On Sunday night, CIPE partner Democracy in Development (DENDE) pulled off a victory for democracy in Paraguay that surpassed their own expectations: the first true presidential debate in the country.
Not only did all four leading presidential candidates participate, the debate was broadcast over the six principal television networks in the country, as well as on 150 commercial radio stations and more than 500 community radio stations. No debate on this scale has happened before in Paraguay, and probably not in all of Latin America.
DENDE was not alone in pulling off this event. Its principal partner in country was the Center for Regulations, Norms and Studies of Communication (CERNECO). The event has been a year and a half in the making and was preceded by series of grassroots organizing events in forums for the business, social and political sectors of the country. Through these forums and the citizen surveys that DENDE conducted, a policy framework was developed to guide the political, economic, and social priorities for the country and which helped steer the debates.
The presidential inauguration in Venezuela has come and gone and President Chavez was a no-show, still presumably recuperating from a post-operative respiratory infection after his fourth surgery to “remove malignant cells” from his pelvic area. In reality, little is officially known about his actual medical condition and whether he will ever be able to return and reclaim the presidency. He has not been seen in public since December 11.
Until Wednesday’s decision by the Venezuelan Supreme Court, the lack of information about what would happen on inauguration day left Venezuelans unsettled. Police and military were in the streets of Caracas to fend off any disturbances that might occur.
Unsurprisingly, the court ruled in favor of viewing the inauguration as a formality and saw no legal obstacle to Chavez continuing as head of state for an unspecified period of time. The decision provoked an outcry from opposition forces that claimed a rupture in constitutional democracy in the country. However, former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles accepted the decision calmly, claiming that the opposition “can’t be seen as trying to gain via a technicality what we have yet to achieve via the vote.”
The private sector has a long history of involvement in Venezuelan politics, some of it quite controversial. For this reason, the peak organization representing the private sector, Fedecámaras, was very careful about maintaining an appropriate profile during this year’s presidential election process.
The president of the organization held a press conference before the election calling upon the Venezuelan people to vote in this very important election. After the election, in which Hugo Chávez was re-elected for a fourth term despite a record showing by the opposition, the Fedecámaras president hailed the peacefulness of the process and asked for the country to seek a path in which private initiative and the state could cooperate in stimulating the economy and creating jobs.
Looking well beyond the election outcome, in August, Fedecámaras introduced “Progress and Well-Being,” a program that they had planned to implement regardless of the election outcome. The program’s goal is to develop a path through which Venezuela can depart from a state-oriented approach to development and replace it with a shared vision for a future that will generate a million jobs in three years and triple private investment in the country.
Last week I was invited by the opposition Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD) in Venezuela to serve as an election observer in the presidential elections where Hugo Chavez was seeking reelection after 14 years in office against the opposition candidate, the young, marathon-running Henrique Capriles Radonski. By the time Sunday dawned, there were high hopes that the Capriles candidacy could make great strides in obtaining votes, and perhaps win the election.
On Sunday morning, October 7, my international group of observers was ready to set out. We had received our credentials from the MUD office, but the government electoral authority (CNE) did not recognize our electoral observer status. Only observers from friendly countries of the UNASUR pact were allowed: no Carter Center, no European Union, and no Organization of American States delegations were permitted full observer status. My group was hoping that the local polling stations would be open and friendly enough to allow us in, despite our compromised status.
That was a big assumption, given that we were headed to one of the biggest Chavez supporting areas of Caracas, La Vega, which also is very poor and sometimes violent. My group of Spaniards, Argentines and me, the lone American, were ready to take on our assignment. But we did not know what to expect.
A Venezuelan voter casts her ballot in Sunday's opposition primary. (Photo: Staff)
By 11am on Sunday, February 12, the sun was already beating down strongly on the many Venezuelan citizens waiting in line to vote. Despite the nearly unbearable heat, nobody was complaining. In fact, the exuberance of the people waiting for three, four, or five hours in line to vote for their candidate in the Democratic Unity Table presidential primary election was contagious. Nothing like this had happened any time recently in Venezuela history and the excitement in the air was palpable.
