Skip to Navigation

Opinion and Analysis: Politics

How and Why Venezuela’s Opposition Imploded

Caracas, Venezuela, December 4, 2005—For the fourth time, Venezuela’s opposition parties are undergoing a bizarre process implosion. Like lemmings, they are committing mass political suicide by withdrawing from one of the country’s most important elections in the past five years. Following their support for the April 2002 coup attempt, the 2002/2003 oil industry shutdown, and the 2004 recall referendum, this is the fourth time opposition parties make a strategic miscalculation and end up following the course of the most extremist elements amongst them in seeking a shortcut to defeating Chavez. One can only hope that this presumably last error (because they will be practically gone after that) will mean the rebirth of a responsible and constitutional opposition in Venezuela. No doubt this will be difficult with an almost entirely pro-Chavez National Assembly, but they will be left with no other option (other than foreign intervention). The greater danger, though, is that the boycott will open the door to more foreign intervention in Venezuela.

Recent Events

Nearly all major opposition parties declared this week that they would withdraw from the Sunday, December 4 elections for the country’s legislature, the National Assembly. They took this action mere days after having promised to the Organization of American States (OAS) to participate in the vote. According to the OAS, the opposition parties, “expressed that save an extraordinary event, the guarantees offered to this date permit the elections to proceed as scheduled without any new requests from the political parties involved.”

Despite this assurance, Acción Democrática (AD), the former social-democratic governing party, withdrew from the vote a mere day after reassuring the OAS and the Electoral Council. With 23 out of 165 seats in the National Assembly and the practically only opposition party with a national organization, it is Venezuela’s largest opposition party. Next, Copei, the Christian-democratic former governing party, which has become practically meaningless during the Chavez years, withdrew. Proyecto Venezuela (Project Venezuela), followed suit the same day.

At first, the second most important party in Venezuela, Primero Justicia (PJ - Justice First), a conservative free market party, looked like it was more than happy to pick up the pieces and to become the inheritor of the suicidal parties. PJ party leaders said that they believed that they could trust the process, even if they did not trust the Electoral Council. However, a mere two days later, following continuous debate that nearly split the party, PJ mysteriously made a complete turn around and declared that it would not participate in the elections after all.

The withdrawal of PJ came as a great surprise. After all, PJ potentially had the most to lose because it is practically the only relatively strong party that is untainted by the discredit the pre-Chavez political class suffered as a result of the Venezuela’s steady 20-year economic decline. PJ is the only opposition party that would probably have at least held on to the seats it currently has in the National Assembly. Not only that, a strong showing would have positioned the party as the strongest opposition party in the country and would have propelled its presidential candidate, Julio Borges, as the practically default opposition candidate to run against Chavez in December 2006. It is no wonder, thus, that Borges was firmly opposed to his party’s withdrawal.

The withdrawal of four important opposition parties,[1] is very significant for Venezuela because the December 4th National Assembly elections are a major milestone of the Chavez presidency. These elections will be crucial for Venezuelan politics for the next five years. Until now, the pro-Chavez coalition of parties has had only a very thin majority in the National Assembly. This meant that the opposition was occasionally able to block laws by extending debate and to prevent decisions that required a two-thirds majority, such as constitutional amendments, appointments to the Electoral Council and the Citizen Power (Attorney General, Human Rights Ombudsperson, and Comptroller General), and “organic laws” (laws mandated by the constitution). Opinion polls showed that prior to the opposition boycott, pro-Chavez forces had a good chance of winning such a two-thirds majority.

Transparency and Security of the Vote

If these National Assembly elections are so important, then why would the opposition give them up without a fight? Can one take their complaints about the National Electoral Council (CNE) seriously? Let us first take a brief look at their concrete complaints and then turn to other possible explanations for the boycott.

Voting Machines

One of the opposition’s most persistent complaints has been the voting machines. First, a careful analysis of the machines shows that compared to other voting machines, Venezuela’s are probably among the most secure in the world. Not only do they print paper ballots, unlike most voting machines in the U.S., but observers are allowed to inspect the software’s source code, they have tamper-proof software signatures,[2] removable memory in case a machine is damaged, and passwords that are shared by different parties involved in the electoral process.

While the opposition objected to the very principle of introducing voting machines during the August 2004 presidential recall referendum, they appear to have accepted them to some extent. The opposition NGO Sumate, which was heavily involved in the recall referendum and aims to monitor every step of the CNE, never appears to have accepted them, though. Sumate recently launched a campaign arguing that even though the machines do not store voter information, they could violate the secrecy of the vote if the machines are connected to the fingerprint scanners that the CNE has been using to prevent multiple voting.

