Monthly Archives: April 2013

Paraguay 2013

Presidential, congressional and gubernatorial elections were held in Paraguay on April 21, 2013. The President of Paraguay is elected for a non-renewable five-year term by direct universal suffrage. Like almost all countries in Latin America, Paraguay is a presidential republic. The Congress is composed of two chambers, the Chamber of Deputies (Cámara de Diputados) and the Chamber of Senators (Cámara de Senadores). The Chamber of Deputies is made up of 80 members elected by proportional representation in each of Paraguay’s 18 departments. The Senate is made up of 45 senators elected by proportional representation in a single national constituency.

Background: Paraguay’s Unique History

Paraguay has long been one of the poorest, least developed and most isolated countries in Latin America. Since the country gained independence from Spain in 1811, Paraguay has not been blessed in terms of leadership; its history has been a succession of civilian or military autocrats, corrupt short-lived nonentities, coups, unstable regimes and idiosyncratic dictators. With only a handful of exceptions, none of these leaders showed the faintest interest in major social reforms and allowed the inegalitarian status quo to endure.

Between 1813 and 1840, Paraguay was ruled by José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, the first in a series of peculiar dictators which have marked the country’s history. An ardent nationalist and shrewd politician, Francia sought to safeguard the young nation’s independence against its powerful Brazilian and Argentine neighbours. When other South American nations turned to the outside world for trade and economic development, Paraguay looked inwards – promoting economic self-sufficiency and shielding the country from foreign influence by nearly sealing off the country from foreign powers (nobody was allowed to leave the country, and import/export were controlled to a bare minimum). Francia was also a utopian revolutionary, who might have been described as a socialist or communist had those terms existed in the early nineteenth century. Francia loathed the Catholic Church and the white European (peninsulares) landowning elite. His extremely protectionist policies ruined exporters of tobacco and yerba maté, who tended to be white Spanish hacendados. He also banned marriages between Europeans, a policy which likely contributed to Paraguay’s current ethnic makeup: over 70% of the population is mestizo (mixed race) and a plurality of the population speaks Guaraní, an indigenous language, rather than Spanish as their first language. Francia also seized land from the Church and the landowning elites, so that the state owned most of the land in the country and distributed homesteads to individual families. On the other hand, Francia ruled as ruthless supreme dictator who had control over every aspect of social and political life in the country. Francia’s opponents were arbitrarily detained, persecuted, interned, tortured or murdered. Free speech and dissent was forbidden.

After Francia’s death in 1840, Carlos Antonio López eventually became Paraguay’s new dictator, ruling between 1841 and his death in 1862. Francia, despite being the stereotypical Orwellian Big Brother autocrat, was selfless and ruled honestly. Antonio López, however, was a despot who wanted to found a dynasty and ran Paraguay as his own personal fiefdom – he became one of the largest and wealthiest landowners in the country. Antonio López distrusted foreigners as well, but he loosened Francia’s nationalistic restrictions. To build up the country’s infrastructure including railroads and telegraphs, he invited European engineers, physicians and investors. At the same time, he was not as shrewd a diplomat as Francia. He went to war with Argentina’s Juan Manuel Rosas and allowed controversies and disputes with Brazil and Argentina to smolder. After his death, he was succeeded by his son Francisco Solano López, one of the most disastrous rulers in world history.

Francisco Solano López, President of Paraguay between 1862 and 1869, one of the most disastrous rulers in Latin American history

Francisco Solano López was a bloodthirsty paranoid tyrant, who silenced opposition and brutishly cracked down on anybody he suspected of opposing him (including his mother and siblings). Having been sent to Europe by his father to buy weapons, he returned with megalomaniac ambitions and with an Irish lover (Elisa Alicia Lynch). He built up the country’s military before provoking a war with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay (all at once) in 1864-1865. Even his large military was no match for the combined strength of Brazil and Argentina, and the conflict proved disastrous for Paraguay. Nevertheless, because the conflict became a war of attrition fought on Paraguayan territory, the war lasted until 1869-1870. Solano López turned cuckoo by the end of the war, and the conflict ended only when Solano López himself was killed in the jungle in 1870 (the capital, Asunción, fell in early 1869). The conflict was a savage butchery, proportionally one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history – over half of Paraguay’s population died in the conflict, either directly through the fighting or because of disease (including cholera). Despite his disastrous leadership and the high toll of the war on the country, Solano López is nowadays revered as a national hero in Paraguay – a man who fought, to the last man (literally), for the country’s independence.

Paraguayan politics after the war and Brazilian occupation were marked by a bitter partisan divide between the conservative Colorados and the Liberals. There were few ideological differences between both, and both parties became unstable motleys of factions. The Colorados, like fellow Conservative parties in Latin America, tended to be protectionist, autocratic and clerical. The Liberals tended to support free trade, classical liberalism and some Liberals sincerely supported democracy. In Paraguay, the Colorados tended to be more closely tied to the old Solano López regime and many of its leaders had served under his government; while most Liberals had been opponents of the Lopizta regime. Any sincere desires for democracy were quickly thrown out the door, politics degenerated into factionalism, cronyism and intrigue.

The Colorados ruled between 1878 and 1904, under a succession of ineffective Presidents who often tended to be puppets for feuding factional bosses (oftentimes military officers) in the Colorado Party. Desperate for cash, the Colorados dismantled Francia’s vast state holdings and sold much of this land to foreigners or fellow Colorado politicians in large lots. Peasants were forced to vacate the land, and most of the country’s land were owned by a small elite of a hundred or so landowners. In 1904, the Liberals – heading a ragtag bunch of Colorado dissidents, idealistic reformers and opportunistic Liberals – seized power in a coup (backed by Argentina) in 1904.

The Liberals ruled between 1904 and 1936, an era marked by major political instability as successive Liberal Presidents were victims of factional conflicts with other Liberals or Colorados. Under Liberal rule, social conditions – already marginal – deteriorated further as a handful of landowners exercised feudal control over the countryside. A nationalist conflict with neighbouring Bolivia (which, like Paraguay, had already lost a war to a stronger regional power – Chile) allowed lingering social tensions to smolder in the 1930s. Bolivia, seeking an access to the Paraguay River to gain a river port, moved to invade the Gran Chaco – a sparsely populated arid desert region under nominal Paraguayan sovereignty. In 1928, the two countries came close to war but the Liberal government in Asunción backed off – much to the anger of young nationalists, eager for political regeneration and social reform.

War with Bolivia finally broke out in 1932, and the Paraguayans pushed the numerically superior Bolivians to the verge of surrender by 1933, but the Liberal President agreed to a truce which allowed the Bolivians to regroup and prolong the war until July 1935, at which point Paraguay won the war. Although Paraguay won the war, the civilian government’s utter incompetence and ineptitude at managing the conflict inflamed public opinion in the country and led to a military coup in February 1936. The revolutionaries promised social and political changes, and brought a popular nationalist and reformist officer, Rafael Franco, to power. Like similar revolutionary movements in the continent during this time period, the febrerista revolutionaries had some genuine interest in social justice, land reform or workers’ rights; but they generally lacked a clear direction and land reform was never ambitious (read: threatening to landowners and foreign interests). Furthermore, Rafael Franco soon demonstrated authoritarian tendencies which alarmed some of his younger and more idealist supporters. Franco and the febrerista regime proved short lived – the military overthrew him in August 1937. Franco’s coalition was very diverse, lacked a solid base of support and he had alienated most of his erstwhile supporters while pleasing nobody.

The Liberals were restored to power, but nationalist febrerista sentiments were not dead for that matter. In 1939, the Liberals picked General José Estigarribia, the hero of the Chaco war, as the next President. Estigarribia began a land reform project, reopened the university, balanced the budget, financed the public debt, implemented monetary reforms, drew up plans for public works projects and adopted a new constitution (in 1940) which expanded the powers of the executive. Estigarribia, however, died in airplane crash in September 1940 and he was succeeded by Higinio Moríñigo, a more conservative military officer. Moríñigo was the choice of the Liberal old guard which never liked Estigarribia, but Moríñigo – a cunning leader – outmaneuvered the eternally incompetent civilian politicians and established his own authoritarian regime, which unofficially sided with Germany during World War II.

Civil war erupted in 1947, between Moríñigo’s Colorado supporters and an unlikely coalition of Febreristas, Liberals and communists led by Franco. Moríñigo came out victorious, but only because of the Colorados and their military supporters. The Colorados, led by a hardliner, finally returned to power themselves in 1948 after “elections” and a coup to preemptively remove Moríñigo lest he had something up his sleeve. The Colorados had successfully used Moríñigo by allying to his regime for a while before dumping him and taking power for themselves, with the consent of the military.

The new Colorado President was overthrown in a coup led by the rival faction in the Colorado Party, and power shifted to the more ‘democratic’ and moderate faction. In the meantime, extreme unrest in the past two decades had taken their toll: the economy was in shambles and corruption remained widespread. The incumbent civilian President had alienated important factions of the Colorados and the military, resulting in yet another military coup in 1954. The coup was led and organized by General Alfredo Stroessner, who had been a leading Colorado commander in the 1947 civil war. The Colorados quickly endorsed Stroessner for the presidency, though they saw him as an interim placeholder until somebody closer to their tastes propped up. Yet, Stroessner would govern the country until 1989.

Alfredo Stroessner, Paraguay’s bloodthirsty dictator between 1954 and 1989

Stroessner was an astute leader in his own right, who was able to play the different factions of his party off against one another and maintain the support of the military. Yet, repression was a key factor in Stroessner’s longevity. He declared a state of siege which lasted, with one short exception, until 1970 in the countryside and until 1987 in the capital. Stroessner was initially in a weak position, both within the Colorado Party and with the wider population. A small guerrilla movement organized by Liberals and Febreristas festered, but Stroessner employed the state’s virtually unlimited power by giving his interior minister a free hand to brutally repress insurgency. After a halfhearted attempt at a democratic ‘opening’ in 1959 turned into chaos, Stroessner turned to the old ways.

Luckily for him, the situation gradually improved in his favour. The United States, under Johnson and Nixon, backed Stroessner (in the name of anticommunism) and he became one of Washington’s most dependable allies on the continent. The opposition was demoralized by years of defeats and oppression, and a number of Liberals chose to play along with Stroessner’s regime by becoming the legal (and loyal) ‘opposition’ force to the Colorados in an irrelevant legislature. Between 1978 and 1982, the construction of the Itaipú Dam on the Brazilian border (Brazil  contributed to a short-lived economic boom in Paraguay. Nevertheless, the economic boom proved short lived and did little to alleviate the poverty faced by so many Paraguayans. Many Paraguayans were forced to emigrate, to the point where some estimated that most Paraguayans were living outside the country. Under Stroessner, there was, naturally, not the slightest interest in land reform – the regime protected the interests of oligarchic landowners, controlled the weak labour movements and granted tax exemptions to foreign investors.

In the 1980s, Stroessner faced slightly tougher opposition. Under Domingo Laíno, a former congressman, some Liberals (known as the Authentic Liberal Radical Party, PLRA) became intransigent with the government, denouncing corruption, gross human rights violations and drug trafficking. The regime came under international fire for human rights abuses – Stroessner’s Paraguay was a key participation in Operation Condor in the 1970s and Stroessner’s secret police (the pyragüés) employed barbaric methods against opponents (the leader of the Communist Party was dismembered alive with a chainsaw with Stroessner listening in on the phone). Relations with Washington soured significantly after Carter’s election in 1976 and even Reagan maintained a certain distance from Stroessner’s thuggish regime. Even within the Colorado Party, there was growing opposition to Stroessner’s government – for example, in 1974, Stroessner arrested over a thousand party officials and then purged a large part of his party after a plot on his life was uncovered and showed that Colorado officials had provided information to guerrillas.

Stroessner was finally overthrown in a bloody military coup led by General Andrés Rodríguez. One reason for the coup was that the military feared that Stroessner’s sons would succeed him: one was a cocaine addict, the other was a homosexual. Rodríguez was later elected as President, for the Colorado Party, in a special election in 1989 which was the freest election in Paraguay up to that point. Under Rodríguez’s presidency, the country moved – slowly – towards democracy if not stability. The death penalty was abolished, repressive laws repealed, imprisoned leading members of the Stroessner government and adopted a new constitution in 1992.

In 1993, Juan Carlos Wasmosy – also of the Colorado Party – won 40% of the vote against 32% for Domingo Laíno (PLRA). Wasmosy’s term turned out to be a disaster. His attempts to apply Pinochet’s Chilean economic reforms to Paraguay failed given that Paraguay’s economy was nothing like Chile’s economy. His administration was also marked by rife corruption and nepotism, as Wasmosy used his office to enrich himself and his relatives. In April 1996, Wasmosy was almost overthrown in a military coup led by General Lino Oviedo, who had always been a bit insane (to say the least).

Lino Oviedo, found innocent by an appeals court in 1997, won the Colorado Party’s presidential nomination for the 1998 elections, to which Wasmosy responded by placing Oviedo under house arrest. Only a month before the election, a court finally sentenced Oviedo to ten years in jail for his role in the 1996 election. His running mate and close ally Raúl Cubas continued the campaign in his stead and won the presidency, with 55% of the vote against 44% for Domingo Laíno. Immediately upon taking office, Cubas pardoned Oviedo, who was immediately released from jail and became the new strongman of Paraguayan politics. However, the Supreme Court didn’t like Cubas’ decision to pardon Oviedo and ordered Oviedo to be sent back to jail, but Cubas picked a fight with the court and refused to send Oviedo back to jail.

