Why We Can Win


by Isabella Picón

It’s Friday night after a rough week. I’m exhausted and it’s 10 p.m but somehow I find myself with some friends, music and a cubalibre in my hand.

I tell this new acquaintance that I work with the campaign (it’s a given that I mean Capriles’s). Straight away, he launches into a rant telling me everything he thinks we’re doing wrong, why he’s so skeptical we can win, an incident he heard about that makes him think the Comando is every bit as macollero as the Cuarta us young people have learned to despise.

I sip my ron aguao, breathe in uneasy and breath out again, chilling myself out. I’ve done this many times, and it’s uncomfortable, but I know better than to be dismissive. This particular guy is an Econ student. He talks about the spending binge, about Chávez’s charisma, notes he’s been going to Petare (for street cred, I suppose). He just doesn’t see the optimistic picture I draw.

A few hours earlier, a man had come into the office and spent maybe 3 hours in a meeting with the boss.  This happens with some regularity, I guess. People ask for a meeting to lay out his or her solutions to “save the campaign” or, at least, to compensate for what his or her very objective self considers our “shortcomings”.

It doesn’t matter if the complains are uttered to the bottom of the pasante foodchain or to the boss. Our duty is to listen because we assume that every little concern is legitimate. In the Cabin Feverish heat of a campaign, you need these “contactos con la realidad” to stay sane.

And yet, I’m sure we will win. Partly, I was born an optimist. But it isn’t just blind faith. As a political scientist, I know the weight of variables that don’t favor us: structural factors like the spending binge or “agency” factors such as Chávez’s control of the military.

But I also know no great cause has started with great odds. And I believe in the autonomy of the political, not as a matter of faith, but because research tells me I should.

In “Defeating Dictators – Electoral Change and Stability in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes,” political scientists Valerie Bunce (of Cornell) and Sharon Wolchik (of GWU) explain how oppositions have beat hybrid regimes: in the Philippines in 1986, in Nicaragua in 1990, in Slovakia in 1998, in Indonesia in 1999, in Mexico in 2000, in Madagascar in 2001, and in Ukraine in 2004. It goes through structural, institutional and electoral variables to explain how united oppositions won elections against competitive authoritarian regimes.

Turns out that it wasn’t about structural factors such as the regime’s capacity to distribute patronage. It turns out weak regimes don’t necessarily lose, and strong ones don’t always win. It wasn’t even about whether the opposition was united or not (the opposition was united in all cases – that didn’t guarantee victory).

Instead, “the authors conclude that the key difference was whether the opposition adopted a tool kit of novel and sophisticated electoral strategies that made them more popular and effective challengers to the regime.”

Read that one twice.

Bunce and Wolchik work out what those strategies were, and even come up with a handy list:

  1. “unity of opposition”
  2. “ambitious campaigns” (rather than just “going through electoral motions while knowing that you are not going to win”),
  3. “voter registration drives”
  4. “pressures on electoral commissions”,
  5. “collaboration between civil society, youth groups and opposition”,
  6. “public opinion polls”,
  7. “exit polls” ,
  8. “parallel voter tabulation” (a.k.a. – quick counts)

If you read The Devil’s Excrement series on the Comando Venezuela’s electoral auditing strategy regarding D-Day,  you will see how we are already implementing most of these strategies.

So keep the skepticism coming. It keeps us grounded. Just as long as you vote on October 7th.

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  1. Thank you Isabella for a quick peek into the campaign. It is heartening to hear that inside you are both optimistic AND realistic! Thanks for the hard word, just don’t stop anytime soon!

  2. Thank you, Isabella, for this excellent post. There are, at least to my knowledge, two other studies which arrive at similar results (although Schedler’s is somewhat less optimistic):
    Marc Morjé Howard and Philip G. Roessler. “Liberalizing Electoral Outcomes in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes”. American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 50, No. 2, April 2006, 365–381.
    Andreas Schedler (2010): Transitions from electoral authoritarianism. http://cide.edu/publicaciones/status/dts/DTEP%20222.pdf

  3. The point is, despite the odds, people can make a difference. One of the reasons why I’m growing more optimistic by the hour lies, precisely, on the fact that the the opposition’s campaign is reflecting a well organized, disciplined, creative and consistent approach that had been lacking in Venezuelan presidential election campaigns for a very long time.

