Venezuela’s Súmate Primaries: Fowl Cries for Democracy

Changing the voting system is critical to the ability of a candidate to stand a chance against the immensely popular Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. But Súmate led primaries will serve only to further discredit an already well discredited opposition.

By Simone Baribeau - Venezuelanalysis.com
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Correction:

According to Sumate, the group only published the database of signatories to the request to the referendum on their website when the CNE published a parallel database on its website, long after the publishing of the Tascon list. We have not been able to independently confirm the date the database was posted on Sumate's website. The author apologizes for the error. She believes Deputy Luis Tascon, in publishing the list, far overstepped his power as a legislator, ran roughshod over the separation of powers that is meant to exist between Venezuela's legislative and the electoral powers, and singlehandedly dismissed privacy concerns that have resulted in unjust firings.

We are therefore retracting the following two paragraphs:

"Súmate’s perpetual dishonesty makes it the worst group imaginable to run the primaries. Not only will it ensure that Súmate’s predetermined candidate get chosen, will of the people not withstanding. The group will also have a record—which they say they will destroy after the outcome of the election is agreed upon by the candidates—of how everyone voted. This can only make the mistrust of Venezuelans in the voting system worse. Already Súmate has done considerable damage; one of the biggest causes of voter mistrust is the so-called “Tascon list”, the list of citizens who signed a petition against Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez which was published on pro-Chavez National Assembly member Luis Tascon’s website, after having been published on Súmate’s. Today, people speak of the government published list, which resulted in unfair firings, but rarely mention that it was Súmate that first made the list public.

So, a Súmate led primary risks losing both further trust in the voting system (which would perhaps work in the group’s advantage) and a credible right wing opposition candidate."

Corrected Article:

Many Venezuelans, opposition and Chavistas alike, have given up on December’s presidential elections as a done deal. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s approval ratings are among the highest in Latin America, and the Venezuelan opposition, after a coup attempt it failed to distance itself from, is disorganized, fractured, and largely discredited. And while much of the middle class may still hate Chávez, they’re far more likely to be hating him taking advantage of the economic boom—say, in a new car heading for lunch at the mega shopping mall Sambil—than on their way to a protest, as would have been the case a few years ago.

So, Súmate, the self-styled election watchdog, partially funded by the US, seems to be alone in the abyss of opposition apathy, a sole Chicken Little yelling “The elections are coming! The elections are coming!” to anyone who cares to listen.

But the latest poll, released in March by Consultores 21, pitting Chavez one on one against potential opposition candidates, doesn’t necessarily foretell the opposition’s doom. At first glance, the results look none too good for the opposition: the top contender, Julio Borges of Primero Justicia, would lose to Chavez 38 to 62 percent if he were the only opposition candidate, according to the daily El Nacional. But this poll was released eight months before the elections. And while Borges is not exactly an unknown in the country—he’s the head of a dominant opposition party—he certainly doesn’t have Chavez’s air time. Unlike Chavez, he has neither a five hour show every Sunday, nor advertisements plastered through the country saying “With Borges, we all govern” or “With Borges, only one government.” His face is not on Caracas ambulances; government trucks don’t park on the side of the road blasting music singing his praises.

In short, despite some touring and campaign speeches, neither he, nor any of the other opposition candidates have started their advertising campaigns. And the same can’t be said of Chavez, at least not with a straight face. Which means, beyond the normal problems of ousting an incumbent, opposition candidates are going to have four months to compete with years worth of government campaigns.

But Borges has gotten the support of more than a third of the country with comparatively minimal campaigning. Not a bad start.

The Consultores 21 poll, however, measures Borges running against Chavez on his own, instead of in a slate of opposition candidates. Many more candidates have already declared their intention to run, and polls, unsurprisingly, show that multiple opposition candidates will have a greater effect splitting the opposition vote, rather than siphoning votes away from Chavez. However, these are early polls, in past elections with Chavez, without primaries, a single one of his contenders has garnered in excess of 90 percent of the non-Chavez vote.

If the country isn't to risk turning back the clock to the Caldera administration, where the president won with 30 percent of the vote, or the US in 2000 with a small independent candidate likely swinging the election, Venezuela needs to find a way to ensure the candidate favored by the majority of the people wins the upcoming election. But the question isn’t just whether it needs to be done, but how to do it.

To solve this problem, Súmate has proposed primaries. Primaries, it, of course, will run and monitor. Primaries that will be entirely privatized, outside of the realm of influence of the Venezuelan electoral council (CNE), or any other elected institution. María Corina Machado, one of the leaders of Súmate, dismissed CNE control over the process, saying the Constitution gives the group the right to carry out such activities, if they allow the CNE to play a consulting role. “We believe the CNE has enough work right now with the changes they are going through, and trying to gain people’s confidence, because of this we’ve undertaken this project,” she graciously told El Nacional.

