How Many Signatures? On Watching a Train Wreck in Progress

Both Chavistas and Anti-Chavistas are each convinced that they won the recall petition drive. This conviction is a recipe for disaster.

Watching Venezuelan politics now is like watching a train wreck in progress, with two trains rushing towards each other and the date of the collision being the announcement of the CNE’s signature count, which should be sometime in the second week of January. All of a sudden the most important question in Venezuela’s political future has become, How many people signed the presidential recall referendum petition?  Contradictory numbers abound, particularly from the opposition.

First, on Monday, the last day of the petition drive, opposition leader Henry Ramos Allup indicated that the opposition had collected four million signatures. Then, Tuesday morning, one of the major dailies, El Nacional, ran a headline saying that there were 3.8 million signatures. Later that day, Enrique Mendoza, representing the opposition coalition Democratic Coordinator said that the correct number is 3.6 million. Sumate, the NED and USAID[1] funded organization that organized a petition drive against the president last February and which provided logistical support to the petition drive this time, said that the figure is 3.4 million. Finally, opposition leader Henrique Salas Römer, who has been steering a somewhat independent line from the rest of the opposition, has said that the real figure is at 2.8 million.

Government supporters, of course, provided their own figure, based on figures collected by their petition observers, which said that the total number of votes was 1.95 million (adjusting it downwards from an earlier figure of 2.2 million). The figure to beat in all of this was 2.4 million signatures, which is 20% of the electorate.

There are two indicators which make me suspicious that the actual figure might be closer to the government’s number than the opposition’s. First, in the last night of the opposition’s petition drive, there was practically no media coverage of the opposition’s victory celebration. In the past, whenever there was any kind of opposition demonstration, the media would devote all of their programming to it (think of the post-election parties that take place all around the world after an election, which the media almost always cover, whether the party lost or won). This, at first, seemed an indication of the opposition’s possible demoralization or confusion over the actual numbers of the petition. At the same, time, Chavistas held a fairly large and enthusiastic victory celebration in front of the Miraflores Presidential Palace, which was organized only in the last minute.

Second, the turn-out for the four days of the petition drive did not seem like what it would have to be for the opposition to collect over three million signatures. While the first day there was a large turnout throughout Caracas, the second to fourth days turn-out in the city’s lower class neighborhoods dwindled to almost nothing. There is photographic evidence that this pattern existed throughout the country. While there were numerous reports that the supplies of petition forms in the upper and middle class neighborhoods were exhausted, this is attributable to poor planning, which provided forms for only 66% of the voters in all neighborhoods, whether Chavista or not. As a result, in the generally the less populous middle and upper class ones, where easily more than 66% of the population is Anti-Chavez, petition forms were in short supply.[2]

The problem with such widely diverging signature counts is that it fuels myths that exist on both sides of Venezuela’s political divide; that each side has the support of the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans. Talking to representatives and examining the websites of each side showed that both were convinced that they had roundly beaten the other side. This conviction produced a kind of euphoria in both sides. Oddly, neither side seemed to notice that the other side was saying and feeling almost exactly what they were saying and feeling. Rather, they each believed that the other was demoralized.

This complete conviction on the part of both Chavistas and Anti-Chavistas of having beaten the other bodes very badly for Venezuela’s near future. Ultimately it is up to the National Electoral Council (CNE) to pronounce the verified number of signatures that the opposition collected in the petition drive for a presidential recall referendum. However, if each side is so convinced that they are the winners, before the official result is proclaimed, one side is bound to be supremely disappointed and to claim that the only reason the decision went against them was because they were cheated of their victory.

In all likelihood, given the claims of fraud[3] and both sides’ tendency to exaggerate, the actual result of the petition drive will be around the number of signatures required, 2.4 million signatures. In other words, the opposition will probably just barely reach their goal or just barely fail it.

Perhaps the greater danger for the country, in the short-term, is if the opposition fails its mark and does not have the recall referendum it so desperately wants. If it fails, it will cry foul and its more radical elements will launch into yet another campaign of destabilization, in the hope of attracting government crack-downs, international attention because of supposed human rights violations, and an eventual collapse of the government due to a combination of ungovernability and international pressure. It thus seems much more preferable, in the name of short-term stability, if Chavez were to face the recall referendum, a process which should be much more transparent and clear-cut than a messy and untransparent petition drive.

However, in the long-term, a recall referendum will not solve any of Venezuela’s basic problems and it seems obvious to me that Venezuela’s opposition will be much less capable of solving them than the Chavez government. Unfortunately, for Chavez and for the country’s future, it is always easier to say what you are against. Thus, it is quite possible that if Chavez is faced with a simple yes or no vote, he will lose, while if faced with a competition between various presidential candidates (or even one) he would win. The big unresolved question will thus be whether Chavez will be allowed to run again, should he lose a recall referendum. Venezuela’s Supreme Court is to rule on this issue sometime soon. Until there is a ruling from the CNE on whether there will be a referendum and from the Supreme Court whether Chavez may run again should he lose, for the sake of the country’s future, it would be a good idea if both sides curb their enthusiasm and their sense of triumphalism.

The second installment of these reflections will explore:

In order to curb each side’s triumphalism it would help if both sides realize that the world is more complicated than they tend to present it. This means, first of all, letting go of the idea that each has an overwhelming majority of support. So, Chavistas and Anti-Chavistas will have to understand that their conviction of overwhelming support is based on flawed assumptions.

P.S. For an english-language example of the kind of anti-Chavista triumphalism that I am talking about in this article, see Francisco Toro’s blog: http://caracaschronicles.blogspot.com/

[1] NED: National Endowment for Democracy, a nominally independent foundation funded by the U.S. congress for promoting democracy around the world. Historically much of their money has gone towards funding opposition parties and organizations of leftist governments, especially in Venezuela. USAID: U.S. Agency for International Development.