November 26, 2007

Working through the scenarios: a Sí victory

Katy says: Over the next few days, Caracas Chronicles is going to try to put the upcoming referendum in context. Ideally, this would be a deeply intellectual exercise, brimming with thoughtful analysis and unsoiled by groundless speculation. But come on, this is Venezuela, where the most likely outcome is usually what you're least speculate we will, and how.

First, lets work through a Sí victory scenario.This scenario is no fun, of course, but it's important we keep our wits about us and recognize that this is still a distinct possibility. For all the excitement about the No's rapidly improving standing in the polls, the campaign is still highly fluid, its outcome hinges on notoriously difficult to forecast turnout figures, and so most credible posters are still officially calling the race a toss up.

How will a Sí win be seen? It depends the margin of victory, and its credibility.

The two are deeply intertwined. A landslide for the Sí is, according to all serious polls, so unlikely, it would be impossible to sell it as a clean victory. On the other hand, a narrow Sí victory will surely be interpreted by some as clean and by others as dirty.

Lets assume the Sí wins by a small margin (less than 3%) and the election night "hot audit" fails to come up with clear proof of fraud leading opposition political actors to concede defeat. In other words, a scenario where the Sí squeaks out a somewhat credible victory.

Contrary to political common sense, Chávez will not interpret a close victory as a somewhat diminished mandate to implement Socialism. That kind of subtlety is as foreign to the government as cheese fondue. Chavismo can be expected to take a slim victory as permission to go full steam ahead.

Two things may temper this. The first is the military factor. General Baduel's "treason" suggests all is not well within the Venezuelan military, that they regard the process so far as tainted (a "coup d'etat", according to Baduel) and that some of the top brass would not regard any Si victory as legitimate. It's hard to say what effect this would have on the government, but it's likely to have some.

The other intangible is popular reaction. In contrast to previous elections, I think people in the opposition would find it hard to accept a radical new Constitution that is either the product of fraud or of the slim support of a small majority. Forget the voters: most people in Venezuela oppose the reform and think it's illegal. When you start messing with people's basic rights (even those of a minority), they're not likely to just slump off and go sulk on Alo, Ciudadano. We could very well see a merging of moderate and radical elements of the opposition once again, and the outcome of this process would almost surely be violent.

Assuming the government sails through these obstacles, Chávez has already said that once the Constitution is reformed, he will press ahead with at least 100 new socialist laws ranging on a whole range of topics. We should expect an exponential increase in State regulation in the economy, intervention on private property, and attacks on private education and health care. We should also see the government targeting agro-industry, the likely scapegoat for the scarcity problem.

The universities, for one, are hanging by a thread. Chavista students in private universities have already hinted that universities cannot be allowed to be hotbeds of opposition indefinitely. Further moves to do away with university autonomy would not be surprising - chavismo has also said recently that, in the face of continuous, overwhelming defeats in university elections in the past few years, it will force universities to give the vote to its workers and perhaps to the communities surrounding them. The outcome of this is pretty clear: university authorities and student leaders will be chavista.

Much of the government's ability to pull this off will depend on the price of oil. If the price of oil begins to fall, or even stops growing at the rates it has been growing, we will see increased scarcity of basic staples, further enraging the population. Polling evidence says that people are beginning to blame the government for the empty shelves, and this trend is likely to continue with Chávez's new powers to rule by decree indefinitely, as is stipulated in the transitional clauses of the Constitutional Reform proposal. I don't see how radicalizing the revolution is going to result in the investment needed to produce enough to meet ever growing demand, and people are beginning to wonder the same.

If popular resentment towards the government were to increase while the government is deepening its hold on the country's life, we would be in unchartered territory. The government's survival will continue to depend more and more on being able to deliver basic necessities while they take absolute control over the country, a process that would become very difficult if external conditions don't improve dramatically. However, if the price of oil were to soar, we should expect the government to sail through the next phase of the process.

Finally, there is the issue of states of exception and opposition political parties and NGOs. It's not clear whether the government would continue to tolerate political parties and NGOs that do not endorse socialism. They would have the perfect excuse to do away with these organizations on the basis that they are "unconstitutional." Furthermore, a state of exception - motivated by, say, guarimbas, which are always easy to provoke - would could lead to an open ended suspension of freedom of the press, both broadcast and print, as well as Due Process guarantees. With no checks and balances left, it's easy to envision an Egyptian style situation where a "state of emergency" remains in place for decades.

My crystal ball says that all hell would probably break loose with a Sí victory. I may be wrong, but I just don't see it playing out any other way. Your thoughts?