Venezuela's Opposition Suffers Moral Defeat in 2010 Parliamentary Elections
By Raul Burbano
Raul Burbano was an official International Observer in Venezuela's September 26, 2010parliamentary elections. Raul is a member of the Latin American and Caribbean Solidarity Network and the Venezuela We Are With You Coalition.
It was 2:30 a.m. on September 27 when the President of the National Electoral Council (CNE), Tibisay Lucena, walked into the press conference at the head office of the CNE and announced the first official results of the previous day's Parliamentary Elections.
The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) had once again defeated their opposition and obtained a clear majority of seats in Parliament -- 96 of 165. Although this was not the two-thirds majority that some in the PSUV had hoped for, it was a clear sign that the majority of Venezuelans continue to support the process of transformation that President Hugo Chavez has led over the past ten years. By this time, most local media and International Observers had gone home, while others slouched, partially asleep in their chairs.
The rightist opposition, realizing that they had failed to take control of the Parliament, immediately swung into spin mode, trying to massage the results in their favor. The opposition hailed its win of 65 parliamentary seats as a major setback for the Chavista camp. The international mainstream media parroted reports that Venezuelan's had rejected "Chavismo."
Few media pundits asked why the opposition couldn't win a majority. Judging by media reports, you'd think Venezuela is about the worse place in the world to live. Thus the Brookings Institute: "Private investment and oil production are imploding, GDP has fallen 14% since 2008, and inflation runs at 30 percent." (1) And the New York Times reported (August 2010): "Venezuela is more deadly than Iraq."
And yet, despite this supposed national calamity and government incompetence, the opposition failed to win a simple majority in Parliament. Obviously, the majority of the Venezuelan people see past the façade of the oppositions unity speeches. History has taught them that the traditional parties and institutions are merely proxies for those living comfortably in Miami.
Opposition's myth of majority popular vote
Early on as people started to digest the results, the opposition moved to conceal their moral loss. Out of the blue the head of the opposition party declared victory, claiming 52% of the national popular vote. The next morning Chavez, on national TV, with the CNE numbers in one hand and a simple map of Venezuela in the other, walked the nation through a simple arithmetic lesson: the PSUV received 5,422,040 votes and the opposition 5,320,175. This is a 50.5% versus 49.5% in favor of the PSUV.
The opposition boasted that they won more seats in this parliamentary election then in the last one held in 2005. What they neglected to explain was that they had boycotted the previous elections in an effort to delegitimize the electoral process. According to Roy Chaderton, a PSUV member elected to the Latin American Parliament (Parlatino), the opposition actually lost ground by losing 20 seats in the National Assembly when compared to the last elections in which the opposition participated in.
Opposition lacks true base of support
It is not hard to see that opposition lacks credibility or any substantial support. This can be shown by the fact that since 1999 the PSUV has handed the opposition 14 electoral defeats. By simply looking at the total votes that the opposition received nationally, it's hard to fully appreciate their true lack of popular support. The majority of their support lies within the country's small oligarchy that is aligned with foreign multinationals. According to Eva Golinger, "U.S. agencies fund and design their campaigns, train and build their parties, organize their NGOs, develop their messages, select their candidates and feed them with dollars to ensure survival." (2)
What the opposition lacks in popular support they make up in limitless financial support from the U.S., and a sophisticated network of foreign-trained media outlets. A report published in May 2010 by the Spanish Foundation for International Relations and Foreign Dialogue revealed that this year alone, US AID and their proxies invested in the neighborhood of $40 million-$50 million to shape the results of these Parliamentary elections. Their plan was simple: unite, train and guide the opposition in Venezuela because alone they would stand little chance of electoral victory. They aimed to retool their message to appeal to the masses by "development of strategies and messages that addressed the aspirations of low-income voters". (3)
Opposition accuses CNE of fraud
In order to try and discredit the process, the opposition tried to call into question the integrity of the CNE and their electoral process. Surely, with such a highly sophisticated and automated electoral system, there must have been fraud -- why else the delay of several hours in providing the results. So went the opposition's logic. One could suppose the opposition suffers from collective amnesia since they had forgotten that it was the same CNE that in the 2008 constitutional vote awarded them their first and only electoral victory against President Chavez. The CNE attributed this brief delay to the fact that results being too close to call and to the need to wait until the results were "irreversible." However, for the opposition this was just the start of their frantic attempt to rationalize and justify their moral defeat.
The National Electoral Council recognized 150 observers from across the globe to witness Venezuela's democratic process. Each party or alliance participating in the elections was permitted to invite up to 30 partisan witnesses from abroad. In addition, thousands of volunteers selected through a national lottery from across the country participated in the electoral process. These volunteers ran the 12,562 voting centers and 36,773 voting tables across the country ensuring massive and diverse civil participation and oversight.
The final report by the International observers was unanimous, and was summarized by the European Union International Electorate team: "The election process has been unique regarding the democratic guarantees and the voters' individual rights, the respect for vote's secrecy, and the transparency of the process." The opposition quickly realized that the very sophistication, transparency and inclusive nature of the electoral process did not lend itself to charges of fraud or manipulation and moved to their next target.
