The Politics of Majority Politics

Part II of the "How Many Signatures?" article. It is doubtful that either side in Venezuela's political conflict enjoys an absolute majority. No matter who has a majority, the opposition's claim to have collected 3.6 million signatures or more is becoming increasingly doubtful.

The strategy of Venezuela’s opposition is clear: convince everyone that the opposition has the majority’s support and if petitions or elections say otherwise, then someone is playing dirty. Coincidentally, the pro-government side’s strategy is pretty much the same. As I argued earlier (“How Many Signatures? On Watching a Train Wreck in Progress”), the fact that both sides are employing this strategy is a recipe for disaster. What neither side seems to consider is not only that they could be wrong, but that it is even possible for both of them to be wrong.

How could both the opposition and the government enjoy less than the majority’s support? Such a statement should not be all that unusual, considering that rarely does any side enjoy the support of an absolute majority in politics. There are simply too many political options to support, including abstention, non-involvement, and apathy, for any one side to enjoy absolute majority support.

So perhaps, when Venezuelans talk about enjoying majority support, what they really mean that they have the support of a relative majority. It does not sound that way, though. Recently, in a television talk show, one of the possible presidential candidates of the opposition, Juan Fernandez, who also led the oil industry shut-down of last year, said, referring to the Chavistas, “we must respect the rights of the minority.” This magnanimous phrase was brilliant in its simplicity and in its rhetorical strategy. With such a statement, leaders of the opposition imply that the opposition is the majority and that when Chavez had majority support, his government did not respect the rights of the minority. By placing the emphasis on the rights of minorities, it is treating the opposition’s supposed majority as a given.

The opposition bases its claims of having majority support on three related pieces of evidence. First, it says that the opinion polls, which show Chavez’s approval rating hovering around 35-40%, prove that the opposition has more support. Second, there are the large opposition demonstrations of the past year, which show how well they can muster people against Chavez. Third, they point to the signature collection process, which is supposed to activate a recall referendum against the president, and which, according to them, collected between 3.4 and 3.8 million signatures. Let us examine each of these claims one by one.

For the past two years, opinion polls conducted by organizations sympathetic to the opposition have showed that President Chavez has had an approval rating that fluctuated consistently between 30 and 40% (with a temporary high of 45% immediately following the coup attempt). First of all, it is possible to raise serious doubts about the accuracy of these numbers simply because large parts of Venezuela’s population live in the “barrios,” the poor parts of the city, to which opinion pollsters generally have a difficult time gaining entrance for their door-to-door polls. During the oil industry shut-down access was so limited that opinion polls were conducted only via telephone, a factor which seriously distorts the accuracy of the polls, since most people in the poorest neighborhoods do not have telephones.

On the one hand, while the poor are more difficult to get a hold of for the pollsters, it is the poor who tend to participate less in political life, which should explain why polling data in during the last two presidential elections were more or less accurate. On the other hand, in the past five years since Chavez’ election, he has significantly politicized the people who live in Venezuela’s barrios, his greatest source of support. It is thus quite likely that they will turn out to vote in much greater numbers than in the past.

Another important point to keep in mind about the polls is that just because they measure the relative popularity or unpopularity of the president, does not mean that all those who disapprove of his performance would prefer the opposition. Some of the same polls that show Chavez’ popularity rate to be around 40%, show that the opposition, as a whole, generally enjoys only the same popularity rating. This becomes even clearer when the poll asks people who they would prefer as president and no one except Chavez receives close to 30% support. Some might argue that all opposition candidates together receive a higher popularity rating than Chavez. However, this is a phony calculation because it is quite possible that some voters could vote for Chavez if their first choice is not an option as presidential candidate.

What one can conclude from this polling data, if it is accurate – an issue which must be seriously questioned – is that there are three sectors in Venezuelan society that enjoy 30-40% support: Chavez and his movement, the opposition, and a group known in Venezuela as “ni-ni” (neither one nor the other).

