Transitions are Hard: Zimbabwe and Venezuala

December 8, 2015
July 13, 2016

MUD 112 Seats - About 58% of the vote

PSUV 55 Seats -  About 34% of the vote

On the 29th of March, 2008, Zimbabwe voters went to the polls on what was the first relatively peaceful election day since 1995. The ruling ZANU-PF party of Robert Mugabe, which had engaged in unprecedented repression to win Parliamentary elections in 2000 and the Presidential election in 2002, seemed to take the result for granted. Mass protests following the 2002 results had ultimately failed to remove the regime, while the opposition MDC had split into warring factions over whether to contest the 2005 midterm elections and the leadership of Morgan Tsvangirai. If anything, anticipation focused on Simba Makoni, once the youngest member of Mugabe's cabinet, who was running as an independent with the support of the dissident faction of the MDC, and widely believed to be favored by the United States. ZANU-PF confidence was so high that they had allowed South African President Thabo Mbeki's much maligned SADC mediation effort to produce remarkable results, including a requirement that results be posted outside of each polling station before being transferred to the central election commission. Hence when the unexpected happened, rather than quick government claims of victory, all that emerged was silence.

Silence, and requests that everyone remain calm dominated the next three days. It was quite obvious what had happened. Absent either an active opposition campaign, or a government effort at coercion, voters themselves had turned out against the government in such massive numbers that it was clear ZANU had lost. Eventually results would be released over the next few weeks, showing ZANU-PF losing its majority in Parliament to the opposition, and Mugabe coming in second place with 42%, behind Tsvangirai with 48% and ahead of Makoni with 8%. But the real battle had by then been decided.

Much is made of how ZANU-PF and Mugabe unleashed a campaign of terror during the runoff election, eventually triggering the withdrawal of the MDC and Mugabe's victory with 91% of the vote. But what gets less attention is how the MDC's mistakes triggered that result. At the end of March 2008, most of Zimbabwe's political establishment including ZANU-PF bigwigs and Army generals were ready to see the back of the President and a return to some kind of normality, provided they could be guaranteed their gains and their safety.The SADC itself, regardless of Western criticism, clearly would have welcomed an end to the eight year focus on internal Zimbabwean squabbles and the refugee streams that were pouring out of the failed state. Even Mugabe's own family, according to some reports, was ambiguous, with his wife Grace concerned about the future of their young children and ready to call it quits with certain guarantees.

In the end, no such guarantees were coming. Understandably for a party that had seen its activists systematically tortured, raped, and murdered, including being burned alive, the MDC had a desire for revenge. But its key feature was the person of Tsvangirai, whose authoritarian instincts had already led to a split in the party in 2005. The MDC rapidly declared victory, releasing its own results, which while perhaps reflecting the actual outcome(Tsvangirai over 50%) were clearly fabricated themselves, a stunning mistake when access to accurate numbers was possible through collating the posted numbers from polling places, a project NGOs were already engaged in when the MDC released its own figures. Rather than accepting cooperation with Makoni who could have reassured ZANU members, the MDC-T stepped up its rhetoric and attacks on him and his dissident MDC supporters, and began threatening generals with prosecution if they did not remove Mugabe. And most importantly, the MDC-T closed off one of the most obvious routes to compromise by declaring any runoff illegitimate, thereby removing the possibility of Mugabe withdrawing to be replaced by another ZANU-PF candidate or third-place finisher Makoni. The MDC-T position was clear. They had won control of Parliament and Morgan Tsvingirai had been elected President without the need for a runoff, and there was nothing further to talk about, nothing to bargain over.

The position led to its own logical end. Faced with the choice of surrender, and unconditional surrender at that, anything else was preferable. ZANU-PF cadres who had issues with Mugabe and Army Generals who would have been happy to enjoy a rising tide now they were part of the elite rallied to the embattled President, while the SADC mediators, finding the opposition uninterested in mediation, saw little point in further involvement. When the government announced the results and its intention to hold a runoff, Tsvingirai was left with a choice of participating or not, with little prospect the latter would bring down the government. In the end he chose participation, only to withdraw in the final week when the SADC had finally managed to implement an observer system and many expected him to win nonetheless. The end result was that the MDC threw away its chance at power, not just for five years but perhaps for decades.


The example of Zimbabwe is important because it appears that despite a gerrymandered electoral system, rampant intimidation, imprisonment of senior figures, and a systemic media campaign, the opposition MUD has won control of the National Assembly. Currently they are reported to have won 99 seats to the ruling Socialists 46, with 21 more uncalled. As with the "uncalled" races in Zimbabwe, there is no logistical reason why those races remain uncalled when they have already been counted, and their status is almost certainly the subject of negotiation, not arithmetic. They will control whether the opposition which currently holds 59.64% of the assembly, will control 60% or even 67% of it, with the powers those majorities bestow, and as such it is no coincidence the announcements stopped when the MUD was one seat short of 60%.

Does this imply an intention to rig? Not exactly. At this point it would look exceedingly bad for all twenty-one delayed results to go to the PSUV, especially when several are theoretically proportionally allocated, but the option is clearly being reserved in an emergency. What is being reserved more credibly is the possibility of stealing enough seats to deny the MUD a 2/3rds majority, something that would allow them to impeach any figure in the state, including Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet Ministers, and even President Maduro himself. Certain opposition figures have expressed interest in doing so over the past few months and it seems certain to me that if some guarantee is not given, it is hard to see Maduro, the CNE members, or the Supreme Court not signing off on denying the MUD that power.