In March 1999, Vice President Luis María Argaña – an anti-Oviedo leader within the Colorados – was assassinated (probably) by Oviedo’s men, likely with Cubas’ involvement. Argaña’s assassination set off bloody riots the next day, in which snipers killed seven anti-Oviedo demonstrators. These bloody riots, known as El Marzo Paraguayo, led to Cubas’ impeachment by the lower house and the President’s resignation on March 28. He was succeeded by the President of the Senate Luis Ángel González Macchi, also known as an anti-oviedista within the Colorado Party. The loss of political power sent Oviedo into exile, in Argentina and later in Brazil.

González Macchi’s term, which lasted until the 2003 election, was as disastrous as previous administrations: an inept and incompetent government, massive and endemic corruption at the highest echelons of powers and an economic crisis. Nicanor Duarte, another Colorado politician, won the 2003 election, with 38% against 25% for the Liberal candidate. Duarte’s administration proved more successful than past administrations, as the country enjoyed solid economic growth under his presidency – although social spending remained extremely low. Nevertheless, he was relatively unpopular because of factional conflicts in his party, a conflict with the media, a number of corruption cases and a controversial (unsuccesful) attempt to amend the constitution to allow him to run for reelection.

The 2008 presidential election was a decisive election. After 60 years in power, the Colorado Party was finally defeated – by a left-wing alliance supported by the PLRA. Fernando Lugo, a Catholic bishop who had supported Liberation Theology, won 41% of the vote against 31% for Blanca Ovelar, the Colorado candidate and 22% for Lino Oviedo, who had returned from exile in 2004 and founded his own party – the National Union of Ethical Citizens (UNACE).

Lugo had an ambitious agenda, which included land reform (most land in Paraguay is still in the hands of a select few), major social reforms and investments into health and education. While Lugo was able to accomplish a few things, including a treaty with Brazil in which Brasilia agreed to triple the amount it pays for Paraguayan electricity produced at the Itaipú dam. His government also significantly increased healthcare spending, and reformed the system to ensure free access to healthcare for the entire population. However, Lugo found himself frustrated in accomplishing his goals. His original electoral victory owed a lot to his alliance with the Liberals, who unsurprisingly had little appetite for the more leftist parts of Lugo’s agenda. Besides the PLRA, he had only a small handful of supporters in Congress.

In 2009, his popularity took a hit when it was revealed that he had fathered several illegitimate children during his time as a bishop. His presidency got bogged down in handling the fallout from that case. He took a personal hit with a cancer diagnosis in 2010.

By 2012, the Liberals had abandoned Lugo’s left-wing coalition and teamed up with the Colorados in opposition, looking for an excuse to remove Lugo from office. They found that excuse in June 2012, following a botched police operation to evict landless farmers. A few days later, on the account of “poor performance”, both houses of Congress voted quasi-unanimously to impeach Lugo. There was nothing illegal or unconstitutional in the way in which he was removed from office. However, one can easily argue that he was removed from office on flimsy grounds and the impeachment process was a farce. The debate lasted a mere two hours, and the main charge against Lugo was “poor performance” – which is hardly grounds for impeachment. Removed from office, Lugo was replaced by his ertswhile Vice President, Federico Franco, a Liberal. Lugo did not put up resistance, although his mood did go from resignation on the day of to feistiness a few days later, when he denounced a coup.

The controversial impeachment created a diplomatic crisis and threw Paraguay into a diplomatic purgatory. Brazil and Argentina, whose respective heads of state had generally been close allies of Lugo, condemned the impeachment as a ‘parliamentary coup’ and suspended Paraguay’s membership in Mercosur, the regional trade bloc. Along with other countries – including the leftist governments of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela but also conservative Chile and Colombia – they did not recognize the new government, making Franco a bit of a regional/international pariah.

Notwithstanding his weak legitimacy and his diplomatic isolation, Franco did manage to make the best out of the situation and proved to be a surprisingly competent President. In a country with a reputation as a safe haven for smugglers, drug traffickers and counterfeiters, Franco managed to create Paraguay’s first income tax. The country’s tax burden, 13.5% of GDP, is one of the lowest in the region and in the world, and the current taxation system is regressive with most taxes coming from consumption. The new income tax, set at 10%, only applies for incomes 120 times greater than the minimum wage; although it will progressively come down to all incomes 36 times greater than the minimum wage by 2018. Franco also granted land titles to rural squatters and bought private holdings to sell on easy terms to those without plots. A new law from September 2012 will dedicate around $40 million of revenues from the Itaipú dam to developing information technology in schools. Lugo had already started a ‘One Laptop Per Child’ scheme in schools nationwide with the help of a local NGO.

However, Franco has faced criticism – mostly from Lugo and the left – for allowing global giants Monsanto and Rio Tinto back into the country after Lugo’s government had resisted global corporations. Lugo said that Franco was merely the powerless pawn of multinationals and capital.

Candidates and Issues

The Colorado Party (officially: National Republican Association-Colorado Party, ANR-PC) candidate was Horacio Cartes, a 56-year old businessman who owns the Grupo Cartes, a large and powerful business conglomerate which includes Tabacalera del Este, Paraguay’s largest cigarette manufacturer, as well as beverage, banking, agricultural, transportation and trading interests. Cartes also owns Club Libertad, a large football club in Asunción which reached the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores in 2006. His father was Cessna’s representative in Paraguay and Cartes studied aeronautical engineering in the United States, where he briefly worked for Cessna in Oklahoma and Kansas.

Cartes is a controversial figure who carries a fair bit of baggage. In 1989, Cartes was imprisoned for seven months on charges of currency fraud but he was later cleared by a court. In 2000, police seized a plane carrying cocaine and marijuana on his ranch, he has defended himself saying the plane was forced to land because of mechanical problems and he had nothing to do with it. More recently, a leaked 2010 US State Department cable linked Cartes to a money laundering operation tied to drug trafficking. The cable said that his organization is suspected of laundering large quantities of US dollars generated through illegal means, including through the sale of narcotics to the US. There are also allegations that he made much of his fortune in cigarette smuggling, Paraguay having a reputation of being a old haven for smugglers. He defends himself on these counts by arguing that US investigations never turned up anything. Finally, investigative journalists recently found out that directors of a Paraguyan bank owned by Cartes had set up a ‘fake’ bank (no building or staff) in the Cook Islands in 1995.

Late in the campaign, Cartes made headlines and attracted some controversy when he called homosexuals ‘monkeys’ and said that he would shoot himself “in the balls” if his son was gay.

Cartes’ campaign focused on ‘change’ and very vague promises of fighting corruption, upgrading infrastructures, creating jobs, attracting foreign investment and business-friendly economic policies. Cartes presented himself as a businessman and political neophyte, untainted by the Colorado Party’s history and corrupt past. Indeed, he is quite the newcomer in politics: even his interest in politics is new – he voted for the first time in his life in this election – and he only joined the Colorados in 2009. Cartes’ actual platform seemed fairly devoid of substance and specifics. The Economist noted that the “Colorados’ plans seem to consist of a PowerPoint presentation listing roads, ports, airports and public transport to be built that goes far beyond what even the best-governed country could manage in just five years.”

The general gist of his platform appears to be business-friendly conservatism, which discusses the need to reform Paraguay’s bloated, indebted, corrupt and inefficient public system and huge web of public enterprises. Like the Liberals, the Colorados have said that they support a “Chilean model” for economic growth, which shows that Paraguayan politicians have yet to understand that Paraguay isn’t Chile.

The Liberal (PLRA) candidate was Efraín Alegre, a Senator and former public works minister under Lugo’s presidency. Alegre was the candidate of the Paraguay Alegre coalition, a ramshackle alliance which includes the Liberals and three smaller centre-left parties, including the Democratic Progressive Party, the party of Alegre’s running mate Rafael Filizzola.

Alegre’s platform was very similar to Cartes’: both are right-of-centre pro-business candidates, who both support reforming Paraguay’s public sector and promoting a “Chilean” model for economic growth. One of Alegre’s main proposals was to boost private investments in the public sector and private-public partnerships (although he opposed full privatizations), for example he said that he would offer concessions to the private sector to run airports, riverways and highways. The Liberal candidate also proposed to issue more debt abroad to finance infrastructure, a policy begun by Franco in January when the country organized its first bond issues in international markets.

In early February, Lino Oviedo – the insane coupist general who won 22.7% in the 2008 presidential election – died in a helicopter crash, abruptly ending his presidential candidacy. He was replaced by his nephew, Lino Oviedo Sánchez. Alegre, the underdog in the race against Cartes, was eager to make up lost ground and he negotiated a corrupt bargain with Oviedo Sánchez and his family’s party, the National Union of Ethical Citizens (UNACE), which is a rather hilarious name for a corrupt nepotistic party. Lino Oviedo Sánchez, who was polling about 6-8%, dropped out of the race (although his name remained on the ballot) in early April and endorsed Alegre. In exchange, if Alegre won, he would serve as minister of defense; UNACE deputy Fabiola Oviedo, Lino Oviedo’s daughter, would be minister of women and the then-President of the Senate Jorge Oviedo Matto (no relation to the Oviedo family) would be interior minister. A fairly run-of-the-mill electoral alliance, even if it was with a corrupt shell like UNACE. There was, however, another side to this deal. A few days before the Liberal-UNACE alliance was sealed, the incumbent Liberal government bought lands which belonged to Senator Oviedo Matto’s father. The Colorados, even if they are hardly in a position to give lessons on ethics, decried a corrupt bargain and maneuvered to remove Oviedo Matto from the presidency of the Senate. Although a Colorado-led impeachment motion failed on April 11 (all but one Liberal and two Colorados voted against), Oviedo Matto was nonetheless compelled to resign on April 16 (the Colorados apparently had a sufficient majority to impeach him by then). His successor as President of the Senate, Liberal deputy speaker Alfredo Jaeggli (the rogue Liberal vote against Oviedo Matto), was accused of fraudulent land sales in 2008 when he tried to sell land he didn’t even possess to the government. The Liberals and Colorados are not only ideologically similar, they’re also ethically similar: both are corrupt.

Both the Colorados and Liberals are venal, self-interested parties largely devoid of any ideological coherence or partisan unity. Both parties have been a complex mess of factions and competing corrupt politicians for over a hundred years now, and things have hardly changed. Alegre faced a group of Liberal dissidents who disapproved of his candidacy and did their best to scuttle his candidacy. Recently, these PLRA dissidents accused Alegre of fraud dating from the time when he was public works minister; they allege that he paid 3.3 billion guaraníes (about $US 813,000) for public works which never took place, the government never recovered the money.

Late in the campaign, both the Colorado and Liberal parties were shaken up by a rather bizarre scandal involving vote buying (widespread in Paraguay). Colorado Senator Silvio Ovelar was videotaped negotiating a vote buying deal with a local Liberal cacique who ‘controls’ 200 voters. Ovelar offered 100,000 guaraníes ($US 24) for each vote for the Colorados and for every voter dissuaded from voting for the Liberals. The whole affair took an even more bizarre twist when both parties justified themselves, trying to come off as holier-than-thou whistle-blowers who bravely denounced the other side’s dirty tricks. Ovelar said that he had secretly recorded the meeting to denounce the Liberal’s vote-buying, the Liberals said that Ovelar was the guy buying votes and that they set up the camera to trap Ovelar.

The left, already weak on its own, was divided between two candidates: Mario Ferreiro and Anibal Carrillo. Ferreiro, a journalist, was the candidate of the Avanza Paíscoalition. This alliance includes the Revolutionary Febrerista Party – the remnants of the febrerista revolutionary movement from 1936 – and smaller left-wing parties. Anibal Carrillo was the candidate of the Frente Guasú, Lugo’s left-wing coalition which includes the Communists and the Partido País Solidario, whose leader (a former interior minister) is the cousin of Alegre’s running mate. Fernando Lugo was the Frente Guasú‘s top candidate for the Senate.

The Paraguayan left is very weak, especially when compared to neighboring Brazil, Uruguay or Bolivia where the left is in a dominant position. The left was massacred under Stroessner’s dictatorship, which was able to destroy both the political left and any revolutionary labour movements. Unlike Brazil, Argentina or Chile, Paraguay has no large unionized urban-working-class which is often the first base of new left-wing socialist parties in Latin America. Agriculture remains an important employer in Paraguay, while industrialization is relatively limited. Secondly, although most Paraguayans speak a native language (Guaraní) as their first language rather than Spanish, there is large historically disadvantaged and oppressed indigenous population in the country, a factor which has been a driving force between the rise of the left in Bolivia and, arguably, Peru.

Other candidates included Miguel Carrizosa of the Beloved Fatherland Party, a right-wing party founded by conservative businessman Pedro Fadul who won 21.3% of the vote in the 2003 presidential election but only a bit over 2% in 2008.

Results and aftermath

Turnout was 68.57%, up from 65.6% in the 2008 election. Provisional results, for 99.26% of precincts in the presidential race, are available on the TSJE’s website here. Certified results are still unavailable.