As an election observer invited by the party — here it’s referred to as the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) — I was lucky enough to experience what many hope will be an historic day for this country. The government of President Hugo Chávez had mounted a disinformation campaign that asked people not to vote in the opposition primary election organized by the MUD and forbade government workers and members of the Chavez political party PSUV from voting. The government told people that no more than 800,000 people would vote and the results would be insignificant. Even MUD supporters were fearful about low voter turnout given the risks many people might have to take in order to go to the polls. Government workers feared for their jobs, contractors thought they would lose their government contracts and business people worried that they would be persecuted by government authorities. Their most optimistic projections were that two million people would come out to the polls.
What happened that day was a remarkable exercise of the democratic process. People lost their fear and came out in droves. Young people mixed with octeganarians at polls I visited. Even some government workers decided that they preferred to honor their democratic rights rather than remain intimidated. The government here frowns on international electoral observers, but when we were introduced in the polling station both the staff and the voters broke out in applause. Even the military personnel who guarded the polls seem to get caught up in the optimism of the moment.
Other than the long lines the election process went very smoothly. In past elections, machines were used that did not provide paper receipts so verification of the results was impossible. New machines were present at this election that allowed each participant to check his or her vote before depositing it in the ballot box. Despite widespread fear that it would happen, no government intimidation happened at the polls I visited.
Last night at 9pm, the results were announced by the MUD — more than three million voters overcame their fears and voted. The winner with 1.8 million votes was Henrique Capriles Radonski, who has promised a government of unity for all Venezuelans. He invited all the candidates he ran against to join him on the stage to demonstrate the unity that exists within the MUD. It is expected that some of them will join his government should he win the election. Now, the challenging work for the MUD will begin: to build a winning campaign that might unseat Hugo Chavez, with his willingness to employ all the powers of the state to stay in office. But for this day, the Venezuelan people enjoyed a breath of fresh air and the promise of a new dialogue on where the country is headed.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner. Photo: http://www.english.rfi.fr
This weekend’s elections in Argentina produced an overwhelming victory for incumbent President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Not only did she score an historic victory capturing 54% of the popular vote in the first round—winning by the largest margin ever in since democracy was brought back in 1983—she also recaptured control of the National Congress.
The vote presents a real mandate for her leadership in the next four years, especially since she accomplished it without the behind the scenes labors of her late husband, Nestor Kirchner.
The real question is how President Fernández will use this mandate to forge the future for her country. Early indications are that she intends to continue the economic and political course that she and her husband began eight years ago using the popular vote as a stamp of approval for her past policies. Through government stimulated consumer demand, those policies have yielded a 9.5% increase in GDP during the first half of this year.
However, this path is fraught with troublesome signs and if she pursues it could lead to her undoing. Critics point to the following worrisome indicators:
- Government statistics claim that the inflation rate is at 9% but independent analysts place the rate at more than 20% per year. The latter calculation would bring the GDP growth rate down to a more modest 5.9%
- Government spending is increasing on average 34% per year. In August, it rose 43% compared to a year earlier while revenues climbed 34%.
- Capital flight is increasing, with $9.8 billion leaving the country during the first half of the year.
The Kirchners’ economic growth model appears to have won the approval of the Argentine electorate given the margin of President Fernández’ election. However, it is doubtful that voters understand the full implication these policies for the future of the country.
CIPE partner, the Center for the Implementation of Public Policies for Equity and Growth (CIPPEC) worked throughout the campaign to stimulate substantive political debate by researching and presenting policy positions as part of their Agenda for the President program. Their focus has not only been on national fiscal spending but on education, social welfare and 12 other important policy topics. CIPPEC’s efforts are intended to create a national dialogue on government policies across the board and provide important civil society input into the political process so fundamental to democracy in Argentina.
As President Fernández prepares her government for a second term, it is not too late to engage in such a discussion with civil society groups such as CIPPEC. As in any country, democracy in Argentina would benefit greatly from a better-informed and engaged public that thinks about the future for themselves and their children.
Favela Cantagalo, on the hill in the background. Thanks to comprehensive property titling, satellite dishes are no longer the only connection Brazil's favelas can have to the formal economy. (Photo: CIPE)
Cantagalo is a community perched on the hills above the affluent neighborhood of Ipanema, with magnificent views of the coastline and surrounding mountains. It is one of the older favelas in Rio, with a 100-year history of families living on, inheriting and even selling land that they do not formally own. For years they have survived without legitimate access to basic services such as water, electricity, or sewers. Without city streets, residents had to climb stairways to reach their homes on Cantagalo Hill from Ipanema down below.