The problem with Súmate’s solution of doing it themselves isn’t so much that Corina Machado applauded the 2002 coup which dissolved the National Assembly, Supreme Court, and constitution, and briefly put in power the head of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce as President. While this calls into question the group’s commitment to democracy, in this country there are no coup free options for governors: after all, Chavez and many members of his party led the very different 1992 coup against the Perez Administration.

The problem isn’t even that Súmate is openly taking money from the U.S. through the fully congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy. Though many in the country argue that Venezuela should be able to hold elections without US influence, honest organizations have taken NED money before, and not acted treasonously in the process. Taking this money complicates matters though—Súmate leaders currently stand charged with “conspiring to overthrow the republican form of government,” in part for using NED money to create what the Attorney General views as a parallel Electoral Council. The charges, currently ridiculous on their face, get harder to refute if Súmate holds primary elections without the CNE’s go-ahead.

The critical problem, however, is that Súmate has shown itself to be woefully dishonest when dealing with election results. Súmate run primaries do more than just privatize a government function—they turn it over to a group that has time and again cried “foul” in the wake of electoral results they don’t like, even after multiple groups of international observers pronounce them clean. Súmate has historically decided on an outcome, and then refused to acknowledge reality if that outcome doesn’t come to pass.

In the most well-known example of this, Súmate continually called into question the results of the 2003 recall referendum, which, according to the OAS, Carter Center, and Venezuelan government, Chávez won by 18 percentage points. After initially rejecting out of hand the results, they then asked two US based economists to perform an econometric analysis to dispute the results. The economists did indeed find fraud—but the results of their analysis were insanely improbable. They concluded that the CNE had rigged two thirds of its voting centers, and picked, at random, about a tenth of the remaining clean voting centers to do a manual count of the votes. However, this manual count of supposedly clean machines matched the election results that Súmate claimed as fraudulent, while logically, if there were fraud, it should have match the results of the clean election. The likelihood of the discrepancy, according to a study by the DC based Center for Economic and Policy Research, was less than one in 28 billion trillion. Súmate, however, has yet to acknowledge the validity of the results.

The group also promoted the boycott of last December’s parliamentary election, even after the CNE conceded to the vast majority of opposition demands. Likewise, the group decided to call the primary elections just before the National Assembly was appointing new board members to the CNE, another concession to Súmate and opposition groups.

In announcing primaries and relegating the CNE to a consultative role even before the new appointments, Súmate didn’t even bother with the façade of waiting for its demands to be fulfilled before rejecting the outcome. Its rejection was pre-emptive.

Opposition and government supporter alike should listen to left leaning opposition candidate Teodoro Petkoff when he says that a single candidate is necessary, but Súmate led primaries aren’t necessarily the way to pick one.

Or, Venezuela could go a step further. Its revolutionary government could take a revolutionary view of voting. Presidential elections without primaries or run-offs can skew election results so that candidates a relatively small number of people support can get into office. Unenforced campaign laws can allow a party favored by either the private or government media to gain an unfair advantage against other candidates. Both concentrate power in the hands of people who don’t necessarily reflect the popular will.

One potential solution, which would make Venezuela the envy of every Green Party member in the US, would be for the South American country to follow Australia’s example and implement instant run-off voting. Another would be for the country to create and enforce campaign finance and advertising laws which ensure that candidate receive equal air time, instead of assuming the airtime of the right wing media for opposition ads will somehow cancel out the airtime the government stations uses for government ads. After all, both the right wing opposition and the government represent entrenched power, and any kind of independent left leaning opposition would find itself at a huge disadvantage electorally.

Chávez, of course, overcame these disadvantages without systematic change. The previous administration was so bad that Chávez lifted himself up from obscurity with a failed coup attempted and the words “for now” their objectives were not achieved, which burned themselves into the popular consciousness and enabled him to overcome decades of Punto Fijoism in a single election.

But with the economy booming, social missions addressing poverty, and the right to protest in full swing, Chávez seems to be doing a good job, so a surprise rise to power despite the system is unlikely. But the situation that existed before Chávez’s election shouldn’t be necessary for a radical change in administration. And MVR has enough control to change the voting system into something better.

Electoral structures are among the hardest systems to change; generally those in power don’t like to mess with the structures that brought them there. MVR has, until now, treated Venezuela’s traditional institutions with considerable skepticism and brought through many changes; there’s always a chance they will do the same with this one.

One thing’s a sure bet though. With Súmate in charge of a primary, you can bet their Chicken Little cries will change from “The election is coming!” to “The election is rigged!” before they’ll lose fairly.