President

Horacio Cartes (ANR-Colorado) 45.80%
Efraín Alegre (PLRA) 36.94%
Mario Ferreiro (Avanza País) 5.88%
Anibal Carrillo (Frente Guasú) 3.32%
Miguel Carrizosa (PPQ) 1.13%
Lino Oviedo Sánchez (UNACE) 0.8%
Roberto Ferreira (Humanist) 0.17%
Lilian Soto (Movimiento Kuña Pyrenda) 0.16%
Eduardo “Coco” Arce (Workers’ Party) 0.12%
Ricardo Martín Almada (White Party) 0.11%
Atanasio Galeano (Free Country) 0.1%

Senate (seat counts from ABC.py)

ANR-Colorado 35.76% winning 19 seats (+4)
PLRA 24.36% winning 12 seats (-2)
Frente Guasú 9.59% winning 5 seats (+3)
Democratic Progressive Party 6.22% winning 3 seats (+2)
Avanza País 4.99% winning 2 seats (+2)
UNACE 3.77% winning 2 seats (-7)
National Encounter Party 3.37% winning 1 seat (+1)
Beloved Fatherland Party 1.94% winning 1 seat (-3)
Youth Party 1.2% winning 0 seats (nc)
All others below 1%

Chamber of Deputies

ANR-Colorado 44 seats (+10)
PLRA 26 seats (-3)
UNACE 2 seats (-9)
Avanza País 2 seats (+2)
National Encounter Party 2 seats (+2)
Beloved Fatherland Party 1 seat (-3)
Frente Guasú 1 seat (nc)
Alianza Pasión Chaqueña 1 seat (+1)
Democratic Progressive Party 0 seats (-1)
to be allocated 1 seat

paraguay46

Horacio Cartes, the Colorado Party candidate and the favourite for most of the campaign, was elected with a comfortable majority over his closest rival, Efraín Alegre, the candidate backed by the governing Liberals. The Colorados, who had dominated Paraguayan politics since 1948, had lost the presidency in the 2008 election. But five years later, the Colorados are back in control. Obvious parallels may be drawn to the Mexican elections last year, in which the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – which had ruled since 1929 until being kicked out in 2000 – returned to power. There are, however, differences between the two situations. The main one is that Horacio Cortes is the epitome of a political neophyte, a businessman with little known ties to old politicians in the Colorado Party. Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s priista President since 2012, was, however, a career politician when he ran for office and he is well connected to prominent old politicians in the PRI. The second difference is that the PRI changed, fairly significantly (although many would beg to differ) not only since 2000 but since the 1980s. The PRI since the 1980s has become far more of a technocratic party, with some autocratic inklings, and since 2000 one could argue that the PRI has ‘cleaned itself up’ somewhat. On the other hand, there is little proof that the Colorados have changed all that much in the past five years – everything indicates that they have retained their old ways.

The Colorados tend to start out with a structural advantage in Paraguayan elections. Even if they lost power in 2008, the party retains a huge membership base – up to a quarter of the population is said to be a member of the Colorado Party- and it has a well-oiled electoral machine. The Colorados also benefited from their opponents’ blunders. The left, as aforementioned, is very weak in Paraguay. Although Lugo was generally well regarded as President, many also judged his government to be quite inefficient. As a result, there was very little popular outrage to his impeachment by Congress in June 2012, in stark contrast to the international outrage which ensued. Secondly, while Lugo’s successor Federico Franco did accomplish a few positive things while in office, he does not leave office particularly popular. A number of corruption cases, first and foremost the dubious land deals with the UNACE’s Jorge Oviedo Matto, have cast a dark cloud over his presidency.

The alliance between the Liberals and the UNACE did not have the expected outcome. To begin with, the circumstances in which the deal was signed (land deal) hurt Alegre’s candidacy considerably. Moreover, as noted by a Liberal senator-elect, after Lino Oviedo died, the bulk of the oviedista/UNACE vote transferred, without a hitch, to the Colorados – perhaps their natural home given that Oviedo was a Colorado before going crazy.

While Liberal candidate Efrain Alegre was dogged by his party’s divisions and their public factional battles (as evidenced by the dissident Liberals accusing him of fraud, or the Colorados buying votes from a Liberal cacique), the Colorados were united behind their candidate. Despite questions over Cartes’ shady activities in the past or his controversial unscripted comments about homosexuals, he was able to convince a large number of unaligned voters with his vague promises of ‘change’, job creation and economic growth.

What can be expected from Cartes’ presidency?

Firstly, his victory means diplomatic normalization after the isolation and quasi-pariah status Paraguay was thrown into after Lugo’s impeachment last year. Brazil has said that Paraguay could be re-admitted to the Mercosur, but only on condition that the Congress ratifies Venezuela’s membership – Venezuela joined the regional trade bloc shortly after Paraguay was suspended last year, and some viewed the suspension as a trick to get Venezuela admitted (the Paraguayan Congress had been blocking its admission). Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro greeted Cartes’ victory surprisingly warmly, probably because Maduro wants Paraguay to ratify his country’s admission. Under Franco, relations between chavista Venezuela and Paraguay had been strained, particularly when Franco said that Chávez’s death was a ‘miracle’. It remains to be seen if Cartes’ pro-business conservative economic policies will isolate Asunción from its neighbors, given the popularity of more left-wing economic policies throughout most of the region.

As noted above, the Colorados have been quite vague about what they intend to do once in office. We know – or maybe only assume – that they favour conservative economic policies, including more private investments in the public sector and infrastructure. At the same time, the Colorados have also been known to fancy more statist economic policies at times, including in the recent past. Foreign observers, at least those who liked Franco’s cautious and tepid reformist agenda, hope that Cartes will follow in his predecessor’s footsteps by continuing his policies.

The country’s economic fortunes have fluctuated in recent years. While the economy receded by 1.2% in 2012 because of a slump in agricultural output and exports, the economy is projected to grow by 11% this year thanks to a record soy harvest (Paraguay is the fourth largest exporter of soybeans in the world). But growth is projected to slow to around 4.7% by 2014. Economic growth, job creation and especially poverty – in one of the region’s poorest and most unequal country where over 40% of the population lives in poverty – will be priorities for the new government. Most agree that a substantial increase in private and foreign investment will be needed to allow the country to reach 6-7% growth rates. Foreign investment already increased by 12% in 2009, and the outgoing Liberal government had allowed multinationals Rio Tinto Alcan and Monsanto to invest.

The Economist described Cartes’ victory as “back to the past”. There are good reasons to worry that Paraguay might be sliding backwards with the Colorado Party’s return to power. Cartes already has unsavoury reputation abroad because of his suspected ties to money laundering and drug trafficking, and many fear that his victory only means that Paraguay will erase the small progresses made in the past few years and return to its old image as a corrupt ‘backwards’ state providing safe haven for drug traffickers and smugglers of all kinds. Will Paraguay slide backwards with Cartes, or will the new President show at least some interest in reforming the country as needed?

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Italy (President) 2013

Indirect presidential elections were held in Italy between April 18 and 20, 2013. The Italian President’s role is essentially symbolic, acting as the guarantor of national unity. The President, does, however, appoint the Prime Minister (who must then seek the confidence of both houses of Parliament) and has the power to call parliamentary elections. Fitting this profile, most Presidents tend to be retired politicians or respected public servants, who stand above daily partisan politics and are widely popular. The President serves a seven year term. While there are no term limits, until this year no President had run for reelection.

The President is elected indirectly by an electoral college composed of both houses of Parliament and 58 delegates from each of Italy’s regions – each region sends 3 delegates (usually two from the governing majority, and one from the regional opposition), with the exception of the Aosta Valley which has only a single delegate. This year, the electoral college was made up of 1,007 members. On the first three ballots, a presidential candidate must obtain a two-thirds majority (of all members of the electoral college, including any who are absent), in the fourth and subsequent ballots, an absolute majority (of all members of the electoral college, including any who are absent) is sufficient. Two ballots are held each day.

In 2006, Giorgio Napolitano, a former member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and a respected senior politician, was elected on the fourth ballot. Napolitano is 86 years old.

The legislative election on February 24-25 resulted in total deadlock. The centre-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani won a large majority in the Chamber of Deputies, by virtue of the electoral system’s national majority bonus, but he failed to win an absolute majority in the Senate. In Italy, a Prime Minister cannot govern unless he has the confidence of both houses of Parliament. Some had thought that Bersani might have been able to put together a short-term government by getting individual members of Beppe Grillo’s new radical anti-establishment/anti-corruption Five Star Movement (M5S) to prop him up before new elections could be held. On March 22, President Giorgio Napolitano asked Bersani to form a government. However, by this point, it was already clear that Bersani would not be able to obtain the Senate’s confidence, given that he had rejected a grand coalition with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right bloc and had been unable to win any M5S senators over to his side. On March 28, Napolitano took act of Bersani’s failure and announced that he would look for alternative solutions. In the meantime, Prime Minister Mario Monti, who has served as a technocratic non-partisan Prime Minister since Berlusconi’s resignation in November 2011, stayed on as caretaker.

In this context of unbreakable deadlock, both houses of Parliament and 58 regional delegates assembled to elect a President. Giorgio Napolitano had announced that he would not stand for re-election.

In the electoral college, Bersani’s centre-left coalition had 493 seats, against 269 for Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition, 163 for Grillo’s M5S, 71 seats for Mario Monti’s hapless centrist/centre-right coalition and 11 seats were held by other parties. The ‘magic number’ in the first three ballots was 672 votes, the magic number in the later ballots was 504 votes.

First ballot

Prior to the first ballot, Bersani and Berlusconi agreed to support Franco Marini, a former Christian Democrat (DC) trade unionist now associated with the centre-left (he served as President of the Senate between 2006 and 2008). Theoretically, Marini should have been elected easily on the first ballot with support from the left, right and centre. However, Bersani’s decision to pick Marini and his deal with Berlusconi was yet another example of Bersani’s utter ineptitude. Marini was a poor choice to begin with. In a context where Italian voters are fed up with old politicians and ‘politics as usual’, Marini was the representative of the old politics: he is 80 years old and he has been in politics for decades. Matteo Renzi, the young mayor of Florence and Bersani’s main rival within the Democratic Party (PD), said that Marini came from the ‘last century’ of Italian politics. Left Ecology Freedom (SEL), a small left-wing party led by Nichi Vendola and the junior member of Bersani’s coalition, was also displeased by the pick. However, what made Marini toxic to so many electors were the circumstances in which he was picked. Bersani, pressured by Vendola (and common sense), had previously said that he didn’t want to form a government with Berlusconi’s scandal-plagued centre-right. However, Bersani turned around and proved that he was quite willing to work with Berlusconi behind closed doors. Many left-wingers and grillistis decried a corrupt bargain.

Grillo’s M5S held an online primary to allow their members to choose their presidential candidate. After the top two finishers (Milena Gabanelli and Gino Strada) indicated that they did not wish to run, the M5S turned to Stefano Rodotà, a former Communist and respected jurist. The SEL, which opposed Marini’s candidacy because of the corrupt bargain with Berlusconi, backed Rodotà, who has a good reputation on the left.

Candidate Votes
Franco Marini 521
Stefano Rodotà 240
Sergio Chiamparino 41
Romano Prodi 14
Emma Bonino 13
Massimo D’Alema 12
Giorgio Napolitano 10
Anna Finocchiaro 7
Anna Maria Cancellieri 2
Mario Monti 2
Scattering 14
Blank/invalid 119

The first ballot was a disaster for Bersani. Marini, who could have been elected on the first ballot with the support of the left, right and centre (Monti), fell far short of the 672 votes required to win. While votes are secret and we cannot know which left-wingers or right-wingers didn’t vote for Marini, we can presume that there were rebels on both sides – perhaps more so on the left. Many of those rebels cast blank or invalid votes, or supported other (undeclared) candidates. Sergio Chiamparino, the former PD mayor of Turin, received 41 votes, most likely from renziani members of the PD. Renzi had indicated his preference for Chiamparino.

Second and third ballots

Candidate Votes (2nd) Votes (3rd)
Stefano Rodotà 230 250
Sergio Chiamparino 90 4
Massimo D’Alema 38 34
Franco Marini 15 6
Alessandra Mussolini 15 5
Romano Prodi 13 22
Emma Bonino 10 4
Sergio De Caprio 9 7
Giorgio Napolitano 4 12
Anna Maria Cancellieri 0 9
Scattering 92 84
Blank/invalid 432 512

With the failure of the Marini option and no other candidate likely to win outright on the second and third ballots, the left and right largely sat out the vote by casting blank or invalid ballots although some voted, in fairly large numbers, for other candidates: Chiamparino, former centre-left Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema, Alessandra Mussolini or Romano Prodi. The M5S and SEL continued to support Stefano Rodotà.

Fourth ballot

For the fourth ballot, which could be won with a simple majority, the left – both the PD (including Renzi) and SEL – agreed to support Romano Prodi, a respected former Prime Minister and a former President of the European Commission. Berlusconi did not approve of the pick and the right announced that it would continue to sit out the vote by casting blank/invalid votes. Theoretically, Prodi could have won by taking all centre-left electors and adding a dozen or so votes, which could have come from the centre. Things did not work out that way.

