Planning for the worst case scenario...

I’m increasingly worried about the climate of deep skepticism in the opposition about the National Electoral Council’s impartiality. Too many people seem to think Chavez owns the council, that the stitch-up is in place, that the referendum will die at in some smoke-filled backroom in the CNE and that the time to start making some unorthodox “Plan B” is now.

The council may have a nominal 3-2 chavista majority, but people who know the board members well are adamant that most will put country above party and vote with their consciences. The government may count on them for some relatively minor favors – like the timing of regional elections – but can Chavez really order them to stop the recall against the objections of their consciences? I really doubt it.

Too many of the anti-CNE opinions making the rounds are just shrill and uninformed. These attitudes are dangerous. They undermine CNE’s ability to do its job, they undermine the credibility of the one institution we can’t do without. They push the country into confrontational maximalism, the attitude that has already yielded two major debacles over the last 20 months.

It’s time for the opposition to sit back, take a deep breath, and think about its options. Venezuela’s best ally in the search for a peaceful solution to the crisis, the Carter Center’s Francisco Diez, assures that their monitoring mission of the signature validation process continues apace, and that the council is rapidly overcoming the obstacles that have come up.

In the Carter Center/OAS monitoring mission, the country has an exceedingly prestigious witness, a truly honest broker that has no reason at all to lie, to shill for either side. If the Carter Center/OAS mission starts making anti-CNE noises, the opposition’s skepticism will acquire unprecedented credibility. Until it does, our skepticism only makes us seem immature and unwilling to accept a contrary decision.

Yes, I understand that, as usual, Chavez’s threats and blusters make it much harder to keep an even keel here. But this is crunch time, and the opposition has to understand that it makes no sense for us to demand that the president accept any CNE decision if we aren’t willing to do the same.

So the opposition needs to think very carefully about how we would react if – heaven forbid – CNE does rule against the recall vote. The anger that would seize all of us in that scenario would be hard to control. But anger is the single worst source of advice possible in this case. Knee-jerk responses will lead us where they’ve always led us in the past: up the garden path.

Until the Carter Center/OAS mission says otherwise, it’s counterproductive for the opposition to write off CNE.

So, here’s a heretical proposal: if the CNE rules against the referendum and if the Carter Center/OAS mission does not condemn that decision as clearly fraudulent, we should keep our cool, accept the ruling, and declare that we will treat the August 1st regional elections as a “virtual referendum.”

This is not as crazy as it sounds: now that the opposition seems to have reached a consensus on the thorny topic of how to select candidates to those elections, the way is clear to “referendumize” the regional elections. And with the pent up anger people would feel due to the failure of the recall petition, antichavez turn out would be sky high, provided the opposition is smart about campaigning.

Trouncing the government in our first chance to go to the polls, right after being denied a referendum, would send a powerful message about the resilience, patience and maturity of the opposition. Losing our cool and starting to push for an unorthodox solution would only substantitate the government’s charges of golpismo.

Chavez can’t keep us away from the ballot box forever, and as soon as we get there, he’s doomed. His one shot at staying in power is making us blunder, making us lose our cool, goading us out onto his territory: violence, confrontation, aggression.

We can’t win on that level; we shouldn’t try.

But the Carter Center/OAS mission will be the key. Keep your eye on Francisco Diez. Only the Carter Center/OAS observers have the access and the credibility to denue an illegitimate decision as such. If that happens, we’re in a Milosevic/Fujimori/Shevardnaze scenario, and all bets are off.