Opposition accuses Chavez of redrawing electoral districts
Venezuela's electoral system is a complicated hybrid system that includes both first-past-the-post (voto nominal) and proportional representation (voto listo). For these elections, 110 representatives were elected nominally and 52 were elected by party or proportion representation, with the final three going to indigenous legislators, for a total of 165.
The opposition accused the government of redrawing electoral districts favoring rural areas, which are strongholds of the PSUV, and under-representing urban centers where, supposedly, the opposition's base is concentrated. The CNE has acknowledged that "the system has the potential for a degree of disproportional representation" but the reality is that all political parties benefit from it from time to time and in these elections it seems that the opposition benefited the most.(4)
A case in point is the fact that the PSUV received at least 40% of the votes in the states of Zulia, Anzoategui, Nueva Esparta, and Tachira, yet they only received 7 parliamentary seats while the opposition obtained 27 seats. In Zulia, with its heavy populated urban centers, PSUV received only 156,376 votes fewer than the opposition. Yet the PUSV only received 3 seats in parliament, as against the opposition's 12 seats.
By looking at the results for each party individually and their representation in parliament, the picture becomes clear; the PSUV is only party that has massive support. On its own the PSUV won 58% of the seats in parliament with their closest rival, the Democratic Action (AD), taking merely 13% of the seats. No one party has anywhere close to the level of popular support at the national level that the PSUV has. In addition, the PSUV won the majority of the seats in 16 of Venezuela's 23 states.
With such a close margin between the PSUV and the opposition, can Chavez really claim victory? To answer this we need to put it into context and analyze the forces behind the opposition. For these elections, the opposition ("MUD" as they are known by their Spanish acronym) did a great job of combining all the forces of the right into one. Together this right-wing coalition is made up of more than 50 parties with various ideological allegiances. Some parties are only regional and others emerged simply for the elections. One can say the opposition employed the strategy of splitting votes across multiple opposition forces presenting the appearance of popular support. It's hard to envision how this opposition is going to function as a unified block in parliament, let alone present a real opposition to the PSUV.
Even "united," this massive block of opposition failed to achieve an electoral victory. There platform was not solution-based but rather focused on anti-"Chavismo." Their key weapon, as always, was fear, and for that voters punished them.
Biased media coverage
Another baseless claim from the opposition during the election was that the media is controlled and dominated by Chavez. These elections once again showed these claims to be without foundation. The CNE looked at the coverage of both parties on TV and their results were revealing. In paid television advertising slots between July 12 and September 21, 53% were placed by the opposition, while 39% were pro-PSUV, and the rest went to other political parties. In a second study of the two major state-owned television stations and the four private stations, 60.3% of political television advertising was pro-opposition.(5)
PSUV lacks a two-thirds majority in Parliament
Many claim that the PSUV failure to obtain a two-thirds majority in parliament is a major obstacle to Chavez in continuing the process of socialist transformation. In fact, the two-thirds margin is significant for presidential decrees, but its importance as a tool for deepening reform has been greatly exaggerated. Ninety-nine percent of laws are passed by simple majority. The major challenge to internal reform comes from within the party and society itself. If we look at the pace at which reforms have been adopted over the past few years, we see they are limited more by administrative capacity and bureaucracy than legislative. The Financial Times recently added up the value of industries nationalized by the Chavez government over the five years. Outside oil, it came to less than 8% of GDP.(6)
Challenges before the PSUV
Venezuela still has a long way to go before the state is in control of the economy. However, the immediate challenge lies in consolidating what has already been nationalized. Examples of this can be seen in Puerto Ordaz, in state of Bolivar, were this year NorPro, the bauxite processing plant de Venezuela was nationalization.
This factory is a great example of "co-management" -- a "socialist enterprise where workers have taken control and are in the process of transforming the company. However after six months under workers' control the plant struggles to start any production and its machines sit idle.
CVG Aluminio del Caroni,S.A. (ALCASA), an aluminum producing company in the state of Bolivar that was nationalized back 2005. Here workers have been running the plant for several years. Today the plant is losing significant amounts of revenue a year, due to the challenges facing the aluminum industry in the face of global recession. The challenge for them is how to retool the company so they are not just producing raw material for export to feed the capitalist market but rather producing products for their local market. The development of their downstream industry is hampered more by state bureaucracy than by legislative barriers.
The real struggle for participatory democracy in Venezuela does not lie with the traditional establishments of power, but rather lies at the grassroots level where many sectors of society are taking control of their communities. But it's precisely on the streets of Caracas that one is starting to hear dissatisfaction with aspects of nepotism and bureaucracy taking root in the PSUV. Corrupt professional politicians seeping into the ranks of the Bolivarian movement arouse indignation in the PSUV ranks.
The PSUV needs to guard against this and continue to focus on building popular power in the streets, barrios, and rural communities, which has taken form as communal councils and people's cooperatives. Under Chavez these forms of participatory democracy have flourished across the country. Only by energizing and nourishing popular power will Venezuelans see a true transformation of their society to a more egalitarian one based on socialist values.