Candidate Votes
Romano Prodi 395
Stefano Rodotà 213
Anna Maria Cancellieri 78
Massimo D’Alema 15
Franco Marini 13
Giorgio Napolitano 2
Scattering 7
Blank/invalid 19

Prodi won only 395 votes, falling far short of the 504 votes which he would have needed to win. Of the 1007 members, only 732 turned out to vote on April 19 (right-wingers likely did not participate). In retrospect, it appears that Prodi’s candidacy was a ploy engineered by Bersani’s rivals within the PD – apparently led by Massimo D’Alema, the PD’s top backroom wheeler-and-dealer – to scuttle Bersani’s leadership and force him out after the disaster of the Marini candidacy (and so many other factors, like blowing a big lead in the general election). The ploy worked. Rosy Bindi (president of the PD) and Bersani resigned their leadership positions within the party. However, in the meantime, Italy still needed a President.

Fifth ballot

Candidate Votes
Stefano Rodotà 210
Giorgio Napolitano 20
Rosario Monteleone 15
Emma Bonino 9
Claudio Zin 4
Anna Maria Cancellieri 3
Massimo D’Alema 2
Franco Marini 2
Scattering 14
Blank/invalid 462

While the politicians were actively negotiating amongst themselves to find a way out of the crisis they had placed themselves in, the fifth ballot on the morning of April 20 saw no resolution. The right did not participate, which meant that only 741 out of 1007 members actually showed up, and the left cast invalid or blank votes.

Sixth ballot

In the meantime, the politicians – Bersani, Berlusconi and Monti – met with Napolitano, the outgoing President, to find an exit route. They managed to convince Napolitano to come out of retirement and take the unprecedented move of accepting a second term in office.

Candidate Votes
Giorgio Napolitano 738
Stefano Rodotà 217
Sergio De Caprio 8
Massimo D’Alema 4
Romano Prodi 2
Scattering 10
Blank/invalid 12

President Napolitano was reelected to an historic second term with a huge majority, winning nearly three-quarters of the vote from the electoral college with his nearest rival, Rodotà, taking only 217 votes (probably almost all from M5S).

Napolitano’s reelection, out of the blue, was a sign that some things can still get accomplished in Italian politics. But above all it means that Italy is as dysfunctional as ever.

Napolitano’s reelection is for a seven year term, but few think he will serve until 2020. Instead, he is widely viewed as a temporary solution to the crisis – a patch, if you will. Napolitano’s conditions seem to have been an interim caretaker government (a grand coalition between the left and right) and delaying snap elections which should have been held in the summer (June or July) until the fall or even the spring of 2014. In the meantime, a new cabinet – political rather than technocrat this time (it seems) – would be charged with managing Italy’s catastrophic economy, a new electoral law and perhaps even constitutional reform. The PD will also need to hold primaries, probably in the fall, to choose a new leader after Bersani’s resignation. Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence and Bersani’s rival since Renzi lost the 2012 PD primaries to Bersani, is likely the favourite and the best thing the Italian left has for the moment. But Renzi’s centrist/liberal reformist image might not play well to some members of the PD’s left or the SEL.

On April 24, Napolitano nominated Enrico Letta, a 46-year old member of the PD, to be Prime Minister and form a coalition with the centre-left and centre-right. Napolitano said that he had picked Letta because of his youth, in contrast to the other potential nominee, Massimo D’Alema, who is an old-timer. Letta is a centrist within the PD, who comes from the PD’s Christian democratic tradition (former members of the Margherita party), but Letta had backed Bersani (who comes from the PD’s left-wing and post-communist tradition) won the PD’s leadership in 2009. His centrist standing within the party likely makes him palatable to most factions of the PD, although Renzi has expressed his displeasure at the idea of a grand coalition with Berlusconi’s right. Berlusconi apparently vetoed the idea of Renzi as Prime Minister, because he fears Renzi as his most serious rival in the future.

How will voters react to their politicians’ latest shenanigans? The Grillists will be displeased. Grillo denounced Napolitano’s reelection as a coup d’état and organized a protest in Rome. Furthermore, a grand coalition is perfect for Grillo: he has even more proof that all the traditional parties are the same and can be lumped together, while both the left and right work to discredit themselves while in government.

As of now, Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition has opened up a small lead over the left and M5S in polls, up to five points ahead now. He certainly benefited from the utter trainwreck and incompetent kerfuffle which the PD and Bersani have been since the elections. Once he reenters government, can Berlusconi continue to benefit from the political mess? That might prove tougher.

There was a regional election in Friuli-Venezia Giulia on April 21 and 22. One might have expected the left to do poorly because of the past few weeks, but they did pretty well all things considered. Indeed, the left’s presidential candidate Debora Serracchiani (a young MEP, close to Renzi) defeated right-wing incumbent Renzo Tondo (who had defeated a left-wing incumbent in 2008) with 39.39% against 39% for Tondo and 19.2% for the M5S candidate. The right did win the regional council list vote with 45.2% against 39% for the left and 13.8% for the M5S. Turnout, however, collapsed from 72% in 2008 to only 50.5% this year.

Napolitano’s reelection and Letta’s nomination is only a patch which only temporarily resolves Italy’s lingering political (and economic) crisis. Italian politics remain deadlocked and dysfunctional, and the whole thing will certainly blow up again whenever a new election is held.

Venezuela 2013

Early presidential elections were held in Venezuela on April 14, 2013 following the death of incumbent President Hugo Chávez on March 5. Chávez, who had held office since 1999 and had been reelected to a fourth term in office in October 2012, was – by far – the most famous and important Venezuelan leader in decades. His controversial style, rhetoric and policies transformed his country and left a profound mark on Latin America as a whole.

Chávez had been diagnosed with cancer in June 2011 and underwent several operations in Cuba in 2011 and 2012. Although he had claimed in July 2012 that he had fully recovered from cancer, shortly after his reelection to a fourth term in office, Chávez’s cancer returned and he underwent a new operation in Cuba in December 2012. Suffering from a respiratory infection and later a lung infection which had caused respiratory failures, Chávez remained in Cuba until mid-February 2013, at which point he returned to Venezuela. Although the government claimed he had overcome his lung infection, it later admitted that he was receiving chemotherapy in Venezuela and his respiratory problems returned on March 4. Chávez died in Caracas on March 5, at the age of 58.

According to the constitution, Chávez was due to be inaugurated as President on January 10, but the inauguration was never held because Chávez was still in Cuba and he returned home only for his final days. As per Article 233 of the constitution, if the President is ‘permanently unable to serve’ prior to his inauguration, he is temporarily succeeded by the President of the National Assembly and a new election must be held within 30 days. However, while a President may be deemed ‘permanently unavailable’ for reasons other than death and resignation – such as a ‘permanent physical or mental disability’ such a disability must be certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with the approval of the National Assembly. The National Assembly, controlled by the chavistas, never declared him unable to serve prior to his death and a court ruled that a reelected incumbent could forego the inauguration. Therefore, when he died on March 5, he was deemed to have died after the beginning of his fourth term of office on January 10. In these circumstances, the President is temporarily succeeded by the Vice President and a new election must be held within 30 days. As a result, Chávez’s Vice President, Nicolás Maduro (who had been named to the office by Chávez in October 2012 after the election) was promptly inaugurated as interim President. The opposition claimed that Maduro’s accession was invalid because Chávez had never taken the constitutionally-mandated oath of office, hence he should have been replaced by the President of the National Assembly (in this case, Maduro’s intra-party rival, Diosdado Cabello).

There were also some divergences on the matter of new elections: the constitution states it must be held within 30 consecutive days (se procederá a una nueva elección universal, directa y secreta dentro de los treinta días consecutivos siguientes), but some apparently argued that this only meant that a new election needed to be called within 30 days rather than actually held within 30 days. While this election was not technically held within 30 days, the argument was moot because Maduro and the regime wished to hold a new election as soon as possible.

Chávez’s Legacy

Regardless of one’s opinion on the man, Hugo Chávez will be a tough act to follow. It is undeniable that he transformed his country and left a profound impact on his country, Latin America and even the entire world. But whether he did more good than bad is, obviously, a matter of much debate both in Venezuela and abroad. Chávez was an extremely polarizing figure. His opponents argued that he was a populist autocrat who eroded democratic institutions, stifled opposition and centralized political and economic power in his hands. His supporters still hail him as the hero of Venezuela’s poor, responsible for dramatic improvements in their standard of living and a major decline in social inequality and poverty through the investment of the country’s oil money into social programs (the so-called ‘Bolivarian missions’). They admire him for having stood up to “imperialist” elites who had controlled Latin America for decades. The reality is not as black and white: Chávez was not the hero and selfless benefactor of the downtrodden his supporters describe him as, nor was he the bloodthirsty tyrant who destroyed democracy.

My post on the October 2012 election set the context needed to understand the man, his times and his actions. From that point, anybody can decide for him or herself.

To better understand Chávez’s policies and behaviour, it is important to understand the context in which he originally came to power. Up until the 1980s, Venezuela was a political and economic model for other Latin American countries. Economically, profits from oil – the country’s top export – allowed for major state-led investment into infrastructure, natural resources and nascent social programs. The oil industry was nationalized in 1975, but governments prior to that point had already supported policies which had given the state a hefty share of profits from oil, leading to oil-induced development policies. Politically, a stable democratic systems with free elections and orderly transitions of power flourished. Two major parties, the centre-left Democratic Action (AD) and the centre-right COPEI alternated in power. The country played a major role in the regional and international arena. President Rómulo Betancourt, during his second term in power (1959-1964), sought to oppose any undemocratic regime – left or right – which had come to power by a military coup.

However, this model collapsed in the 1980s with the major fall in the price of oil which drained the country of its main source of revenue. It hardly helped, moreover, that previous oil profits had been woefully mismanaged by governments which were all too happy to spend it away. The government was forced to devalue the currency and resort to price controls, but corruption was rampant and unchecked in all echelons of power. In 1988, Carlos Andrés Pérez of the AD, who had previously served as President during the plentiful 1970s (but whose irresponsible and reckless economic policies proved disastrous and under whom corruption became ingrained), was returned to power. Pérez had campaigned on a populist and anti-”neoliberal” platform which denounced the IMF and the Washington consensus, but upon assuming power – in pure Latin American tradition – he quickly set upon doing the exact opposite of what he had promised. The poor economic outlook forced him to accept the IMF’s (in)famous structural reforms, including a liberalization of oil prices.

These neoliberal reforms came at the price of major social unrest. In 1989, a huge popular protest movement erupted in the capital (the Caracazo), a protest which was followed by a massacre in which up to 3000 may have died at the hands of the national guard. In 1992, Pérez faced two unsuccessful coup attempts, including one in February led by then-Lt. Colonel Hugo Chávez and like-minded supporters in the military. Chávez’s coup attempt failed and he was arrested and imprisoned, but he gained national prominence and for many poorer Venezuelans, he became a hero for standing up to the discredited and corrupt (Pérez would be impeached in 1993 on corruption charges) regime. He was released in 1994 when Rafael Caldera, another former President elected on a fairly left-wing platform with left-wing backers, won the presidency in 1993.

Caldera, facing a major financial crisis, was forced to rescind his vow not to accept IMF help and implement more structural reforms, including privatization and a devaluation of the currency. Out of prison, Chávez used his notoriety from 1992 to build up a strong grassroots base of support from poorer Venezuelans, who had been marginalized by the regime and disillusioned with the turno pacífico style of politics between the AD and COPEI, which had become two corrupt shells by that point. The social situation was explosive, the 1990s having resulted in dramatic increases in poverty and a decline in the per capita income. Within Chávez’s “Bolivarian” movement, the view that they should seek power through electoral rather than military means won out and Chávez ran in the 1998 elections. His support increased as the campaign went along, and he won the election with 56.2% of the vote.

Having been elected on a promise to get rid of the country’s corrupt and discredited political system, he quickly set about working for a new constitution. A constituent assembly was elected in 1999 and drafted a constitution which was then ratified by voters in a referendum. The new constitution enshrined the rights of women and indigenous groups and established the rights of the public to education, housing, healthcare and food. Institutionally, the constitution replaced the old bicameral legislature with a single, unicameral, legislature (the National Assembly) and increased the powers of the executive.

Under the new constitution, Chávez was reelected in 2000 with 59.8% of the vote. While in his first mini-term (1999-2000), Chávez had actually led fairly moderate and ‘prudent’ fiscal policies, his policies moved sharply to the left during his second term. He started major social programs (Bolivarian Missions) which aimed at alleviating poverty in the country, but at the same time he adopted a more confrontational attitude vis-a-vis the United States, private businesses and foreign investors (especially in the oil industry and the state-owned oil monopoly, PDVSA).

An opposition movement coalesced in response to Chávez’s policies, which they decried as authoritarian and populist. The opposition coalition was predominantly formed by the country’s upper middle-classes and had the strong backing of the traditional elites: the media, the employers’ federation, the business community and the old parties with the tacit support of the Bush administration in the United States. In April 2002, Chávez’s opponent attempted to depose him in a coup led by the anti-Chávez sectors of the military, but the coup collapsed within a few days. Following the failure of the coup, Chávez’s opponents attempted to destabilize his regime through a two-month management strike at PDVSA.  Chávez responded by firing striking employees, eventually succeeding in quashing the strike and placing chavistas in command of PDVSA, depriving the opposition of a key base of support.