Carrying out such a maneuver would hardly be difficult. The Chavista regime could very easily point to the opposition's landslide victory which delivered them say 105 out of 166 seats as rebuttal to charges that they stole seven additional MUD victories(rumors state the final numbers were in fact 113-54). This particular bit of whataboutary is almost certain to be sufficient for the audience that really matters internationally, namely those whose ideological and personal sympathies are with the goals of Chavismo if not with its personalities or methods. The options the MUD would have would be limited - refuse to take their seats in a chamber they would control, block all government business providing a justification for Maduro to rule by decree, or quietly acquiesce. The only real accomplishment there would be to extend and deepen the economic crisis, albeit at the price of adding themselves to the list of those responsible. That said, it would nevertheless be far easier for everyone, including the PSUV, to announce the results as they were. Casting doubt on the validity of some results, even a small minority, has the effect of casting doubt on all of them, and Maduro has received quite a bit of credit for his concession, credit he and his allies probably would not want to exhaust on five National Assembly mandates.

(Update: The final results have now been released showing the MUD with 112 seats and the PSUV with 55. Some in opposition circles have been making noise about contesting four additional seats, but that seems to be a minority viewpoint at this time)

A better option would be to look to the example of the Chilean left in 1988. After 15 years of Pinochet, many Chileans had a long list if justified grievances against the General and the military, not limited to the way they took power.But Pinochet was contemplating leaving not because he sought to; he had by this time transformed himself in his own deluded mind into some sort of messianic figure. Rather he was being forced to hold the referendum, and he was ultimately forced to accept it because the rest of the military leadership was tired of him personally and willing to bargain with the opposition provided they were offered a safe landing after jumping. Reassuring these officers that they would have such a landing, which came by promising them influence within the Senate and protection from prosecution was a necessary precondition to a transition. Were there problems? Yes, but the opposition has ruled for all but five years since 1988, and even now when fights break out over the 1988 constitution, no one seriously contemplates force.

The MUD would be wise to look to that example. Their goal is an end to an authoritarian regime and the economic crisis. That means disestablishing the institutions of Chavista control, freeing the media, fostering independent unions, and working towards the independence of the courts and electoral machinery. That will involve some replacements of personnel, but it also requires accepting defections. And that means making clear to those who want out that they will be allowed to leave quietly.

This will be unpopular with elements of the opposition coalition, not least those who have opposed Chavez from the start, those who have suffered at his hands economically, and especially those in senior positions who have suffered personal legal persecution. But the former are a minority of the national electorate, and if there is anything that the elections of 1999, 2004, and 2006 showed, it is that the voters who gave the opposition its victory now likely did not intend their decision as a mandate to punish Chavistas for what they were doing in the early noughties. As for those who suffered personal persecution, the new MUD majority should take its stand firmly on their release. But even this should be done intelligently. Maduro may well be happy to release almost anyone as a magnanimous gesture if asked, but an effort to force the issue could easily place him in a position where it would be tempting to take a stand defending the "office of the Presidency", crafting an unnecessary constitutional conflict to distract from the plenty of real ones that are likely to arise in the next few years.

Most importantly, the MUD has to realize that ultimately their battle needs to be won within Venezuela. Having done observing work there and in Zimbabwe, what struck me most about the MDC and MUD was how many of their activists and leaders actually bought into regime propaganda that the United States and the UK had their back. In the case of Zimbabwe, where the United States, or at least its representatives who mattered had lost any interest in Tsvangirai back in 2006, this was a tragic delusion. But it would have been delusional even had he been America's favored candidate. Ultimately the United States had a limited interest in the country and a limited ability to influence events in any case. The United States might apply sanctions to Zimbabwe itself, but America had no intention of ever using force, nor even of seriously pressuring Zimbabwe's neighbors to promote "regime change". As for the SADC, they wanted  a return to normalcy. That might best be accomplished by Mugabe's peaceful departure, but it still left his continuance in power as a preferable alternative to indefinite street warfare.

The Venezuelan opposition has correctly grasped that Chavez and now Maduro were deeply unpopular in Washington and Europe. Their mistake has all too often extending this to conclusions dangerously near those of their opponents, that this means there is some sort of orchestrated plan for their removal.  Without a doubt the United States considers the Bolarivarian regime a destabilizing element in the hemisphere, one which allies itself with groups like Hezbollah and FARC, attacks its own people, and backs dangerous elements in other nations. But while Washington would like it to be gone, there is no fixed schedule, no need for it to be gone in 2010, or 2013, or now 2015. Washington wants the MUD to succeed, but it will not intervene to save it from its own failures if it insists on making them.

That means in order for any help to be worthwhile, the MUD has to help itself, and that means presenting itself as a functioning alternative government whose primary interest is that of the Venezuelan people, not beating the Chavistas. Turning around the economy, getting goods into stores, restoring political and economic freedom, all of those are important. Trying to return to 1998 is not something anyone wants, or at least most, nor is collapsing into factional warfare.

The Venezuelan opposition has a real chance here, but it is just that, a chance or opportunity. Winning the National Assembly is the beginning of the road, not the end.


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