During a November 23 trial run of the voting machines, in the presence of elections observers, opposition technicians said they demonstrated that there is a file in the voting machines that store the order of the votes. If one were to compare this order to the order of the voters registered by the fingerprint scanners, this would be a serious problem. CNE President Jorge Rodriguez immediately denied that this would be possible, saying that even if the machines stored the voting data in the order in which votes were cast, the fingerprint scanners are not assigned to specific machines and themselves do not store the order in which fingerprints are scanned. It would thus be impossible to reconstruct individual votes. Despite this, the CNE agreed to the opposition’s main demand of not using the fingerprint scanners. According to Rodriguez, the measure was not an admission that there was something wrong with the voting process, but to reassure those who had doubts about the process that the vote would be secret.

However, the opposition’s initial complaint about the machines, that they altered the result of the vote, has been practically completely dropped. Initially, following the August 2004 recall referendum, practically all opposition parties cried fraud, at first with no proof and then spent an inordinate amount of time concocting statistical proof that there was fraud. However, the Carter Center and a panel of independent statisticians denied any validity to these opposition statistical arguments. Eventually, the opposition leadership stopped mentioning the recall referendum, but among opposition activists and sympathizers, the myth that Chavez stole the recall referendum was kept alive.

In the end, the voting machines appear to be completely safe, both with regard to preventing fraud and to protecting the secrecy of the vote. Perhaps a modification ought to be made in the software, to make sure that the voting order is indeed not stored. However, without knowing the order of voters’ identities, the secret ballot is safe even with the current machines. Also, OAS observers, the Carter Center, and other international observers have signed-off on the voting machines’ reliability more than once.

Still, the opposition NGO Sumate and many opposition parties insist that only paper ballots should be used. The reason, though, other than efficiency, that the CNE rejects such a solution, is that it is much more difficult for a central body such as the CNE to prevent fraud with paper ballots than with voting machines. That is, in the past fraud was organized by involving several parties in the fraud, especially in areas where small parties did not have observers, so that the small parties’ votes could be divided among more powerful parties. With the voting machines, the entire voting procedure is much more centralized and less trust has to be invested in observers in the field. More trust, though, has to be invested in the main electoral authority, the CNE. Given that the CNE is dominated by Chavez supporters, it is understandable that opposition parties are skeptical about the institution. So far, however, they have turned justified skepticism into complete distrust.

CNE Legitimacy

One of the opposition’s main arguments for denying legitimacy and trust to the CNE has been the way its board was appointed. That is, following intense debate and effort to find consensus candidates for the five-member body in the National Assembly, legislators were unable to reach the two-thirds majority for appointing the CNE. As a result, the Supreme Court declared a “legislative omission,” in mid 2003, and said it would temporarily appoint a CNE, until the National Assembly appointed one. Since Chavez sympathizers dominated the court, Chavez sympathizers also ended up dominating the CNE. At first, many in the opposition applauded Supreme Court’s CNE appointments, because it seemed that the fifth member might be neutral, but eventually, when the new CNE placed strict requirements on the collection of signatures for the recall referendum, the opposition turned against the CNE. As it stands, as long as there is a deadlock in the National Assembly, there is no alternative to either a court appointed CNE or none at all. Opposition arguments that the Supreme Court’s appointment is unconstitutional are of little value, since it is the court and not the opposition that determines constitutionality.

Electoral Registry

Another major area of complaint has been the electoral registry. Chavez knew that his support shifted from the middle classes towards the poor in the course of his presidency and the poor have generally not been registered to vote. Chavez thus launched a program, known as “mission identity,” to provide ID cards and voter registration to all Venezuelans. In a period of less than one year, mission identity added more than two million citizens to the electoral registry. Opposition organizations suggest that many or most of these additions are illegitimate, perhaps double registrations, foreign citizens, or deceased persons. The CNE, to clear up doubts about the registry, asked CAPEL, a Latin American elections advisory group, to audit the registry. This process, however, has turned out to be extremely slow and is, nearly four months later, still not completed.

In the past, Sumate has argued that the registry is very solid with a very small error rate. However, after mission identity, they are calling the entire registry into question and are demanding that the CNE publish the entire registry so that they can audit it themselves. The CNE has, however, refused to do so, arguing that this would violate citizens’ privacy rights. Instead, it has published just a list of the names, without addresses, and allowing individual voters to verify their correct registration, just as is required by Venezuelan law. The lack of an independent audit, though, prior to the December vote, is a problem that the CNE appears to have mismanaged.

