It’s my new favorite pastime: puzzling through Constituyente scenarios. Indulging my pol-fi morbo, I try to imagine how exactly things that can’t possibly work are supposed to work, and then try to piece together what on god’s green earth the government thinks it stands to gain by trying to force this whole cockamamie scheme through.
Indulge me a second here.
Maduro’s constituyente is a strange beast. It’s based on a mixed “territorial/sectoral” electoral model apparently modelled on Cuba’s famously democratic electoral system.
There is no conceivable legal basis for grouping people into sectors of society.
The territorial part is unfair enough, sure —massively over-representing rural areas where the government has traditionally done better— but at least you can understand it: people typically know which municipio they live in.
The real dog’s breakfast comes on the other side: a totally made up “sectoral” component where people vote according to which medieval guild they would’ve belonged in if this was the 14th century. Or something like that.
There is no conceivable legal basis for grouping people into sectors of society. There’s no reasonable rationale for having them vote within an existential category. These things go without saying. But that isn’t what this post is about: I’m interested in the practicalities. Apparently, I’m the only one.
To divide people by sectors, CNE is going to effectively carve up the Electoral registry into a series of sub-registries: farmers over here, workers over there, business people in a third list, intellectuals and artists over yonder. How?!?!? On what imaginable information basis? Where is the database that tells CNE that I’m a farmer and not a retiree?! What if I’m both?
And then, how am I supposed to find out? How are people supposed to even know which list they’re on? And what if they’re not on any? Can you appeal?
When it comes to putting your name forward as a candidate, the elaborate finger-print scanning protocols and checks and re-checks and re-re-checks of 2016 have already been discarded willy nilly in favor of a Caribbean honor system.
You’d think so…but that would take months, and the other salient fact about this weirdly all-powerful assembly the government is pushing is that they’re rushing it through in a mad last minute dash to a wholly impracticable July 30th election date: a crazy hurry that’s already led the famously rule-bound CNE of the Referendum Revocatorio era to degenerate, overnight, into the church of “whatever, close enough!”
When it comes to putting your name forward as a candidate, the elaborate finger-print scanning protocols and checks and re-checks and re-re-checks of 2016 have already been discarded willy nilly in favor of a Caribbean honor system. The period for people to propose themselves as candidates is already open, even though nobody has any official confirmation of which “sector” they’re meant to represent. What if I put my name forward for the student sector but then when the list comes out they’re calling me a businessman? One thing is for sure, there’s no time to appeal!
And how exactly is this madcap campaign supposed to work? How exactly do you campaign within a sector? With voters likely unsure which sector they’re officially in, how are they meant to even evaluate what candidates say?
In practice, it won’t matter because the opposition isn’t going to dignify this silly circus with its participation, so we’re effectively heading into a single party election. Still, the reality is that Maduro is proposing to give unlimited powers to an assembly made up of candidates that voters know exactly nothing about.
Then you start to think through the political technicalities. Is the government seriously expecting the opposition to go home and “behave” when the time comes to elect this monstrosity? Does the inner clique really not have the presence of mind to see there’ll be precisely as many riots as there are polling places that day?
Do they really not grasp that Maduro’s name is now so toxic any event that brings people into the streets in numbers becomes a security risk to the regime?
Have they not pieced together that a government that can’t even mobilize its own employees to a march under threat of dismissal definitely can’t mobilize voters to the polls in the middle of a giant riot? That the army is going to be spread out all over the country that day: a hungry, dispirited army led by lieutenants and colonels who loathe the drug-running generals who bark orders at them?
Do they really not grasp that Maduro’s name is now so toxic any event that brings people into the streets in numbers becomes a security risk to the regime? Have they really stopped to think any of this through?!
But let’s say that, somehow, they manage to slog through the election. Have they thought through what comes next? Have they stopped to think what it’ll take to get these people to sit? The logistics of evicting the legitimately elected National Assembly from the Palacio Legislativo to sit these clowns? Have they grasped the shitshow every single controversial ANC decision will be met with on the streets?
And let’s say they get through all that: have they stopped to understand that at the tail end of the entire process they’ll be forced to choose between holding a referendum they’ll definitely lose or imposing a constitution 90% of the country understands for the kick to the testicles it really is? Do they actually think they have the muscle to impose craziness on this olympian scale? Have they actually stopped to understand that none of this can imaginably work?!
The Government isn’t Magic
There’s a tendency —born of learned helplessness— for opposition folk to ascribe magical powers to the government. We sometimes talk as though, because Maduro and the inner-core of crazies surrounding him are entirely unscrupulous, that somehow makes them exempt from the regular laws of political gravity.
If the government faced no constraints, Luisa Ortega would no longer be in office, probably not even free, possibly not even alive.
Showing this isn’t so is trivial: if the government faced no constraints on its capacity to administer violence in the service of maintaining power we wouldn’t have hundreds of political prisoners, we’d have hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, like they do in Turkey. We wouldn’t have dozens of deaths in protest, we’d have soldiers shooting anti-aircraft artillery into opposition crowds and thousands of deaths, like they did in Turkey. If the government faced no constraints, Luisa Ortega would no longer be in office, probably not even free, possibly not even alive.
The reason we haven’t seen these things isn’t that Maduro’s inner circle has any hidden reservoir of scruples: God knows they don’t. It’s that to stay in power they need the support of people and institutions that can push only so far. For two months now we’ve seen Maduro tentatively trying to establish where those limits are, precisely: trying to get his bearings on what exactly he’s constrained from doing and what he’s free to do.
Probably the place where this calibration is most visible is in the ordinance the National Guard uses to repress protests. We’ve seen them — literally seen them — calibrating the lethality of the cartridges they can get away with. If rubber pellets aren’t dissuasive enough, do you go with lead pellets, or are you better off with marbles? We’ve seen them try out different things, but in that range. What we’ve not seen them is jump to Kalashnikovs, or M16s, or Sarin gas.
It’s not because Maduro and Reverol wouldn’t love to go bigger on violence. It’s because they fear that, if that order was given, it would not be obeyed.
They can’t be so dumb they don’t see it. It would be an act of political self-harm. And that’s not their style.
So these guys are constrained, and on some level they realize they’re constrained. But have they stopped to really think through the level of violence they would have to administer to make the Constituyente stick? Do they think that level of violence is survivable for them?
I go around and around these questions, and I always seem to circle back to the same answer: they can’t be so dumb they don’t see it. It would be an act of political self-harm. And that’s not their style. Because sure, economic self-harm yes, that I believe, these guys have shown again and again an amazing propensity for hurting themselves needlessly on economic matters. But not politically. Politically, they’re survivors.
And this cochinada? This not a survivable cochinada for them. They can’t not see that.
Which is why I still think the ANC won’t happen. Sooner or later, more or less elegantly, they’re going to find a way to call it off. Because they just don’t have the power resources — in the security forces, in the party, in the country at large — to make it stick. You don’t become this powerful if you can’t figure out power dynamics this obvious.
They must see it. It must be a bargaining chip.Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.