    Conversely, Chavez’s campaign has been improvised, disorganized, and uninspired. It even gives the impression that he no longer has the ability, energy, or time to oversee his associates (an impression I also have with respect to the government as whole, given the deficient and incredibly clumsy reactions by both Chavez and the regime to recent events like Yare, the floods and the ongoing tragedy in Amuay).

    • agree with both paragraphs! it’s why I was puzzled by the fixation of some on polling lags of 4+ weeks. It made no sense to me, in light of the dynamic factors of the Capriles campaign.

  4. Isabella, thanks so much for this. This story, the post at devil’s and the constant comments from family in small towns around the country that have gone to Caprile’s rallies and came back energized and hopeful are making me feel optimistic.

    But I could not find either in the MUD website or in the Capriles website information about how to be a witness or contribute on election day in any way. I vote in an Uber chavista area and I might be needed, but I have not found how to volunteer for this and I wonder where else do we need witnesses so we can help find them.

  5. Oh! Wait! So the fat man in palace’s victory is not a lineal deterministic function of the spending binge, but rather a multi variable complex functional form? Mmm…Toro has been lying to me xD Thanx Isabella, great reference…I will try to contact you later

  6. In FT’s defense, words aside, I didn’t understand his claim to be that the fat man in palace’s victory is only determined by the spending binge but, instead, that this puts a significant part of the odds against Capriles. That is still accurate. However, Isabella’s contribution (and other comments made before following our discussion on economic voting) highlight that structural factors are not the only ones that play a role in regime survival. Agency matters for the prospects of both the government and the opposition.

  7. Isabella, thank you for your excellent Post. I am also encouraged by the fact that I believe that Chavez is mortally sick, and will descend to his overdue non-resting place in the near future (but probably not before the Election); and, even if not, this Regime cannot last much longer due to massive continual visible failures. In either of these events, Capriles and Co. are the only viable substitute alternatives, so that all your valiant efforts will, sooner or later, not be in vain (and, I do believe he will win on Oct.7!).

  8. Coloquen este post en castellano, para difundirlo. Siempre hará falta, más si viene de los cuadros preparados y entusiasmados que trae esta campaña. Esa voluntad es algo por lo que debemos estar todos agradecidos y, al refeljarnos en ella, ser más humildes en nuestras opiniones sobre lo hecho por el Comando.

    Gracias Srta. Picón. ¡Salud!

  9. Isabella Picón, I applaud your efforts. I also keep an optimistic heart while a realistic mind, including keeping alternatives and backups for the pessimistic possibilities.

    Though I value the conclusions of the reference link you provide, I would point out that their sample is very, very different to Venezuela’s current situation. Being realistic, we need to be very aware of the dangers of reaching conclusions about how the factors translate to having similar effects in a country such a different context.

    “…these countries share a common history, given their communist pasts, recent statehood…, … conflicts between majorities and minorities during state formation…” “…growing authoritarianism in the years preceding the pivotal elections, the formation of a united opposition on the eve of the election or during the election, and popular protests ranging in size from ten thousand to sevearl hundred thousand challenging the official election results.”

    Also, it struck me that one of the first conclusions presented, “…the successful defeat of authoritarians depended heavily on the extent to which oppositions and their allies were able to use novel and sophisticated strategies to maximize their chances for winning power”, describes equally the incumbent’s strategies to maximize its chances of staying in power, in Venezuela’s case.

    It seems that the probability estimates that could be derived to predict the chances of change of regime in a country that fits the similarities between the sample countries would only predict a Venezuelan outcome out of luck, rather than by extension.

    I think that the things are being done are in the right direction, but I don’t feel that it’s for the reasons that they may have worked in the countries of the study, nor do I think the opposition should discard ideas just because they aren’t listed as one of the successful factors of the study. However much the Capriles campaign may think it is borrowing from those experiences, I still see it as a very Venezuelan grown campaign. Kudos.

  10. Isabella, I assume you are a young lady and I am happy that you are passionately involved as many young people are in their different ways, in the future of Venezuela.

    You said: “And I believe in the autonomy of the political, not as a matter of faith, but because research tells me I should.”

    When we believe what experts tell us, it IS an act of faith, whether the experts are scientists or not.

    This is an easy way to be fooled.

    It is not a matter of being optimistic, pessimistic, or neutral.The important thing is to have an open mind in order to see what is going on, and the determination to follow through at all costs.


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