Morochas (Twins)

Another common opposition complaint has been the use of so-called “morochas” in the voting procedure. That is, Venezuela’s electoral system is similar to Germany’s where voters vote for a party and for an individual representative. The National Assembly (NA) is then constituted by 40% on the basis of the party vote, with as many members entering the NA in proportion to the number of votes the party received. The other 60% are selected based on the individual candidates who receive a relative majority in the personal vote from their district. However, party members who are elected into the NA on an individual basis count towards the total their party receives in the proportional vote.

The morochas procedure goes around the requirement of having individually elected representatives count towards the party’s proportional representation because parties enter into alliances, whereby one runs on the proportional and the other on the individual section of the ballot (hence the name, morochas/twins). The opposition decried this procedure as being unconstitutional because it gives more popular parties a larger share of representation in the NA. Indeed, Chavistas stood to win more representatives to the NA with this procedure than without it.

The opposition argues that morochas are unconstitutional because the constitution states that representation to the NA must be proportional (article 186). While this is true, it actually says, “The National Assembly shall be composed of deputies elected in each federal entity through universal, direct, personalized, and secret voting with proportional representation...” That is, proportional representation is only one aspect of the voting procedure. Another aspect is that it is “personalized” – hence the two sections of the ballot. How much should be personalized and how much proportional the constitution does not specify. The law specifies 40% should be proportional, which, it most definitely is, even with morochas.

When all is said and done about the complex technical aspects of the voting procedure, it should be clear that despite some flaws, voting in Venezuela is far more transparent, secure, and representative than it is in the United States, with its winner-take-all system. However, you rarely hear any opposition supporters claiming that the United States is being governed by a dictatorship, which many will no doubt argue about Venezuela after the December 4th vote.

Motivations for Opposition Boycott

The opposition’s main argument is that it has lost all trust in the CNE and is demanding its resignation as a condition for its participation. While it may well be true that the opposition does not trust the CNE, there are many other guarantees in place to make sure that the vote will proceed cleanly, such as over 400 independent observers from the Organization of American States, the European Union, and from various other countries around the world. Also, all political parties are involved in every step of organizing the election. Finally, the CNE conceded to numerous opposition demands, such as manually auditing 45% of the paper ballots cast and eliminating the fingerprint scanners. So, if the technical arguments about not trusting the fairness of the vote are so weak and if the opposition stands to lose so much in the upcoming vote, then what other reasons could it have for boycotting the vote?

There are several alternative motivations for the opposition’s action. The first is the result of a simple cost-benefit analysis. All opinion polls leading up to the vote indicated that it was quite probable that pro-Chavez parties would win a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. The opposition probably reasoned that faced with the choice between participating and having a minimal voice in the legislature or no voice and a de-legitimized legislature, the latter option would be preferable in the long run. Part of this calculus was that the opposition is convinced that abstention will be high, thus increasing the likelihood of successfully de-legitimizing the election process.

One can find evidence of this type of reasoning in the repeated references the opposition has made to predictions of high abstention. According to the opposition, the vote was doomed from the start because its polls predicted an abstention rate as high as 80%. Chavez-supporters, on the other hand, were predicting a relatively normal turn-out, of 60-70%, which, of course, will be lower now due to the opposition boycott, but probably not too much lower. Given the opposition’s poor track record in predicting political events in Venezuela during the Chavez presidency, it seems unlikely that the opposition’s prediction will be correct.

One can find another piece of evidence for the opposition’s strategic reasoning in the fact that the first party to declare its boycott of the vote was Acción Democrática, a party that theoretically had the most to lose from non-participation, but which ran no campaign whatsoever in the weeks leading up to the election. In general, opposition parties campaigned extraordinarily little, but AD did not seem to post a single campaign poster. In other words, no matter what the outcome of the negotiations with the CNE, it seems AD never intended to run in the elections. It was all a charade in order to snatch a strategic victory from the jaws of certain electoral defeat.

The second reason the opposition probably opted for a boycott has to do with an odd psychological dynamic within the opposition itself. That is, every time the opposition must make a major decision, it almost invariably steers towards the more extremist options and against any kind of moderation. This was clearly the case during the April 2002 coup attempt and the December 2002 to February 2003 shutdown of the oil industry. In both cases, the most extremist elements within the opposition had their way. Part of the reason for this seems to have to do with a macho culture, in which moderation is seen as cowardice and extremism as courage. Whenever extremists and moderates face off in Venezuela, the extremists seem to win.

