Who's afraid of the big, bad Gerrymander?

Some longtime readers are up-in-armsabout the CNE’s (predictable) decision to Gerrymander the hell out of the constituencies ahead of September’s legislative elections, which will ensure chavistas get many more parliamentary seats than their share of the vote would entitle them to. As speeding violations go in the Indy 500 of a government we have, it’s a pretty galling one. But we should keep our wits about us: with some creativity and guts, the gerrymandering could even play to our advantage.

First things first: September’s is not going to be a normal election, because elections in undemocratic countries are never normal. You can’t judge success or failure in the way you would in a normal democratic context, because that context is precisely what you’re trying to help establish.

In a normal legislative election, your goal is to get more seats than the other team. In the twisted simulacra of democratic elections that undemocratic regimes hold, the real goal for democrats is to subvert the undemocratic regime, destabilizing its grip on power and helping nudge the country towards the restitution of democracy.

The periodic elections that the zeitgeist forces undemocratic regimes to hold are moments of maximum stress for them: events that call their basis of legitimacy directly into question. We should be under no doubt that the Chávez regime is approaching September’s elections with genuine fear. In particular, because this time around the fundamentals are really screwed up from the government’s point of view: to the now cannonical three-strikes – the electric crisis, the water crisis and the crime wave – you could add six or seven more, and all in a stagflationary context that’s seeing people’s real purchasing power and standards of living take a serious tumble.

Chávez has arguably never gone into an election with such adverse fundamentals, and apparently the polls are already looking pretty grim for them. There’s every possibility that, with a reasonably non-catastrophic campaign (always a big if), the Opposition going to get more votes than the government in September.

If that happens, the only question worth asking is this:

What destabilizes the Chávez regime more: allowing the opposition to take the majority of a thoroughly declawed, extensively decimated National Assembly, or keeping a majority of the seats even though they’ve won a minority of the votes?

Because, lets be clear: if the opposition did somehow win a legislative majority in September, you can be certain the government will move aggressively to strip parliament of its power before the new deputies are seated. What happened to Ledezma in the Alcaldía Metropolitana is the template.

Personally, my guess is that they’d give Chávez a sweeping Enabling Law, good for 60 months, enabling him to legislate by decree for the length of the legislative term. And then they’d vote away what oversight powers parliament still has, handing the opposition a hollowed out shell of a Capitolio. That that would be unconstitutional goes without saying…it’s almost as obvious as the fact that they’d do it in a second.

Does this scenario undermine the regime’s basis of legitimation? Sort of…though it would also allow Chávez to continue to claim the democratic high ground that comes from having an opposition-controlled parliament. (“Intolerante? Yo?! Si no controlo ni el parlamento!”)

The second scenario arguably does much more to undermine the regime’s basis in legitimacy: the opposition wins more votes, but the government wins more seats. The sheer unfairness of that, the way it spits in the face of a constitution based explicitly on the principle of proportional representation, the way it dramatizes the extremes of unreasonableness and ventajismo the government has reached, would eat away at the claims of democratic legitimacy of a regime already battered by those awful fundamentals.

The key, in either case, is to first get more votes than the government, and then make the government pay a political price for refusing to accept the political consequences of defeat.

But conceptual clarity matters, too: a vote organized by an undemocratic regime is not, and can’t be, a “normal” election, so our success can’t be measured by how well we perform in seats. Our success is the extent to which we manage to exploit the “natural” inflection point an election brings to subvert the regime’s bogus claims to democratic legitimacy.

And from that point of view, the Gerrymandering could be a feature, not a bug.