th, looks very much like another carefully calibrated move to fulfill CNE's twin goals of providing international electoral legitimacy to an autocratic regime while dividing and demobilizing the opposition.

    The tactical retreat on the finger-print scanners makes perfect sense in the context of this two-pronged strategy. There was a real threat of Opposition parties withdrawing en masse from Sunday's vote given last week's finger-print scanning debacle and Zulia governor Manuel Rosales's ultimatum on pulling out of the election if the finger-print scanners were left in place. An election without the Opposition is not much use for international legitimation. CNE needs the parties to play ball if it wants chavismo to keep the "democratically elected" label, and if it needs to throw the finger-print scanners into the pyre to achieve that, it's more than willing to do so.

    But the retreat was also partial, and certain to rekindle the near civil-war between opposition participationists and abstentionists. For every Blyde arguing that there are now enough safeguards to vote, there'll be a Toro pointing to the farcical "hot" audit as a reason not to. Prolonguing the internal squabbling in the Opposition works brilliantly to achieve CNE's other goal: keeping the opposition divided and demobilized.

    Does anyone else have a feeling that José Vicente Rangel is behind all this? I don't have any proof, just a vague feeling that only JVR is quite smart and macchiavelian enough to think up something like this...

    Pre-Election FAQ

    With less than a week to go to the December 4th Parliamentary elections, I thought it was time for a nice FAQ...

  • Does Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) follow the law?

  • We know for a fact that CNE violates important elections laws and constitutional principles. They include the constitutions's Article 63 on secret voting, and Article 186 on proportional representation in parliamentary elections, as well as the Framework Law on Suffrage and Political Participation's Article 172 on the need to manually count all the ballots and Article 120 on CNE's duty to publish the electoral registry.

  • Does the CNE tell the truth?

  • We know for a fact CNE lies. CNE produced repeated assurances that the finger-print scanning machines could not be used to match particular voters to their votes. The voting simulation carried out in Fila de Mariches last week proved conclusively this was a lie...

  • Is CNE partisan?

  • Well, duh...

  • Will CNE steal the election?

  • Probably not. The pro-Chavez parties CNE openly favors are ahead in the polls. In part, this is because many (most?) opposition voters are planning to stay away from the vote on Sunday. Under such circumstances, CNE has no need to cheat numerically for chavismo to win the election.

    (Note: this is a point about numerical fraud. I mean only that CNE will not need to tamper with the automated results for chavismo to win. That there has been a host of other irregularities - from the Electoral Registry manipulations to gerrymandering, voter intimidation, and use of state resources to favor pro-government candidates - is too well-established to merit much discussion.)

  • If CNE has no need to cheat numerically, why does it keep lying and breaking the law?

  • Well, ask yourself this: what's the purpose of having a docile CNE from the point of view of Chavez's overall political strategy?

    As far as I can see, a chavista CNE has two overriding goals. The first is to provide international legitimacy to an autocratic regime by making sure the government can continue claim the "democratically elected" label. The second is to ensure Chavez's grip on power by dividing and demobilizing the opposition.

    So CNE has to perform a delicate balancing act. It needs to persuade the Opposition that it can cheat if the need arises, and that there is nothing the opposition can do about it. At the same time, CNE needs to convince international elections monitors that it does not steal elections.

    The easiest way for CNE to achieve both goals is to convince the opposition not to trust it. Better yet, it can work to convince the more radicalized parts of the opposition not to trust it. By doing that, they depress opposition turnout and add fuel to the fire of the opposition civil war on whether to vote or abstain. And if large chunks of the opposition don't vote, CNE doesn't have to actually steal the election...which, of course, helps enormously in meeting the goal of international legitimation.

    So CNE's flouting of important electoral laws is not in contradiction with the argument that they will not steal the election. Just the opposite - by flouting the law, CNE increases intra-opposition bickering and depresses antichavista turnout, which makes it unnecessary to cheat numerically.

    By manipulating the system just enough to keep the opposition in a state of permanent demobilized frustrechera - frustration mixed with anger - but not quite enough to bring on strong condemnation from abroad, CNE manages to square the circle. Chavez gets to have his cake and eat it too.

  • How well is CNE doing on attaining its twin goals?

  • Brilliantly.

  • What will happen on December 5th?

  • The government will win 115-130 or more of the National Assembly's 167 seats. The international elections monitors will note a series of irregularities, but will be forced to concede there was no overall numerical fraud. The Opposition will sink further into immobilism. The new government supermajority will announce plans to ammend the 1999 constitution to allow Chavez to be re-elected indefinitely.