Following the failure of the military option, the opposition tried to overthrow Chávez by using the recall mechanism embedded in the 1999 constitution. A recall referendum was held in 2004, and Chávez handily survived the recall attempt with over 70% turnout and 59% of voters against the recall. The opposition’s shenanigans in 2002 seriously damaged its credibility, giving much credence to Chávez’s claims that the opposition were the pawns of the global imperialist and “neoliberal” elites.

Chávez won a third term in office with 63% of the vote in the 2006 election, which was judged to be free and fair by international observers. In December 2007, however, he suffered his first electoral rebuke. He had proposed a series of amendments to the 1999 constitution, which included removing term limits on the President (but not any other office) but also a number of proposals aimed either at increasing executive power or, according to Chávez, implementing his socialist agenda. By a narrow margin (51% again), these changes were rejected. In 2009, however, voters approved (with 54% in favour) an amendment which removed term limits on all office holders. During his third term, Chávez clearly sought to consolidate his power, not only by changing the rules of the game to allow him another term (or terms) in office, but also by uniting his fairly fractious coalition of supporters into a single party, the PSUV.

Chávez’s main achievement will have been his ambitious social programs, styled ‘Bolivarian Missions’ by his government. These various missions – which have included local health services for poorer communities (Barrio Adentro), a literacy campaign and housing projects for the poor (Hábitat) – have been financed by Venezuela’s oil wealth. Indeed, oil is the country’s largest export (95% of export) and contributes to over half of the government’s budget. After the failed 2002 coup, Chávez moved to take full control of the country’s state-owned oil monopoly Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A (PDVSA). Chávez was skilled at using oil as a political and diplomatic tool. Although the United States remains Venezuela’s largest customer, about a third of Venezuelan oil is exported to the Caribbean. Chávez used oil as a diplomatic tool to build good bilateral ties with smaller Caribbean island nations and build a strong alliance with Cuba. Indeed, Venezuela provides oil to Cuba at a discounted price – in exchange for Cuban doctors or exports in the country. There are valid concerns about the country’s economic dependence on oil revenues, which makes it vulnerable to any major dips in global oil prices (as happened in 2008). Furthermore, oil production has dropped since 2002.

It is clear that Chávez’s policies successfully reduced poverty in Venezuela – from 59% of the population in 1999 to only 28% in 2008 (extreme poverty declined from 22% to just under 10% in the same period). The Gini index, which measures income inequality, declined during his presidency, indicating a trend towards greater income equality. However, critics will contend that other Latin American countries (Brazil, Peru, Ecuador etc…) reduced poverty by equally staggering margins in the same period, without resorting to chavismo‘s autocratic tendencies.

Many opponents will concede that some of Chávez’s missions have been quite successful. However, some of these programs have become mismanaged and inefficient; and perhaps corrupt and clientelistic. The number of houses built by the government have fallen short of its target, the government has struggled to achieve food sovereignty and the country remains dependent on imported foodstuffs and it faces chronic food shortages. Opponents have pointed to Chávez’s actions (including expropriations and nationalizations) against private food producers as a reason for these shortages. Furthermore, there has an increasing number of long power outages in recent months.

Some worry that these programs are not sustainable in the long term. The government has borrowed to fund a lot of these projects, in the process piling up the debt. The country’s public debt has been increasing very rapidly, from 26% of the GDP in 2008 to over 50% in 2012 (and it is projected to keep rising quickly).

Opponents of the regime are very critical of the perceived ‘hollowing out’ of the private sector – during his second term, Chávez stepped up nationalizations and expropriations, including key nationalizations of (often foreign-owned) food, steel, gold and cement companies and the expropriation large landowners (who had often owned huge tracts of idle and unproductive land).

Under his presidency, the size of the state grew enormously, and a good part of the country’s oil revenues have been placed under the President’s discretion, often to fund lavish campaign promises. PDVSA has become somewhat of an all-purpose development agency under the state’s control. The main employers federation, which has long been a base of opposition strength, has said that the President’s goal is the destruction of private enterprise. This is exaggerated, because regardless of the extent of state control in the economy, the private sector has not been hollowed out entirely and it retains dominance in some sectors, such as the media – although its political activism has largely been tamed since 2002-2004.

Chávez received extensive criticism, both at home and abroad, for his record on human rights and democracy. There is a lot of dishonesty in these arguments, both those which seek to portray him as a tyrannical monster and those who seek to paint him as a democrat who happens to go against an established norm. He is neither of those things. However, Venezuela has been dinged by several institutions – Amnesty International, the UN, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders for its record on human rights, civil liberties, political freedoms and press freedom. Reports have criticized his administration’s tendency to discriminate on political grounds; erode judicial independence and undercut journalistic independence. While the opposition remains well represented in some media outlets, the government has built up a powerful and loyal media empire – at times through seizing control of previously opposition-owned newspapers or television stations.

There is no proof, however, that Chávez rigged the polls. The 2007 (obviously!) and 2009 referendums, 2006 presidential election, 2010 legislative elections and 2012 presidential elections were accepted by almost all players as being free, if not entirely fair. Through tight control of the media and state institutions, Chávez has been able to create a political playing field which is biased towards him and works against the opposition. For example, the opposition and the PSUV ended up roughly tied in the popular vote in the 2010 legislative election, but the PSUV retained a comfortable majority thanks to gerrymandering. Opposition access to the media is tightly controlled and limited, while the government has free access to the media.

The central government has often picked bitter fights with states or municipalities controlled by the opposition (often by cutting off funding), professedly in the name of “devolving” power to “the people”.

One of Chávez’s main weaknesses in his third term was criminality. The homicide rate in Venezuela has increased at a dizzying pace since the 1990s, making it one of the most violent countries in the world. The homicide rate increased from 25 in 1999 to 67 in 2011, and many have been critical of Chávez’s record in reducing crime, some accusing him of sliding his feet on the issue. Drug trafficking and cross border activity with Colombia seems to be one of the main causes of the recent jump in crime in the country.

Chavismo without Chávez

After his reelection to a fourth term in office, as Chávez’s health took a turn for the worse, Chávez appointed Nicolás Maduro, his foreign minister since 2006, to be Vice President – more or less officially anointing him as his chosen successor. In doing so, Chávez worked to prevent a bloody succession battle for control of chavismo after his death.

Maduro had long been said to be Chávez’s top choice, over other rivals. Maduro, aged 50, is a former bus driver and labour leader who had been at Chávez’s side since the very beginning. Maduro was a legislator between 1998 and 2006 – he even served as speaker for a year between 2005 and 2006 – before Chávez named him as foreign minister in 2006. As foreign minister, Maduro did not deviate from the diplomatic path set for him by the President, but he was relatively well regarded by observers – for example he played a major role in resolving the diplomatic crisis with Colombia in 2010.

Maduro was often described as the leader of a civilian and ideological faction within chavismo, favoured by Cuba. The other faction in chavismo is the militarist faction, whose most prominent leader is Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer and the incumbent President of the National Assembly since January 2012. Chávez sidelined Cabello by picking Maduro as his successor, but Cabello pledged full loyalty towards Maduro.

As interim President and Chávez’s handpicked successor, it was clear that Maduro would be the PSUV’s presidential candidate in this election. If Cabello and other high-ranking PSUV officials harboured presidential ambitions, they would need to bid their time.

Maduro and foreign dignitaries at Chávez’s funeral (source: President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Facebook page)

The opposition in Venezuela has taken the form of a fractious and heterogeneous coalition of politicians and parties of all stripes who oppose Chávez. The opposition has been united under the umbrella of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) since 2009, which has been far more successful, competent and legitimate than the past incarnations of the opposition under Chávez. The MUD is a very heterogeneous coalition, uniting centrist reformers, more liberal right-wingers, former leftist allies of Chávez and the remnants of the old decrepit parties (AD and COPEI). The main forces in the MUD are the centre-right Primero Justicia (PJ), the more centre-left Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) and whatever remains of the two old behemoths – AD and COPEI – which is to say, not much. It also includes some more clearly left-wing oriented parties, some of which are former Chávez allies, such as the MAS and the Radical Cause (La Causa R).

The MUD’s 2012 presidential candidate was Henrique Capriles Radonski, the young and popular governor of Miranda – the country’s second most populous state located just outside Caracas. Although Capriles was defeated by a fairly wide 11-point margin in October, he ran a tough and spirited campaign against Chávez which proved to be the strongest opposition challenge to the longtime President. He finally shook off the image of the anti-Chávez opposition as a ragtag bunch of old privileged right-wing elites in cahoots with the loathed “imperialist” and “neoliberal” elites. He campaigned as a “social democrat” who promised to keep Chávez’s social programs while focusing on mismanagement, clientelism and corruption.

But despite a fairly successful performance in October, the opposition received a severe blow in the December regional elections. Likely benefiting from a wave of popular sympathy for the feeble President, the PSUV won back a number of state governorships it had lost to the opposition in the 2008 regional elections – including the most populous state in the country and longtime opposition bastion, Zulia. The silver lining for the MUD was that it held the closely disputed state of Miranda, where Capriles won reelection against the foreign minister and former Vice President, Elías Jaua. Henri Falcón, the popular governor of Lara who had split from chavismo in 2009 on the issue of presidential term limits, won reelection as an opposition candidate by a fairly solid margin against former PSUV governor Luis Reyes Reyes.

After Chávez’s death, the main question was whether or not Henrique Capriles would chose to run for president a second time. He announced his candidacy five days after Chávez’s death, and there was no question that he would be the opposition’s candidate – he was, by far, the most legitimate opposition candidate after his October 2012 presidential candidacy.

It was a short, nasty and brutish campaign on both sides.

Maduro does not appear to be a lightweight or glaringly incompetent, but it is clear that he lacks a lot of Chávez’s unique attributes – notably charisma and the ability to hold the disparate elements of the regime together. While Chávez was fairly secure in his position and never really needed to resort to electoral fraud or mass arrests/imprisonment of opponents to safeguard his power, Maduro appears far more insecure and keen on asserting his authority. Hours before Chávez died, Maduro expelled two American diplomats from Caracas, likely a warning shot fired at his PSUV rivals and foreign observers that he was the guy in charge. He also famously claimed that the CIA and the United States had poisoned Chávez and inoculated him with cancer.

Maduro’s campaign constantly invoked Chávez’s legacy – to the point where amused onlookers began counting the number of times he mentioned the late President’s name (7,401 times since his death!). Maduro tried to make up for his lack of charisma by presenting himself as the man who would best represent and defend Chávez’s legacy against the “fascists” and “imperialists” who are conspiring to destroy Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution”. He gave little to no details of what his policies would be, besides parroting old chavista rhetoric. Maduro, as interim president, was  forced to devalue the bolívar, the country’s currency, in order to boost exports and effectively reduce ballooning public debt, and attempt to develop a  foreign exchange scheme to address Venezuela’s dollar shortage.

Maduro and the chavistas might have taken their veneration of Chávez a bit overboard. There were the plans to embalm the late leader, then Maduro launching an oversized check (for 1.8 million bolívars) up to the heavens and Hugo Chávez, representing the dividends received by CANTV, a Venezuelan telephone company which was nationalized  in 2007 and finally Maduro’s fairly hilarious claim that Chávez came back from the dead reincarnated as a little bird which allegedly blessed him. After that, Maduro showed off a little bird named ‘Hugo’ at campaign rallies. To clearly attach himself to Chávez’s legacy, Maduro has almost transformed a political ideology into a secular religion – worshiping Chávez as a sort of deity.

Capriles used only kid gloves when he was up against Chávez in October, leading some of his supporters to criticize him for being too soft on Chávez and not going all-out against him. In contrast, his second campaign this year was much, much feistier and aggressive. He attacked Maduro head-on, contending that he lacks legitimacy because he was never elected and the dubious manner in which he assumed office after Chávez’s death. He attacked Maduro’s February devaluation of the bolívar, and during the campaign he aggressively countered Maduro’s  ‘homophobic’ slurs against Capriles (branded as a ‘little princess’) and the opposition (whom he had previously referred to as ‘faggots’ before apologizing) by attacking machismo arguing for the social inclusion of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation. His campaign also took a fairly nationalistic (read: anti-Cuban) tone – Capriles notably talked about scrapping the oil subsidies to Cuba, speaking to fairly widespread concern in Venezuela that the country’s close alliance (some might even say subservience) on Cuba is a threat to Venezuelan sovereignty and has placed Caracas in a fairly humiliating position against Havana. The perception that Maduro is the candidate favoured by the Cuban regime is fairly widespread in opposition ranks, and it is ruffled some feathers. For example, lots of questions were asked when Venezuelan state TV broadcast footage of a public ceremony where the Cuban national anthem was played.

In this short 21-second ad, Capriles’ campaign offered an indictment of the chavista record in five short points: violence, power outages, expropriations, deficient hospitals and the lack of water:

As is characteristic of Venezuelan politics in the chavista era, the campaign was marked by a whole slew of ad hominem personal attacks and insults from both sides. Maduro described his opponent as “the little bourgeois shit”, “capricious” and the “prince of the bourgeoisie”; Capriles described Maduro as “Satan”, “bird brain”, a “liar” and even went as far as to insult Maduro’s powerful wife, Cilia Flores – the former attorney general.

The conventional wisdom prior to the election was that Maduro would win by a comfortable margin (double digits), in large part on the back of an outpouring of sympathy for the deceased president.

