electoral controversy in Venezuela: can elected officials campaign? (part 2)
As I explained in part 1 of this post, there is a bit of controversy surrounding the participation of high ranking Venezuelan public officials in the campaign for the upcoming legislative elections. As usual, Hugo Chávez is at the center of the debate, which revolves around differing interpretations of what is and is not permitted of elected officials. All sides agree that public officials have the right, under Venezuelan law, to participate in the elections, but Vicente Díaz, a member of the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral / CNE), claims that:
…regulation 6 of the Law of Electoral Procedures notes the difference between citizens and officials, since the latter cannot promote candidates or speak against another candidate while exercising their official duties.
…el reglamento número 6 de la Ley Orgánica de Procesos Electorales marca la diferencia entre los ciudadanos y los funcionarios, pues a estos últimos les exige que mientras estén en el ejercicio de sus funciones no puede promover candidatos ni hablar en contra de una opción.
The objection, therefore, is not to the participation, per se, but to a) the mixing of public duties and private campaigning and (especially) b) the use of state resources to carry out that campaigning. In this light, the response from the President of the CNE, Tibisay Lucena, is both redundant and insufficient. Pointing out that elected officials are entitled to participation in the electoral process does not acknowledge that there may be good reason to place special limits on their participation. Certainly Lucena would object if the President – for example – directed profits from the national oil company (PDVSA) to the campaign accounts of his party (PSUV). If so, then the real question is not whether limits should be in place, but where those limits should be drawn. In other words, to what extent – if at all – can an elected official utilize the privileges of their office for partisan benefit during an electoral campaign?
The obvious answer is not at all. This is a rather basic democratic principal. So Vicente Díaz seems to be in the right, here. The video he presented at his press conference (see part 1) shows Chavez clearly mixing campaign rhetoric in with his official duties. I agree that this crosses the line and it shouldn’t continue.
Beyond the mixing of public and private duties, Díaz accuses Chavez of abusing his access to state media outlets in order to showcase his party’s candidates. This would be an improper use of state resources. The example Díaz presented seems valid, but on its own it is not entirely damning. Perhaps Chavez “hijacked” that particular broadcast to introduce some PSUV candidates. Does that mean that he is pressuring state broadcasters to highlight or otherwise benefit PSUV candidates? Does it mean that managers at the various state TV and radio outlets are collaborating with the PSUV? The Globovisión clip of Díaz’s news conference doesn’t show that, but Roberto Silvers at Democracy News from Venezuela – in his response to part 1 of this post – points to allegations from Súmate that paint a broader pattern of abuse. According to Súmate, Chavez “has spoken for [an average of] four hours each day on state media” for each of the first fifteen days of the campaign. Súmate breaks down those 63 hours, and it’s worth looking at the details.
First, however, a note on Súmate, which is a non-governmental organization that packs some heavy baggage. As is often the case, the Wikipedia entry is a good place to start for the uninitiated. (The brevity of Wikipedia’s spanish language entry surprised me. Click the logo for Súmate’s own website.) I think it’s fair to say that most observers would acknowledge that Súmate, for better or worse, carries a prejudice against the Chávez administration. I’m not saying that this invalidates its observations or critiques. It does suggest, however, that we should approach their claims with some caution and seek to independently verify their data when possible.
Sixteen of the 63 hours noted by Súmate were comprised of coverage of 8 separate “caravans (caravanas)” (in 7 different states) in which Chávez appeared with PSUV candidates. This means 2 hours of coverage for each caravan – but those 2 hours are the aggregate of the coverage on 5 different outlets (Venezolana de Televisión [VTV], Asamblea Nacional Televisión [ANTV], Vive TV, Ávila TV y Radio Nacional de Venezuela [RNV]). So that means an average of 24 minutes of coverage on each station. That’s 1 minute for every hour of the day. To be fair, some or all of these outlets may not broadcast 24 hours per day, so I’ll say 90 seconds every hour for a 16 hour broadcast day. In terms of sheer amount of time, this is not an overwhelming number. It’s not inconceivable to think that National Public Radio (NPR) [I’m following Roberto’s useful contextualization here] might average 90 seconds of coverage per hour, on some days, for a US president’s public appearances. (For example, here’s a 3 minute clip from Weekend Edition.) It’s also important to point out that Ávila TV is a regional station, so whichever portion of the total 2 hours is attributed to that outlet was not available outside of Caracas. While this remains a serious charge, we are not talking about blanket coverage of these campaign events. Súmate’s press release also leaves out important contextualizing information. Do the 2 hours of coverage refer to only those moments when Chávez is “speaking”, or to the length of the programming segments (including commentary, other speakers, etc.)? What portion of those 2 hours is directly concerned with campaigning? And – crucially – what amount of coverage do opposition parties and candidates receive on those same outlets? Answers to these questions would help us to evaluate the severity of the charges.
