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electoral controversy in Venezuela: can elected officials campaign? (part 2d)

September 27, 2010

[This is the fifth installment of this article. You may wish to read Part 1 Part 1, Part 2 , Part 2b and/or Part 2c before proceeding.]

First, congratulations to the Venezuelans for what was, by all accounts, a peaceful and orderly election. Hopefully we will see results very soon.

This post concludes my response to Fransisco Suárez, who responded to Part 2 on behalf of Súmate. The final section of Francisco’s comment reads:

3) In the following lines you will find some of the express legal provisions that forbid the presidential campaign for the legislative body. Please do note that the Venezuelan constitutional system may vary form yours. This means that what may be permissible to your President, may not be to ours. That is why comparisons with your official presentations may be out of context. Indeed our president does not lose it’s political rights in acceding to public office, but the latter situation certainly diminishes them. It is in purity absolutely logical that when you accede to the public office, you cease to represent your political party and begin to represent your whole nation. This of course does not preclude him to have a political opinion, but it certainly precludes him from campaigning for a political party when he does not participate as a candidate (as for example, reelection). In such a context, Chavez campaign is clearly unconstitutional, and even more when it uses state owned media and its privileges as President to overwhelm the campaign coverage. For more information, you are welcome to enter our website and read our “informes” for each election in which we denounce what we call “ventajismo electoral”.

There seem to be two concerns here. The first is that a comparison of Venezuela to the United States is invalid, given their distinct legal contexts. The second is that I am misinterpreting the Venezuelan legal context. I’ll address these in reverse order:

I don’t think the idea of ceasing to represent one’s party when elected to public office is as purely and absolutely logical as Fransisco has it. As I indicated in Part 2, US Presidents continue to raise funds for their parties even as they hold office. My understanding of the British and Israeli systems (though not necessarily all parliamentary systems), is that the Prime Minister continues to lead the party even as (s)he leads the government.

That said, I acknowledge that these are comparisons to entirely distinct constitutional systems, so it may be that while complete separation from partisan activity is not “absolutely logical” it is nonetheless required in the Venezuelan system. Indeed, Francisco states that Hugo Chávez is constitutionally precluded “from campaigning for a political party when he does not participate as a candidate”. I admit that I thought this untrue, based on the Venezuelan News Agency (Agencia Venezolana de Noticias / AVN) article that I cited in my original post. Here’s what Vicente Díaz, the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral / CNE) member who raised the objection in the first place, had to say about Chávez’s participation:

…the law is permissive because it should absolutely bar high ranking public officials from participating in election campaigns. “But the law allows it”[, said Díaz.]“

…la ley es permisiva porque debería excluir la participación absoluta de los funcionarios públicos de alto rango en las campañas electorales. “Pero la ley lo permite”[, dijó Díaz.]

So I thought this issue had been decided. Nonetheless, I had already acknowledged that a discussion of the specifically relevant Venezuelan laws was in order and I had promised that in the third part of this article. So I’ll discuss this issue further, as planned, in that post.

Regarding Francisco’s other concern, comparing Venezuela to the US, or any country to any other, is indeed problematic because the legal environments are distinct. What’s permitted in one country may be prohibited in another. My reference to political practices in the US, however, was not meant to decide the legality of Chávez’s behavior, but to place it in a context familiar to one important segment of my intended audience: English-speaking US citizens.

Venezuela gets little play in the mainstream US media. When it does make the headlines, it often has to do with a particularly bombastic Chávez statement against the “Yankee empire”. In other cases Venezuela is linked to narcotics trafficking and guerrilla or terrorist movements. Just last week headlines across the country told readers that a US couple had been caught trying to sell nuclear secrets to Venezuela. As Federico Fuentes has pointed out, however, “not a single Venezuelan, let alone a Venezuelan government representative, was involved”. Coverage of yesterday’s elections, meanwhile, is often no better than the Miami Herald article that ran in McClatchy papers around the country (potentially 30 daily newspapers in 15 states) last week. The framing of the article leaves the impression that the Chávez administration is nothing more than a gerrymandering, vote-buying, and corrupt monstrosity. It uses two to three times as many quotes from speakers opposed to Chávez, but fails to offer much evidence. What evidence it does offer is not well contextualized. Take, for example, this quote:

…it will only take 20,000 votes to elect a congressman in the Chávez-friendly state of Amazonas, it will take 400,000 votes to elect one in the opposition stronghold of Zulia…

There may be some representational imbalance in these numbers, but there’s no way to know without much more information. For example, the article does not make clear that Amazonas is a much more sparsely populated state than Zulia. Given the tension between population and statehood as the basis for federal representation (which led to the bicameral system in the US), there may be good reason for the winning representative in Amazonas to need fewer votes than the winner from Zulia. In the US, it makes perfect sense to say something like “…it will only take 200,000 votes to elect a Senator in the Obama-friendly state of Rhode Island, but it will take 4,000,000 votes to elect one in the opposition stronghold of Texas.” Of course, that wouldn’t work for Representatives to the House, but understanding the context is crucial. The Herald article, however, implies that those numbers prove the charge of gerrymandering without explaining their significance. In sum, the article presents considerable judgment and very little substance for debate.

My comparisons of the Venezuelan and US cases is part of an effort to provide a US audience with greater critical analysis of Venezuelan communications policy than that offered by the mainstream English-language press in the United States. I think such comparisons are useful in that regard.

Nonetheless, Venezuelan public officials must be judged according to Venezuelan laws. I’ll discuss those laws – finally! – in the next part of this article.

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