The election

Venezuela uses electronic voting machines, which have been praised by a number of observers. The (pro-opposition) blog Caracas Chronicles explained how the electronic voting system works when the time comes to report the votes in a post-election posting here. To ensure the credibility of the results, the National Electoral Commission (CNE) chooses (randomly?) 54% of precincts to be audited on the spot, with electoral staff opening the boxes and hand counting the ‘vouchers’ given to each voter after he/she has voted. The audit tally must match up the CNE’s official tally and the tally from the voting machines.

By law, the CNE cannot officially report any results – even if it has them – before it deems that the trend is “irreversible”. This means that, unlike in the United States or Canada, there is no official source which reports precinct results to the minute as the stream in.

Turnout was 79.78%, down about one point since the 2012 election. The final results were proclaimed by the CNE, but the CNE’s website is still inaccessible outside of Venezuela – Wikipedia and the newspaper El Universal have published the CNE’s results.

Nicolás Maduro (PSUV and allies) 50.78%
Henrique Capriles (MUD) 48.95%
Eusebio Mendez (New Vision) 0.13%
María Bolívar (United Democratic Party for Peace and Freedom) 0.08%
Reina Sequera (Worker’s Party) 0.02%
Julio Mora (Democratic Unity Party) 0.01%

Venezuela 2013

Election night was a tense and crazy affair. The opposition, at around 6 or 7 in the evening, started implying that they had probably won, which they later ‘confirmed’ through their own quick counts which showed Capriles beating Maduro. However, the CNE remained silent and planned announcements were delayed several times. In 2012, the CNE had reported its official “irreversible” results at about 10pm, and the CNE’s count in 2012 more or less matched the opposition’s own quick counts. Originally due to be announced at around 10pm again, nothing came from the CNE and Twitter went ablaze with various rumours that Capriles had actually won on the CNE’s own count and the regime was panicking and refusing to acknowledge the results. At around 11:20pm, the CNE went out and announced that Maduro had won with 50.6% of the vote.

The way the night played out and the delayed timing of the CNE’s announcement has led many to suspect that the regime tinkered with the result to allow Maduro to win (the CNE is almost entirely staffed with PSUV supporters). Capriles refused to concede the election until there was a full manual recount. The opposition claimed that they had won and said that they had proof of over two thousand incidents of irregularities. The government’s supporters countered by alleging that Capriles and the opposition had fabricated their claims of irregularities and vote rigging. Maduro also claimed that Capriles had called him and offered him a pact – some kind of corrupt bargain, likely in exchange for a concession. Capriles said that there had been no such pact.

The period after the election on April 14 has been tumultuous, marked by pro and anti-government protests, some of which turned violent; and a government which seemed a bit perplexed by the situation it had been put in and found itself hesitating about how to deal with the opposition. On Monday, there were large protests, both pro and anti-government, in Caracas and in other cities in the country. Responding to Capriles’ calls, opposition supporters took to the streets to bang their kitchen pans (a Latin American form of protest known as a cacerolazo); while students clashed with the National Guard who used tear gas and plastic bullets to disperse them. Authorities claimed that there were seven deaths, 61 injuries and 135 arrests in these protests.

Maduro and the CNE initially accepted Capriles’ request for an audit, but it seems like they later backtracked and accepted only the usual audit of 54% of precincts. Less than 24 hours after it published preliminary results, the CNE confirmed Maduro’s victory. By Tuesday, the government adopted a hard line against the opposition. It blamed the opposition for the seven deaths during protests on Monday, calling Capriles a ‘murderer’ and claiming that the opposition was preparing a coup, financed by the US. Maduro later blocked an opposition protest for Wednesday, which Capriles chose to call off to prevent any violence.

It is a bit tough to sort through the violence and identify those responsible. The situation is tense and extremely polarized, with the government and opposition trading blame for the deaths and other acts of violence. There are groups of armed thugs on both sides, although the government has full control over the military and police forces in the country. The government claimed that opposition mobs had savagely attacked outpatient health clinics (CDIs), but it was later reported by the opposition and independent sources that there had been no such attacks.

Maduro further said that he would not recognize state governors who do not recognize him as President, and the President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello announced that opposition deputies would not be allowed to speak in the legislature. The opposition claimed that there was a warrant out for the arrest of Capriles (for ‘inciting violence’) and Leopoldo López (another opposition bigwig who is banned from running for office until 2014). As the government was seemingly tightening the screws and cracking down on the opposition, many opposition supporters felt that the government was laying the groundwork for an autocoup (a la Fujimori).

Because Maduro is far more insecure than Chávez ever was and because he lacks Chávez’s legitimacy and authority, there is a chance that he will crack down on the opposition like Chávez had never really done. Chávez (and vice-versa, the opposition) had used vitriolic rhetoric, but he had never really violently cracked down on the opposition through arbitrary mass arrests and detentions of opponents. Many fear that Maduro will actually take the vitriolic rhetoric to the next level and quash the opposition.

But just as it seemed that Maduro was moving to silence opposition, the CNE (certainly with the government’s blessing, clearly) announced that it would conduct a manual audit of the remaining 46% of precincts, as originally demanded by Capriles. This manual audit could take up to a month, and in the meanwhile Maduro was inaugurated on April 19 (in a ceremony interrupted by a heckler). Capriles has accepted the audit and he says that he will present ‘proof’ of electoral irregularities to the CNE.

It is very unlikely that the CNE, with Maduro already inaugurated, will somehow reverse the result and proclaim Capriles as the winner instead. Capriles and the opposition seem to have accepted this, and they prefer see the whole election and post-election shenanigans as a moral victory for themselves, which has brought the whole chavista regime to the brink. It will likely focus its efforts on the 2015 legislative elections, in the hopes of winning a majority in the National Assembly.

The government went from initially accepting Capriles’ first request for a full audit/recount, to forgetting about it and threatening to quash the opposition before going back to announce a full audit/recount. It is clear that Maduro’s very tight margin of victory has destabilized the regime, which has had a tough time deciding how it should respond: should it press on the pedals and silence the opposition, or should it tread carefully in an attempt to salvage legitimacy?

What compelled the government to backtrack on Thursday/Friday and try to strike a more conciliatory tone? Foreign pressure is probably not part of the equation – Venezuela’s Latin American partners (with a few, minor, exceptions) have recognized the result and have not posed any problems, the United States backed Capriles’ request for a recount but Caracas doesn’t pay much attention to Washington’s pronouncements. Additionally, American and foreign media attention was focused on the tragic events in Boston rather than on the situation in Venezuela after April 15.

Rather, it seems that the government was likely responding to domestic pressure. It is quite possible that the government, remembering what happened in 2002, was expecting to actually stage a coup to overthrow them. Once they realized that no such coup was forthcoming, the government (including the CNE and the Supreme Tribunal) probably realized that it had damaged its legitimacy with the evenly-divided population with its reaction to the opposition’s behaviour. For the first time in years, the chavista government had probably lost the upper hand.

Was the election rigged? Stolen? Tinkered with? It is pretty impossible to answer that question with a definite answer.

I think that we can exclude the possibility that there was massive, organized fraud and vote rigging in the election. Chávez did not rig elections, because he enjoyed genuine popular support and did not need to rig elections in order to maintain power. It is unlikely that the government would have fabricated these results, given that it was fairly confident that it would win without too much trouble. This is not really like the Mexican 1988 election – that election was pretty clearly stolen and the results largely invented by the government.

It is possible that the CNE, which is an overwhelmingly chavista institution, did some tinkering with the results before announcing them. A few elements allow us to be suspicious that there was something shady going on behind the scenes before the CNE announced the results on the evening of April 14. Immediately before the CNE publicly announced the results, it was reported that the government met with the military leadership and, later, the military and interior minister met with Capriles. This chain of events leads to suspicions that the government wanted to ensure that it had the support of the military before going public with the CNE’s results.

There were over 2,000 incidents of irregularities reported on election day, including men in PSUV jackets “helping” people cast ballots, forty election-related arrests,  and a case of National Guardsmen carrying away ballot boxes before the paper audit could be done. This may indicate that there might have been localized fraud or vote rigging, especially in precincts where the opposition is very weak and the government/PSUV has the power to overwhelm any opposition scrutineers pretty easily.

The opposition claims that it won the election by a margin of about 100,000 votes (Maduro won by 273,056 votes on the CNE count). While the opposition did not release its own set of results, the opposition’s quick count is a bit more trustworthy than the usual claims made by any defeated opponent that they won when they certainly lost. The opposition had poll watchers in every single precinct in the country, and in October 2012 their ‘quick count’ numbers had mirrored the CNE’s final results. Nevertheless, while the opposition has some fairly solid claims, we should be careful before assuming that Capriles actually won and that the regime ‘stole’ the election, just on the basis of Twitter and the opposition’s own claims.

The CNE website is still inaccessible from outside Venezuela, but ES Data has released an Excel file with full results by precinct here. A few quick statistical tests does not show that there was blatant, widespread fraud. For example, in Russia’s 2011 legislative elections, there was a very strong correlation between high turnout and higher support for Vladimir Putin’s party (United Russia). In Venezuela, there was absolutely no correlation between high turnout and higher support for Maduro – on the contrary, that correlation was actually negative (-0.15). This, obviously, does not constitute proof that the election was entirely clean.

Furthermore, even if the election was free (without any tinkering or vote rigging) and that Maduro won on the numerical count, one can very easily claim that the election was not actually ‘fair’. The electoral process is controlled by the government, which has full access to the airwaves and tightly controls the state apparatus including the huge oil company PDVSA. A good number of votes, like in past elections, were probably bought and some voters (like PDVSA or other state employees) coerced into voting for the PSUV candidate. In some countries – like Russia – electoral fraud is blatant and pretty crude. In Venezuela, if there is fraud it is far more sophisticated and hard to prove beyond any reasonable doubts.

What next?

At this point, regardless of the CNE’s audit, we will probably never really know whether Maduro ‘actually’ won or if the CNE/the government tinkered with the results at 10pm on April 14. Even the opposition probably knows that, and, as mentioned above, it has probably given up trying to reverse the results and claim power for itself. Capriles will not take the road of the ‘colour revolutions’ which was taken by Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia following the stolen 2003 legislative elections. He may either take the road taken by Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador after the 2006 Mexican election – refuse to recognize the results and the new government’s legitimacy, proclaim himself as winner; or that taken by American politicians such as Al Gore (2000) and Richard Nixon (1960) – bow down to the results, despite lingering doubts about what actually transpired. The AMLO route is far more risky path to take.

Maduro will become President, but he faces a very difficult situation. Firstly, he will need to attend to an economy which is in fairly poor shape despite high oil prices and the revenues it procures. As aforementioned, Maduro already devalued the country’s currency in February. The nation’s public debt and deficit have increased a lot in recent years, and the government realizes that it will need to do something about it. Will Maduro continue traditional chavista economic policies or will he perhaps reverse the trend by slowing down ad hoc expropriations or by directing more capital to be re-invested in PDVSA, the oil company which is in dire need of investments to boost production and developing refining capacity. Maduro has the reputation of being more dogmatic, hailing from the ‘ideological civilian’ faction of chavismo and his close ties with Cuba; but he has given some indications that he could be a bit pragmatic. For example, he has reportedly told visiting American diplomats and politicians that he would like to improve relations with the United States.

We can legitimately ask whether or not Maduro will be able to last out his entire term, which expires in January 2019. Chávez had the unquestioned loyalty of the entire PSUV and government apparatus, and he was the man who held the disparate factions of chavismo together. Maduro, clearly, does not have the unquestioned loyalty of the entire PSUV or the government. He comes out of the election, first of all, with his own standing within the PSUV much diminished. Maduro almost blew a 20 point lead, turning what should have been a comfortable landslide on the back of sympathy for the late Hugo Chávez into a tiny victory which clearly destabilized the whole regime. Maduro has strong and powerful rivals within the PSUV who have accepted his authority only temporarily, as long as it suits them and as long as Maduro is able to keep the government in a solid position. Even some of his current allies might turn on him later on down the road, if they feel that Maduro is no longer working out well. His Vice President, Jorge Arreaza is young and is Chávez’s son-in-law. Chávez’s brother Adán, governor of Chávez’s home state of Barinas, migth also have presidential ambitions. There are persistent rumours that Chávez’s two daughters are politically ambitious as well.

On top of these names, his most dangerous rival is probably the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who was seen as the other potential ‘crown prince’ of chavismo and is connected to the military sectors (he is a former officer). Cabello publicly claims full loyalty to the regime, but it is pretty evident that he isn’t going to efface himself just now. On election night, two of Cabello’s avalanche of tweets raised some eyebrows:

 

In the first tweet, Cabello said that these results imposed “deep self-criticism”. In his second tweet, he said that they needed to search for their “failures” without endangering the fatherland and Chávez’s legacy.

Venezuela is in a delicate situation. Maduro will have only limited room to maneuver and govern as he wishes, as rival politicians and factions within the PSUV keep him on a tight leash and might be conspiring to bring him down; while half of the population voted for his opponent, who has certainly come out stronger from the whole thing despite losing. Venezuelan politics are tenser and more polarized than they had been in years. More than ever before, chavismo – although still a formidable force with a large base of supporters and a strong machine backing it up – is no longer unshakable.

