The two electoral mistakes of the Venezuelan opposition

About a month ago I was asked by my very esteemed colleague Juan Nagel to write about a point I made in his comment section. With travel and all it took me that long to abide but I do hope that it will be as useful as it would have been then. The topic was electoral mistakes by the opposition since we disagreed in that for me boycotting the 2005 vote was not necessarily a mistake and certainly not the worst one.

I think that the Venezuelan opposition has made two fundamental electoral mistakes since Chavez arrived on the political scene in 1998. True, electoral mistakes are also political mistakes, but for the sake of the argument I will consider them as separate mistakes which consequences can be electoral and/or political.  For example, if you will, the strike of 2002 can be considered as a political mistake, the boycott of 2005 and electoral mistake and the lack of follow up to that electoral result a political mistake.  That is, if you think those were mistakes which is not a debate for this text.
The first electoral mistake, or blunder for me. was in 1998 when Salas Romer running against Chavez accepted that AD and COPEI ditch their candidates so that they could vote for him but under AD or COPEI name.

In the electoral system then, each candidate was supported by a series of political parties all running under their respective color, as a way to figure out how the spoils would be split by the victors. Salas Romer, as a dissident COPEI who had trashed the AD hold on Carabobo state, run as an independent. After the "first round" of November 1998 which elected the new Congress it was clear that neither Irene Saez (COPEI) nor Alfaro Ucero (AD) was going to defeat Chavez, and that the only one that stood a remote chance to do so was Salas Romer running on his own vehicle, Proyecto Venezuela.

We probably will never know for sure but it seems that Salas Romer actually thought he could defeat Chavez and accepted to lend himself to the shameful maneuvering of COPEI and AD before the "second round", the presidential one of early December 1998. In what was a most pathetic display, AD and COPEI dumped recklessly their candidates and insisted that the CNE passed their color coded cards to the name of Salas Romer. The duly upset candidates refused to withdraw in front of that farce and run on the cards of minor parties and still got a couple of points at the election. But Salas Romer could not win anyway and Chavez was elected with probably more votes than what he deserved considering the odious maneuvering of the old traditional parties.

Why was this an electoral/political error?

If AD and COPEI were serious at countering the threat of Chavez, clearly perceived then, at least by people like me, the best bet would have been to withdraw their candidates and let Salas Romer battle it all on his own, without the need to register their label for Salas Romer.  One of the excuses,advanced then was that people would be confused, unable to go from the white label to the sun image label, an insulting excuse if you ask me. But they could not resist playing on the power lust of Salas Romer and he did the second part of the error, accepting their support openly, after the disgraceful manipulation. Thus the three parts showed absolute lack of vision and any understanding of superior national interests.

The consequences were that after the election Salas Romer was completely discredited and the opposition had destroyed the only politician that could have confronted Chavez as a moral voice of sorts. In fact Salas Romer went into a long silence from which he never really emerged. As a consequence there was no one to lead a refusal to the constitutional referendum of April 1999 which passed by 90% (I was in the 10% that voted NO). After such a defeat it was nearly impossible to organize a serious campaign to have representatives to the new constitutional assembly where only 4 opposition members managed to get elected even though the opposition represented 40% of the votes in July 1999.

In other words, AD and COPEI made sure that if they were not leading the opposition no one else would even if that meant to give up the country.  

The consequences of the 1998 error were also felt in December 1999 when the new Constitution passed with 70% of the vote and even in the general elections of 2000 when the opposition failed to gain even a third of the new National Assembly. We had to wait for 2001 when a new leadership started to emerge with the unholy alliance between the Business Union and the Trade Unions to fight the beginning of Chavez authoritarian urges which led tot he 2002 April events. That was possible only because all opposition parties had lost any credibility in that fateful November 1998. By 2002 the authors of 1998 electoral mistakes had been mostly pushed aside and it was the turn of a new leadership to get ready to commit the second truly electoral mistake of the opposition, the 2004 recall election on Chavez.

This second electoral mistake can be described in two parts: the preparation for the recall election which served the table for the true mistake, the handling of the adverse result on August 2004.

The first series of errors were for the opposition to accept the imposition of Chavez to accept a recall election several moths after it was due, that is, in August 2004 when it should have been held July 2003. The reasons of this, which include the negative interference of the OAS and the Carter Center, are too long for this post. The point of that matter is that by accepting the unacceptable the opposition preempted its chances at contesting a negative result in 2004, or at the very least a way to deal with such a prospect.

The second part of that error, the real blunder if you will, was on the wee hours of August 16 2004 when some leaders of the opposition went on record saying that Chavez had won through electoral fraud. Then nothing happened, no actions were taken, and a few days later AD announced that it was preparing for the regional elections of October 2004, as if nothing.

At this point it is irrelevant to discuss whether Chavez actually cheated then. It is the opinion of this blogger that he indeed cheated but that he won anyway. That is, he fattened his margin of victory and that is today more or less the accepted explanation for the inconsistencies, grudgingly if needed. The electoral error here was an inability to act clearly: either Chavez won, and it should have been recognized, or he lost and then the opposition should have been consequent and acted on it, assuming the implied risks. It did neither.

The opposition started by claiming that there was cheating, promised proof, and then let it linger on and eventually did nothing about it, letting a few experts hang alone with what seemed reasonable proof. Why did the leadership of the opposition did not take their own accusation more seriously is a question that still remains to be answered, and accounted for. But the consequences were terrible.

The wishy-washiness of the week following August 15 2004 are still today haunting us. It unmotivated partially, if not permanently, a large portion of the opposition electorate which explain the defeats of October 2004, September 2005 and December 2005, the worst one since it handed 100% of the National Assembly to chavismo. Certainly if the opposition had been a little bit more serious in 2004 the 2005 result wouldn't have been as bad even if  we look at the story of pollsters now available where it seems that chavismo would have won 70% of the seats at the very least.

We will not know for sure what would have happened had the opposition taken a firm stand on August 16, and we are left to pick up the pieces hoping that today such crass mistakes will be avoided in the future.

I had addressed these points here and there over the past years and I think it is right that Juan forced me to put it all together for the record, so that no one can say that nobody remembered the whole fiascoes, at a time when we are embarking on the most difficult election since 1998, made it so complicated because the 1998 and 2004 electoral mistakes are directly those who allowed Chavez to reach office, nearly uncontested, and become an autocrat after 2004.  Another such mistake (for example voiding a decent primary system) and we are good for another ten years until people eventually get tired of Chavez and do not care anymore to risk their lives for it, Egypt or Iran wise.

To summarize the whole thing: I think that the electoral mistakes that truly mattered were in 1998 and 2004.  The other mistakes were different and made worse by the incompetence of the opposition.  For example boycotting the 2005 election was brilliant in that the new parliament was elected with barely 15% of the electorate.  But the problem here is that the opposition accepted it, did not take to the streets to demand a new election.  They had their reasons I suppose but if they were not prepared to do so then they would have been better advised to go and run and be defeated in 2005.  Then again who knows if Chavez would have dared to launch the ill fated 2007 referendum which was his first real defeat.  It is no use to speculate, of course, but we should always keep in mind the errors of the past, errors that too many politicians refuse to talk about because they should account for them and risk further scorn.  Is it not right Mr. Ramos Allup?