The second piece of evidence the opposition relies on for its claim of majority support is that its demonstrations attract large crowds. While this may have been true leading up to the April 2002 coup attempt and several other demonstrations afterwards, there seems to be a clear change of heart among opposition supporters. More recent opposition demonstrations, such as the one after the opposition first attempted to activate a recall referendum with signatures collected in February 2003, were significantly smaller than pro-Chavez demonstrations that took place the same week. As a result, the opposition has largely given up efforts to demonstrate its support via large-scale mobilizations. Recent pro-Chavez demonstrations, however, such as the one held on December 6th, have been able to fill the entire Avenida Bolivar, the widest and longest stretch of avenue in Caracas.

So, rather than rely on demonstrations as evidence for its support, the opposition is now relying on the signature campaign. As mentioned earlier, the opposition claims to have collected between 3.4 and 3.8 million signatures, while Chavista petition observers say the actual number is 1.9 million. However, mounting indirect evidence suggests that the actual figure is closer to the Chavista number instead of the opposition’s. First, and perhaps most suspicious, is that the opposition has delayed turning in the signatures to the electoral council (CNE) by two weeks now. The opposition says that the delay is due to its efforts to count and verify the signatures itself before turning them in to the CNE, as a protection against possible government fraud. Unfortunately, the opposition’s verification process could also be setting the stage for denying the CNE’s ruling, should it find that large numbers of the signatures are invalid. Also, if the pro-Chavez camp’s numbers are correct, this time could be used to forge signatures, so that the total turned in equals the number the opposition reported it collected from the different signature locations in the country.

The second reason for doubting the figures the opposition has provided is the somewhat odd signature collection pattern. The journalist Ernesto Villegas, relying on CNE sources, recently reported in the weekly newspaper Quinto Dia that the Chavista collection process was such that most of the signatures were collected during the first day and that in the subsequent three days the numbers collected dropped significantly. This is a pattern one would expect in any such process because the people who want to sign most would probably all do so during the first day. For each subsequent day it is more and more difficult to mobilize people because one has to mobilize more reluctant supporters. The opposition’s daily signature count, however, does not fit this pattern. Rather, while there was a peak on the first collection day (November 28), the numbers dropped significantly and expectedly on the second day (Saturday, 11/29) and then increased again on the third and fourth days. If one had observed an increase in attendance during the third and fourth days, then this might be explainable. However, all indications were (my own observations and photographic evidence) that there were hardly any lines at the signature collection tables on the second and third days.

Finally, the third reason for doubting the opposition’s figures is a taped telephone conversation (probably illegal, but an apparently common practice in all Venezuelan governments) between a former Attorney General and his son, both activists in the opposition camp. According to them, the US-funded opposition organization Sumate, which provided logistical support to the opposition during the signature drive, told opposition leaders during a confidential meeting that it had counted merely 1.9 million signatures – the number pro-Chavez observers also provided. Until now neither participant in the conversation has denied having held this phone conversation. As for the media, it has studiously ignored the existence of the tape.

So the false game of who has the majority continues. It is a false game in more than one sense. First, it is false because, as explained above, in all likelihood neither side has an absolute majority and who has the relative majority is difficult to tell definitively.[1] Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is a false game because in a representative democracy (and in a participative democracy too) all that counts is who has the majority on election day. Popularity before and after the election is technically irrelevant and should be so. Theorists of democracy had the wisdom long ago that a representative democracy could only be functional if it is the actual vote that counts and not the fluctuating popularity of elected representatives. It is unfortunate for Venezuela’s political culture that both sides in Venezuela’s political conflict have not recognized this and are playing the game of “I have the majority” between elections. Such claims will only weaken Venezuela’s political institutions in the long run and could very well lead to even more destructive conflict between the two sides in the short run.

[1] Though, I personally suspect Chavez now holds a relative majority. While lacking concrete data to prove this, just as everyone else, I have the impression that the opposition might have had a relative majority just before the coup attempt. However, with the coup attempt and the ruinous oil industry shut-down, the opposition has lost most of its political capital since then and now has less support among the population (perhaps 30% or less) than Chavez (perhaps around 40% or more).