Venezuela: Why was Abstention the Winner?

– By Javier Biardeau R.

[Originally published in Aporrea, December 3, 2007. Translation by Dan La Botz, with the assistance of Samuel Farber and Selma Marks.]

IN FACT THERE were no surprises. Desires alone don’t make things happen. Crude, hard reality imposes limitation on limitless illusions. The picture of political defeat accompanied by high levels of abstention, even if it might have been possible to win an electoral Pyrrhic victory, put the strategic leadership of the revolution in the only emotional and rational space from which to overcome the current problems: recognize mistakes and correct them, beginning with the unilateral view of the infallibility of the leader.

With an abstention of about 7.2 million voters (42%) and an extremely narrow margin between YES and NO (the CNE [electoral authorities] have counted 4,504,454 or 50.70% NO votes and 4,379,392 YES vote or 49.29%), one is lead to an interpretation that imposes the worst possible scenario: a catastrophic deadlock with a high rate of abstention, which was not only the most probable outcome but the actual one.

The opposition made no gains in comparison with December 2006 (in reality the united opposition did not succeed in taking off significantly since 2006), and the crude truth is that there was an erosion of the social bases of support for the revolution, a true evaporation of the Bolivarian vote. Not only are there not four million oligarchs, but neither can one add to these three million “abstentionist traitors,” former voters for the revolution.

The rejection of the reform was very high, and so rationalizations have been fabricated about the apolitical and anti-political abstention. There was political abstention because of opposition to the reform by the revolutionary social base. This is the first wise conclusion to be drawn from the facts of the election.

Secondly, one does not have to give credence to the idea that the greatest explanatory weight in the actual situation should be given to the media’s manipulative campaign of fear which launched the NO campaign. It played a role without a doubt, but it was not key.

It was to be foreseen that the movement of the Bolivarian vote would not go toward NO but rather toward abstention. In reality, in contradistinction to the propagandistic blackmail that was carried out to convert the referendum into a plebiscite and make the vote a matter of loyalty, what we see is a serious protest arising in the Bolivarian camp. To three million Bolivarians it just didn’t seem right, neither the way in which it was carried out, nor the central issues of the constitutional reform project, which if they had been voted on by issue, might have led to less abstention.

The great responsibility for the defeat lies with those who convinced Chávez that the revolution depends on him alone. Mistake. Probably without Chávez there would be no revolution, but neither will there be one with Chávez alone. The tendency to minimize the leadership role of the people at the moment of great deliberations and decisions has to be corrected.

What was defeated was the chavismo de aparato, the Chávez machine, that is, the leadership of the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Either the revolution is constructed from the bottom, or it will be worn down from above. It is not a question of “it wasn’t possible this time.” I will not stop saying this: The path chosen to get to political support for the reform was the wrong one. The reform project was very poorly designed and the election very poorly carried out.

There are serious issues here that go beyond constitutional reform, that do not break with the old bureaucratic socialism, and that require a radical debate now. The mine field of constitutional reform exploded in the electoral terrain and could not go forward. Even its constitutional legality was severely questioned, in spite of the attempts by the Constitutional Office to correct the mistake. The vertical style of political action paid a high price for the poor treatment of disagreements. Decisions are not imposed, they must be deliberated.

There is no democratic revolutionary leadership without deliberative democracy, without internal democracy in the Bolivarian camp. I will not repeat the errors already mentioned in the text: Why is the mine field of constitutional reform exploding? Chávez will persist in the error if he thinks that “we lacked three million votes” and that “these people did not vote against us, they abstained.” They abstained because essential forms and contents of the reform project, without any change, did not succeed in being proposed based on counter-hegemonic democratic practices. Do not underestimate the people, neither their intuition nor their capacity for political, intellectual and moral autonomy.

It is necessary to continue fighting for socialism, but one has to know how to distinguish between authoritarian hegemony and democratic counter-hegemony. Unity in diversity is the road to a viable pluralistic and libertarian socialism. Any socialism which eliminates democratic pluralism, in a real or imaginary way, does not past the test of popular sovereignty.

It is necessary to achieve not only the greatest possible social inclusion but also political inclusion, not only social equality but also political equality. It is necessary to bury the Jacobin imaginary of revolutions led from above, of vanguardism and cults of personality.

It is a time for profound reflection within the revolutionary leadershiop. Time to end the pragmatism of the native right wing and the Stalinism of the native ultra-left wing. Time to get rid of bureaucratism and corruption. Time to end populist Caesarism. Time to renovate socialist critical thinking. It’s even time to ask forgiveness and to demonstrate humility for the mistreatment that has been handed out.

The time has come to find a way out of a dilemma which isn’t electoral: whether socialism is really built democratically, led from below, from the people’s power organized in its diversity and multiplicity, or built with the right and with those who adopt populism without profound changes. Here we have four great defeated elements: the bureaucratic apparatus, the native right with its Casesarist myth, Stalinism and its authoritarian attitudes, and the Ego-Politik that Chávez has been living, we hope temporarily.

It is a question of constructing social by way of the democratic majorities. Nothing more and nothing less. For that to happen, it is necessary to deepen the discourse — to deepen and to renovate socialist, democratic and revolutionary practices, from below, with the goal of building organically a power which is the people’s own, democratic and revolutionary.