As for the rest of the 63 total hours of coverage over 15 days, 39 of them were comprised of 13 presidential speeches, apparently carried in their entirety. The remaining 8 hours were also presidential speeches (4 of them, also apparently in their entirety), but these were carried in cadena nacional, meaning that all national broadcast and cable outlets were legally required to preempt their programming in order to air them. I’ll return to the issue of the cadena below. For now, let’s note Súmate’s acknowledgement that these:
…were speeches pertaining to his duties as chief of State; however, in some of them he also campaigned, since he promoted PSUV candidates for the National Assembly and pronounced himself against the opposition.
… fueron alocuciones propias de su investidura como jefe de Estado; sin embargo, en algunas de ellas también hizo campaña electoral, ya que promovió a los candidatos a diputados por el PSUV a la Asamblea Nacional y se pronunció en contra de la oposición
I’ve already said that promoting candidates during official speeches crosses the line and shouldn’t occur. But it’s worth asking here, too, how much time Chavez actually spent promoting PSUV candidates during these 47 hours. If he mentions the presence of PSUV candidates at the beginning of a 2 hour speech, should we really count the entire 2 hours as illegitimate use of state resources? And if Chavez introduces PSUV candidates, does that really provide evidence that the state media outlets are conspiring to determine the outcome of the elections? Moreover, what does it mean to count Chavez “pronouncing himself against the opposition” as campaigning? Does anybody in Venezuela not yet know that Hugo Chavez is against the opposition? (Isn’t that the whole reason it’s called the opposition?) Can any president, anywhere, speak in favor of a public policy without pronouncing themselves to be “against the opposition” to that policy? US presidents certainly do this all the time during campaigns. Again, a more detailed analysis on Súmate’s part would help us to gauge the true severity of these charges.
That said, I expect that there is little that can be said to redeem Chavez’s overuse of the cadena nacional. As I mentioned, the cadena is a legal provision that requires all national broadcast and cable outlets to pre-empt their programming and air a government feed. My understanding is that this was initially intended for special events of national importance, like a state of the nation address, or emergency broadcasts. Chavez’s repeated use of this privilege (going back many years) in order to transmit rather unexceptional speeches seems to be a clear-cut abuse. The cadena limits consumer choice and harms commercial outlets who can not charge for advertising during the pre-empted time. As such, it’s use should require thorough justification.
In sum, the CNE has brushed aside Díaz’s complaints too quickly and without properly substantiating its reasoning. At the same time, Díaz’s charges, especially as amplified by Súmate, are probably not as severe as they are made out to be. Upon further inspection, much of Súmate’s rhetoric appears to be based on incomplete and questionable presentations of the evidence. This does not mean that the charges are entirely invalid, however, and the use of the cadena, especially, should be investigated. Ideally, both the CNE and the National Telecommunications Commission (Comisión Nacional de Telecomunicaciones / CONATEL) would carry out these investigations, but that is highly unlikely. It also seems highly unlikely, however, that the results of an impartial investigation would yield evidence of abuse significant enough to impact the electoral process. As usual, the Chavez administration is walking a fine line, and as usual I find myself wishing that it operated more cautiously. The opposition is going to continue attacking the government on free speech issues, but there’s no reason that the government has to fuel that fire. There’s also no reason, however, to think that what’s going on in Venezuela’s current electoral campaign is a good example of dictatorial behavior on the part of Chavez.
In part 3 of this post, I’ll look into the legal basis surrounding this issue. What, exactly, does Venezuelan law say about the participation of state officials and the use of state media in electoral campaigns?