Croatia European Parliament 2013

Special European parliamentary elections were held in Croatia on April 14, 2013 to elect Croatia’s 12 members of the European Parliament for the remainder of the EP’s 2009-2014 term. Croatia’s MEPs are elected in a single nationwide constituency using open list proportional representation. Croatia will formally become the 28th member state of the European Union (EU) on July 1, 2013.

Two-thirds of Croatians voted in favour of joining the European Union in a referendum in January 2012, although turnout was only 43.5%. Croatia’s accession process formally began in June 2004 when it became an official candidate country and negotiations between Zagreb and Brussels were launched in October 2005 and lasted until June 2011. Public opinion had generally been strongly supportive of EU membership, with the exception of a brief period in April 2011 after the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) sentenced Croatian war hero Ante Gotovina to 24 years in jail for war crimes/crimes against humanity in the Croatian war of independence in the early 1990s. Gotovina and fellow general Mladen Markač were later found innocent on all charges and their convictions overturned by the ICTY’s appeals panel in November 2012.

The Kukuriku, a centre-left multi-party alliance led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP), won the December 2011 election defeating the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) which had been in power since 2003. In the 1990s, the HDZ was a hard-right nationalist party led by Franjo Tuđman, a controversial strongman whose policies during the war years and the turbulent 90s isolated the country diplomatically. The HDZ was voted out of office in 2000, replaced by a heterogeneous reformist coalition around Prime Minister Ivica Račan (SDP) and President Stjepan Mesić (left-liberal HNS). Račan’s government, rapidly crippled by divisions between coalition members, only lasted until 2003 but under his and President Mesić’s leadership, Croatia gradually emerged from the semi-isolation of the Tuđman era and placed on the road to EU membership. The HDZ, transformed into a pro-European centre-right party under Ivo Sanader, won the 2003 elections by a decisive margin and was narrowly reelected in 2007.

While Sanader’s first term was generally successful because of a strong economy and EU negotiations, the second term proved to be a disaster from which the HDZ has yet to fully recover from. Croatia was hit particularly badly by the onset of the economic crisis in 2009-2010, which wrecked economic growth. Public opinion responded very poorly to the HDZ’s austerity policies, which included a very unpopular hike in the VAT and the introduction of a new ‘crisis’ income tax. Ivo Sanader resigned in the summer of 2009, and he was succeeded by Jadranka Kosor. Around the same time, Sanader himself and the HDZ as a whole were hit by a whole slew of particularly egregious corruption scandals. While Kosor herself was probably not directly involved and she took a hardline stance against corruption once in office, the whole thing blew up in her party’s face once prosecutors started digging and unearthing some pretty big corruption scandals – many of them involving Sanader himself. In January 2010, his ploy to reclaim the party’s leadership was foiled and in December, the Parliament voted to strip his immunity. He initially fled across the border to Austria, but he was arrested on an Interpol arrest warrant within hours. Sanader was sentenced to ten years in prison in November 2012.

Crippled by the stench of corruption and the economic crisis, Jadranka Kosor’s HDZ was handily defeated by SDP leader Zoran Milanović’s Kukuriku centre-left coalition in the 2011 elections. Although he was elected on a vaguely anti-austerity and broadly left-leaning agenda, Milanović’s government has been forced to tackle the economic crisis and the country’s large budgetary deficit – unsurprisingly, in the form of austerity measures and economic reforms which have included major public spending cuts, pension reforms, the sell of state assets (privatizations) and the liberalization of foreign investment. The country’s economy remains in a weak position: it has very low credit ratings, the GDP shrank by 2% in 2012 and it is still projected to be negative this year, unemployment is still rising exponentially (now up to 17%) and debt repayments combined with new EU contributions will frustrate the government’s objective of reducing the deficit in line with IMF recommendations. The IMF projects the country’s deficit will be 4.25% of GDP this year.

The government has also faced a few low-intensity scandals or embarrassing affairs. In November 2012, the Vice Premier and leader of the largest junior coalition party (HNS-LD)  Radimir Čačić resigned after he was sentenced to 22 months in jail by a Hungarian court over a car crash he caused in 2010 resulting in the death of two people. In March 2013, the tourism minister was forced to resign after a media investigation revealed details about how his family had profited from a real estate deal in Istria.

In October 2012, the government was rattled by a bizarre affair likely orchestrated by the right-wing opposition which has since blown up in the opposition’s face. The right-wing newspaper Večernji list alleged that Interior Minister Ranko Ostojić had been illegally tapping the phones of intelligence operatives. The left-wing newspaper Jutarnji list countered with claims that the intelligence operatives were tracked because of suspected contacts with the mafia, and accused HDZ leader Tomislav Karamarko and Večernji list of creating a fake scandal to discredit the government. The weird scandal backfired on the opposition – in December, Ostojić ordered an investigation into a spying scandal from Karamarko’s days as Interior Minister. Karamarko is accussed of tracking Attorney General Mladen Bajić and several journalists.

The government has become fairly unpopular, with its approval ratings down to 30% and its polling numbers down nearly ten points from its 2011 result (40%). But, thus far, the HDZ has struggled to profit from the government’s unpopularity. It remains badly tainted with the corruption scandals from its last term in office, and the stench refuses to go away. Indeed, the party itself is currently on trial for corruption. Former Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor lost the party leadership in May 2012, placing third in a leadership election won by Tomislav Karamarko, who appears more right-wing and nationalistic than recent HDZ leaders. Kosor was recently expelled from the party. The main beneficiary, instead, of the government’s declining popularity have been the Labourists (Hrvatski laburisti), a new left-wing party which won 5.1% and 6 seats in 2011. Claiming to represent the working-classes, the Labourists oppose austerity policies.

The SDP ran a common list with the left-liberal HNS-LD and the main pensioners’ party (HSU). The HDZ ran a common list with the nationalistic right-wing Croatian Party of Rights dr. Ante Starčević (HSP AS, one seat in 2011) and a smaller pensioners’ party. The Croatian Peasants’ Party (HSS) and the Social Liberals (HSLS) ran a common list and the right-wing regionalistic Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonia and Baranja (HDSSB) ran with smaller allied parties. The small regionalist Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS), although a governing party in the current coalition, ran its own separate list led by IDS leader and Istria County head Ivan Jakovčić.

Turnout in these EU elections was an utterly catastrophic 20.84% – certainly one of the lowest turnouts in any EU election (besides Slovakia). Very low turnout in EU elections is the norm in the newer member states in eastern Europe, where any original enthusiasm for joining the EU has certainly not translated into any interest into the EU Parliament. Besides the fact that basically nobody in Croatia or in the rest of the EU for that matter actually cares about the EU Parliament or actually knows what it does, this particular election was very low-key. The major elections will be local and county elections in May, this election was a dress rehearsal for those elections in which no party placed tons of efforts or attention.

HDZ-HSP AS-BUZ 32.86% winning 6 seats
SDP-HNS-HSU 32.07% winning 5 seats
Labourists 5.77% winning 1 seat
HSS-HSLS 3.86% winning 0 seats
Ivan Jakovčić (IDS) 3.84% winning 0 seats
HDSSB 3.01% winning 0 seats
Croatian Growth 2.55% winning 0 seats
Youth Action 1.49% winning 0 seats
Pensioners’ Party 1.48% winning 0 seats
HSP 1.39% winning 0 seats
Greens 1.16% winning 0 seats
Pirate Party 1.13% winning 0 seats
All others 9.39% winning 0 seats

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The centre-right opposition coalition led by the HDZ eked out a surprise victory, taking six of the country’s 12 seats. Whereas sparse polling prior to the election had shown them trailing the governing SDP-led coalition by a fairly substantial margin and on track to win only 4 or 5 seats, it came out ahead by a whisker. At cause here is probably the low turnout. When turnout is so low, elections are even more unpredictable and even good pollsters will have lots of trouble accurately predicting the outcome – because tons of voters lie to them by saying that they will certainly vote when in fact a lot/most end up not voting. Therefore, given the low turnout it is hard to interpret this election as a significant defeat for the governing coalition – their real test will be in the local elections next month, where turnout will be much higher and the stakes fairly high as well. Nevertheless, it remains an unwelcome surprise for the government.

The HDZ’s list was likely boosted by the presence of Ruža Tomašić, the leader of the right-wing/far-right HSP AS, who was sixth on the party’s list but who won the most preference votes of any candidates on the list – she won 26.6% of all votes cast for the lists’ candidates. Tomašić is a prominent anti-corruption crusader who gained notoriety – and controversy – recently by saying that “Croatia is for Croatians” and that the “others” are just “guests”. It is unclear whether she will join her five HDZ colleagues in the European People’s Party (EPP) group.

It also helps that the HDZ tends to be very good at turning out voters and motivating its electorate, something which has allowed it to outperform the SDP in close elections – such as the 2007 legislative election or the 2009 local elections.

The Labourists too will be disappointed by their performance. National polling consistently gives them about 10% of voting intentions and they had a solid chance to win two seats in this election. Their result, barely above their 2011 result percentage-wise, was disappointing for them.

As is usually the case in EU elections, a whole slew of tiny parties and third parties did very well. 29% of voters cast votes for parties or lists which did not win any seats, over 9% cast votes for lists which did not even win over 1% of the vote. In Istria, Ivan Jakovčić’s list won 44.5% of the vote in the county. The HDSSB also did quite well, polling up to 22.5% in Osijek-Baranja County.

Unsurprisingly, the first EU elections in Croatia were marked by apathy and general indifference. Surprisingly, however, the governing party which had been expected to win ended up narrowly losing – the sign of rising discontent with the young left-wing government in the midst of recession and austerity, or just a quirk from low turnout?

Montenegro 2013

A presidential election was held in Montenegro on April 7, 2013. The President has largely symbolic and ceremonial powers, with true political power in the hands of the Prime Minister. The President is elected by popular vote to a five year term, renewable once.

Montenegro won independence from Serbia in 2006, following a referendum in which over 55% of voters voted in favour of separation (the threshold for independence to pass had been 55% of the votes, rather than the usual 50%+1). Since 1991, Montenegrin politics have been dominated by the figure of Milo Đukanović, the incumbent Prime Minister, who has served various stints as either Prime Minister or President. In 1989, as part of the “anti-bureaucratic revolution” in Serbia, Đukanović was one of three young communist apparatchiks, closely allied to  Slobodan Milošević, who toppled the old guard and seized control of the local communist branch. Đukanović became Prime Minister in 1991, a close ally of President Momir Bulatović and Milošević. The Montenegrin leadership actively supported Serbia during the Balkan wars and partook in the armed conflict in Croatia alongside Milošević’s forces. Under Đukanović and Bulatović, the local communist party became the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS).

However, with Serbia (and Montenegro)’s increasing isolation from the rest of the world in 1996-1997, Đukanović broke with Bulatović and Milošević. Ahead of the 1997 presidential election, Đukanović wrestled control of the DPS away from Bulatović and effectively purged Bulatović’s supporters from the DPS, leading Bulatović to form a new party, the Socialist People’s Party (SNP). In that year’s presidential election, Đukanović narrowly defeated Bulatović in a disputed runoff. Having squeezed Bulatović out of power, Đukanović made his mark on the country. He distanced himself from Milošević’s regime and aligned with the West, while remaining notionally loyal to the idea of Yugoslavia.

By 2001-2002, Đukanović started openly pushing for independence. The country had been an independent kingdom until it was forcibly annexed by the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1918. Montenegrin national identity and its status as an ethnic group and language separate from Serbian is a touchy topic, given that a lot of Serbs consider Montenegrins as ethnic Serbs.

Đukanović resigned the presidency to become Prime Minister again in 2002. His pro-independence coalition won the 2002 legislative elections over the anti-independence moderate coalition, led by the SNS (Bulatović lost the party’s leadership in 2001 following Milošević’s ouster, and formed his own party). As Prime Minister, Đukanović emerged as a forceful advocate of Montenegrin independence, which was finally achieved in May 2006. He resigned as Prime Minister in November 2006, and was succeeded by Željko Šturanović. Two months before, Đukanović’s coalition emerged victorious in the first legislative elections held following independence.

Šturanović stepped down in 2008, ushering in Đukanović’s return to the office of Prime Minister. His government was handily reelected in 2009, winning over 50% of the vote. Đukanović has emerged as a strong proponent of European integration, and his government’s policies have largely revolved around EU membership. Montenegro became a candidate country in December 2010, and negotiations with the EU began in 2012. After the country became a candidate for EU membership, he stepped down as Prime Minister and was replaced by his close ally, finance minister Igor Lukšić. The DPS coalition was reelected with a reduced majority in October 2012, and Đukanović returned as Prime Minister.

Filip Vujanović, a member of the DPS and a close ally of Milo Đukanović, has been President since 2003. He served as Acting President after Đukanović resigned the presidency in 2002, and won his first full term in his own right in 2003 (technically, in 2002, but the 2002 presidential election was repeated twice because of a turnout rule which was finally abolished by the time of the third election in May 2003). He was reelected following independence in 2008, winning 51.9% of the vote in the first round against Andrija Mandić, the leader of the anti-independence New Serb Democracy (NOVA).