The third possible reason the opposition parties withdrew has to do with pressure they probably received from the U.S.  While this is speculative, the history of U.S. policy in the region shows that the U.S. has a record of supporting and profiting from electoral boycotts. Also, the U.S. is in a good position to pressure the Venezuelan opposition, given the $20 million of funding it has provided opposition groups over the past five years. The U.S., of course, denies any involvement in the opposition’s decision. Still, it served U.S. interests very well when opposition parties boycotted the 1984 Nicaraguan elections and when opposition parties boycotted the 2000 elections in Haiti. In each case, the boycott set the stage, in international opinion, to de-legitimize and smooth the path for the eventual defeat of left-leaning governments.

Probable consequences

Venezuela

As stated at the outset, the most likely short and medium term consequence of the opposition’s boycott will be the disappearance of the opposition. Even now, many opposition extremists believe that this action of theirs means the imminent end of Chavez. However, just as they turned out to be completely wrong in the days leading up to the April 2002 coup, the December 2002 oil industry shutdown, and the August 2004 recall referendum, they will be wrong once again. Given their complete misinterpretation and misunderstanding of Venezuelan reality, so many serious errors must inevitably lead to their own demise.

The traditional opposition to Chavez in Venezuela will no longer be represented in the next National Assembly, which is supposed to preside for five years. The opposition will thus have lost its second to last platform. The first platform it lost was within the military, following the coup attempt. The second platform was within the oil industry, following its shutdown and recovery. The third was with among its own supporters, following the failed recall referendum. The last two opposition platforms that are left are the National Assembly and the private mass media. In other words, the only platform the opposition will have after December 4 is the mass media.

Julio Borges and Manuel Rosales, two of the most likely candidates to oppose Chavez in the December 2006 presidential elections, will not be able to count a national institutional infrastructure, which the National Assembly provides, for launching their campaign. Their ability to challenge Chavez will thus be greatly diminished.

In the medium term, it is to be hoped and it seems quite probable, that a new opposition will emerge, partly from within Chavez’s ranks and partly from old opposition ranks that had nothing to do with the opposition’s failed adventures of the past six years. With the emergence of such an opposition, hopefully, Venezuela will finally be able to return to a more “normal” give and take between governing parties and opposition, something which has been lacking nearly completely ever since Chavez was first elected in 1998. Unfortunately, there are likely international consequences that will interfere with such normalization.

International Consequences

Just as it did in Haiti and Nicaragua, the Bush administration will no doubt use the December 4 opposition boycott to discredit and de-legitimize the Chavez government, regardless of what the international observers have to say about the vote. In other words, every time there is a political conflict, when the government passes a controversial law or constitutional amendment, or makes an important appointment, Bush administration officials will try to cast doubt on the legitimacy of such endeavors. This gradual disqualification of the Chavez government would presumably soften the ground for eventual stronger intervention, such as greater and more overt support for the opposition in Venezuela, in the hopes of unseating Chavez in 2006 or some other future election.

A second and perhaps more dangerous consequence of the boycott is that it sets a precedent for the rest of Latin America. There are seven presidential elections coming up in Latin America in 2006. Events in Venezuela could tempt opposition parties in these countries into making a similar cost-benefit analysis as the Venezuelan opposition made and cause them to calculate that de-legitimizing the electoral process in their country is preferable to facing near certain defeat at the polls. Such a turn of events would mean a dangerous weakening of democracy throughout Latin America for many years to come.

The political suicide of Venezuela’s opposition is thus a mixed turn of events. On the one hand, it could mean the end to a failed opposition and the rebirth of normal politics in Venezuela. On the other hand, it could open the door for more destabilization from outside for both Venezuela and the rest of Latin America. In balance, it would have been preferable, though, for both the opposition and for Venezuela as a whole, if the opposition had not made yet another mistake as it now made with the elections boycott.


[1] It should be noted that these four parties represent only a very small percentage of registered candidates. As of Saturday afternoon, when the deadline of withdrawing one’s candidacy passed, only 10%, or 556 out of 5,516, candidates had withdrawn. Of the 355 parties and political associations running, only 18 had withdrawn.

[2] A software signature is a kind of fingerprint or seal of the software, which changes if any aspect of the software is changed. The signature thus allows for easy verification that the software has not been modified after it is inspected.