Vujanović’s candidacy for what would be a third term in office caused controversy and created friction between the DPS and its junior parter, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) led by parliamentary speaker Ranko Krivokapić. The SDP and the opposition parties claimed that Vujanović was constitutionally barred from seeking another term in office, arguing that the constitution does not make a clear distinction between terms completed before and after independence. Former Serbian President Boris Tadić, who unsuccessfully sought a third term in office in 2012, had faced a similar issue given that the Serbian constitution limits the President to two terms, but Serbian law apparently makes a distinction between presidential terms completed prior to 2006, when Serbia was a federal unit rather than a sovereign state. The Montenegrin Constitutional Court ultimately ruled in favour of Vujanović’s candidacy, arguing that the first three years of his first term did not count because Montenegro was a federal unit of Serbia and Montenegro rather than a sovereign state.

This was the most disputed election in Montenegro in years. President Filip Vujanović, backed only by the DPS (the smaller SDP, formerly a loyal ally, boycotted the vote), faced only a single opponent – Miodrag Lekić, endorsed by the centre-right Democratic Front (DF). Miodrag Lekić is a former ambassador and served as foreign minister in the 1990s. He is backed by the Democratic Front, an opposition coalition which won 22.8% in the 2012 legislative elections. It is made up of Andrija Mandić’s right-wing New Serb Democracy (NOVA) and Nebojša Medojević’s liberal Movement for Changes (PZP). The Socialist People’s Party (SNP), which has been controlled by a pro-European majority led by Srđan Milić since 2006 (Bulatović left the SNP in 2001), endorsed Lekić as well, although it is not a member of the DF. The disparate and unwieldy opposition to the DPS has been progressively coalescing in the hope of forming a credible alternative to the DPS, which had benefited from the opposition’s divisions for years.

The campaign was rather bitter and negative. The incumbent President said that Lekić was weak on the issue of Montenegrin sovereignty and could not be counted on to defend the country’s sovereignty. The pro/anti-independence battles which played out in the 2006 referendum still divides Montenegrin politics, with many of the smaller opposition parties – including NOVA and the SNP – having opposed independence in the 2006 referendum. Vujanović, an ally of Prime Minister Milo Đukanović, pledged to ‘intensify’ Montenegro’s bid to join the European Union (talks started in 2012). In contrast, the opposition largely focused their fire on corruption and abuse of power. The opposition has long criticized the ruling party as an autocratic and corrupt clique, which has monopolized political power and playing to the interests of a corrupt elite. Indeed, DPS governments are often suspected of corruption and Đukanović himself was allegedly involved in tobacco smuggling in the 1990s.

The Montenegrin economy had been performing very strongly immediately after independence, buoyed by an influx of foreign investment and the rapid expansion of sectors such as tourism. However, it too suffered from the global recession in 2009 and it has been in an economic slump again since 2012, when the country’s economy grew by only 0.2%. The country also has a fairly substantial budgetary deficit, which has forced the government to adopt unpopular measures. Earlier this year, unions demonstrated against the decision to raise the income tax on monthly salaries over 400€ by 3%.

Turnout was 63.9%.

Results published by the electoral commission say the following. The map below is based on very similar numbers provided earlier by the DPS.

Filip Vujanović (DPS) 51.21%
Miodrag Lekić (Ind, supported by DF and SNP) 48.79%

montenegro26

Both candidates claimed victory on April 7, with Vujanović claiming he won with 51.2% while Lekić claimed that he won with 50.5%. On April 8, the results published by the electoral commission were nearly identical to the DPS’ numbers. Lekić claims that his campaign has proof that the result was tampered with somewhat, claiming that about 4% of ballots were invalid and asking for a recount of the votes. He said that Vujanović declaring victory constituted a de facto coup d’état. Nonetheless, this disputed result does not seem to be the starting point for mass protests of the kinds we have come to expect following closely contested elections ending in a disputed result. After all, the presidency is fairly symbolic and it does not detain significant political powers.

What is more interesting, rather, is how close this election turned out to be. The DPS has won ever presidential and parliamentary election by huge margins in the last ten years, over a divided opposition which never managed to get its act together after Đukanović got the upper hand in Montenegrin politics. The DPS, which has grown fairly smug and overconfident of its chances with all these years in government without a credible alternative, expected this election to be yet another cakewalk for them. It wasn’t – instead, the election was very close. Could this indicate that the DPS is finally beginning to suffer the toll of over ten years in government and the aura associated with being the standard bearer of Montenegrin statehood in 2006 starting to wear off? The economic slump, a change from the boom years following independence, and the government being compelled to take unpopular measures, might have hurt the government’s standing. Is this an indication that with the opposition, more or less, showing a semblance of unity, Montenegrin politics will become more open-ended?

The map is fairly interesting. Although it is clear that the pro/anti-independence divide from 2006 is still visible and very much alive in contemporary Montenegrin politics, the contours of the 2006 referendum are not very visible on the map at this point. Traditionally, the opposition parties – which had, with the exception of the PZP and some smaller parties, openly opposed independence – had their support concentrated in the north and around the Bay of Kotor (Herceg Novi), where most of the country’s Serbian population (about 29% of the country’s population) lives. This divide is now only partially visible. Yes, Lekić won 71.9% in Plužine municipality, which is 65% Serbian; but Vujanović won 62.5% in Andrijevica, which is 62% Serbian. Lekić also performed well in central Montenegro, where ethnic Montenegrins make up a majority. Vujanović won 56.1%, the Montenegrin cultural heartland and a DPS stronghold, but Lekić narrowly won in Podgorica – the capital, Bar and Nikšić. Unsurprisingly, Vujanović won by huge margins in the municipalities with Bosniak or Albanian majorities: 72% in Ulcinj (71% Albanian), 74.8% in Plav (52% Bosniak) and 84.3% in Rožaje (84% Bosniak).

This election, despite its limited importance, might signal the beginning of a new era in Montenegrin politics – one less thoroughly dominated by the DPS.

Guest Post: Meath East (Ireland) by-election 2013

A by-election was held in Ireland on March 27. One of this blog’s reader, EPG, posted this summary of the by-election in the comments section for another post, I have re-posted it here in a guest post for everybody to enjoy.

A legislative by-election was held in the Meath East constituency of Dáil Éireann, Ireland’s lower house, on March 27. The by-election was caused by the death of Shane McEntee, a Fine Gael TD (member of the Dáil) and the Junior Minister for Food.

Meath East is located to the north-west of Dublin. The south of the constituency is dominated by Dublin commuter towns, such as Ashbourne, Ratoath and Dunboyne. This is the heartland of an archetypical symbol of the Irish economic collapse called the “negative equity generation”: first-time house-buyers who purchased homes with large mortgage in the mid-2000s, and who now owe far more than their houses are worth. Many (probably most) are not originally from the county in which they now live, an important cultural marker in small and localistic Ireland. Meath East is more rural and settled in the northern part of the county, while the north-west end includes Kells, the largest town in northern Meath. The constituency’s somewhat bizarre, salamander-like shape is due to the exclusion of Meath’s largest town, Navan, and the inclusion of Kells, on population ratio equalisation grounds. Ironically, Meath was the home of James Tully, the Labour TD who oversaw a gerrymander that backfired in the 1970s (the Tullymander). To compound his misfortune, he then suffered shrapnel damage at the assassination of Egyptian President Sadat after Labour’s return to power in the 1980s.

The coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour has fallen sharply in popularity since their election in 2011, while the opposition parties of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have risen, as have independents and other candidates. This was probably predictable, since the government has continued most of the last (Fianna Fáil-Green) government’s policies, especially on economic issues, due to its support of the EU-ECB-IMF “troika” programme of financial support for the Irish State. This by-election was therefore considered a contest between the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties. Meath East is mainly “exurban”, especially in the southern end of the constituency, but also small town and rural. This means the Labour Party was not considered a contender; their support is mainly in cities and important towns with local industry, and their current popularity is low in any case. It was enough to win one out of three seats in Meath East in 2011 under the STV proportional representation system, but it wouldn’t be enough to win an instant run-off by-election, even if they had held up their popularity. As for Sinn Féin, they did well at the by-election in Donegal South-West in 2010, which is also a rural area. But despite the despair of the negative equity generation, Meath is still a relatively prosperous part of Ireland, with big farms and many professionals who commute to jobs in Dublin. It’s a much higher-income area than Donegal, and that’s bad for Sinn Féin. Fine Gael outpolled Fianna Fáil hard in Meath East at the 2011 general election, and the big question was whether Fianna Fáil’s image-improvement since then would close enough of the gap to let them win.

Fine Gael fielded Helen McEntee, daughter of Shane McEntee, who worked on his political and ministerial teams. Family candidates are popular in Irish elections, especially by-elections, and form the “dynasties” that have provided many Taoisigh (heads of government), including the current Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his predecessor Brian Cowen, who both won by-elections to succeed their fathers. She primarily campaigned for a “sympathy vote” rather than seeking a mandate for a pretty unpopular government (). Labour chose Eoin Holmes, a county councillor and film producer who talked a lot about entrepreneurship. Fianna Fáil chose Thomas Byrne, the former TD who lost his seat at the 2011 epic fail but got a Senate seat as a consolation prize. Sinn Féin’s candidate was Darren O’Rourke, who works as an assistant to Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, the party’s former parliamentary party leader in the Dáil (back when Gerry Adams was an MP in Northern Ireland). The Greens chose their former candidate, but they are now considered a minor party compared to the big four, with no Oireachtas representation. Independents and others included a Workers’ Party candidate and Ben Gilroy, a Direct Democracy Ireland activist who is popular among the crazy “Freeman on the Land” movement.

Helen McEntee (FG) 38.49% (-2.38%)
Thomas Byrne (FF) 32.92% (+13.31%)
Darren O’Rourke (SF) 13.02% (+4.14%)
Ben Gilroy (DDI) 6.45% (+6.45%)
Eoin Holmes (Lab) 4.57% (-16.46%)
Seán Ó Buachalla (GP) 1.74% (+0.66%)
Seamus McDonagh (WP) 1.08% (+1.08%)
Independent candidates 1.73% (-6.80%)

The huge story from this by-election has been the collapse of Labour’s vote, which was far bigger than national opinion polls would have suggested. Polls suggest that Labour has lost 6 to 10 points nationally compared to 2011. However, other stories are worth noting. Fine Gael’s vote held up much better than its partner, and much better than national polls would suggest. McEntee held onto her strong support base in the north of the constituency, as well as probably getting a sympathy vote (common for family members in Irish by-elections, though Fine Gael will deny this and claim that her success is a mandate for the party nationally). Interestingly, after 29 years when governments never won by-elections, this is the second government victory out of two by-elections in this Dáil. Labour won the first of these in late 2011, though their successful candidate left the parliamentary party about five weeks later. The last time Fine Gael won a by-election while in government was in 1975, when their candidate was a young Enda Kenny.

Fianna Fáil has recovered strongly, though they still can’t outpoll government candidates in actual elections. It seems that Fianna Fáil, not Sinn Féin, is enjoying the surge of anti-government feeling in relatively prosperous areas like Meath East (and the Dublin commuter belt more generally), though nobody would deny that Sinn Féin is the main beneficiary in deprived urban and rural areas. Among other opposition groups, Direct Democracy Ireland’s performance is striking. Small parties and independents rarely do very well at Irish by-elections. Gilroy ran a campaign strongly focussed on opposing repossessions of houses by banks, in tune with his support among the fringe, legal conspiracy theorists of the “Freeman on the Land” movement. This is at a time when the Irish government is openly discussing policies to make repossessions easier, due to the abnormally low rate compared to other countries with property price ex-bubbles like the USA, the UK or Spain. Gilroy caught a zeitgeist for what is basically a one-man party (though the Irish party registration requirements are reasonably strict, so he must have lots of supporters).

I now have details of the second and third counts, after which McEntee was elected. The second count excluded all but the top five candidates and Gilroy (DDI) won more of their transfers than any of the remaining five. This is less surprising than it may seem for a fourth-place candidate, as many independents tend to be fringe candidates themselves. They would be close to Gilroy’s anti-system and anti-party profile, which is even more anti-system than Sinn Féin. Independents in Ireland often seem to fill the “anti” role played by right-wing populists in other European countries, but with a local twist, and they have a similar support base of broadly non-left people with middling incomes. Fianna Fáil won fewest transfers, even fewer than Labour, which may suggest that the public is polarised by its recent rebirth. The third count was a run-off between McEntee (FG) and Byrne (FF). McEntee won 54.5% of the two-party vote after getting far more transfers than Byrne. A lot of SF or DDI voters must have given a higher preference to McEntee than to Byrne, their fellow opposition candidate, as McEntee’s third-count transfers (1,900) were much larger than Labour’s final vote total on the second round (1,200). Even if we assume that any remaining Labour supporters are firmly pro-coalition and sympathetic to Fine Gael, that still leaves about 800-900 of McEntee’s transfers that must have come from SF or DDI, after accounting for the usual transfer attrition. But she didn’t even need to do that well with opposition voters on these counts; she was safely ahead of Byrne from the outset. McEntee is now the youngest woman in the current Dáil.

The broader, national consequences are still unclear, though they can’t be good for Labour. Each of the opposition parties would have hoped to do better. Fianna Fáil wanted to win and Sinn Féin wanted to win votes in line with national polling (i.e. about 8% higher than in 2011). Fine Gael is glad to win and to have lost few votes, but the party was shaken by the sad death of Shane McEntee and would have preferred if this by-election had never happened.