H.C. Radonski: different strokes
“Of the 92 elections that we have monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.” If someone other than a former president of the United States of America had said this it would have been dismissed as propaganda at best, a crazy rant at worst.
But this was what Jimmy Carter chose to emphasize a few days ago, that too on a very special occasion: the 30th anniversary of his Carter Center in Atlanta which has gained a sterling reputation for election monitoring worldwide, along with its diverse activities that won the Nobel Peace Prize for the organization 10 years ago.
That was not all. Earlier this month, Carter travelled to Washington to talk about his perspective on inter-American relations at an important conference on Latin America. There he drew similarities between the US and Venezuela that are often lost in the unseemly cacophony that is orchestrated about the personality of Hugo Chavez instead of what he intrinsically represents for his people or for the western hemisphere. Carter’s words deserve attention in India in a month when a new wave of economic reforms has altered political equations in the country to the point where stability of the government was put under a challenge.
“I cannot ignore two significant election campaigns now underway. Venezuela will elect a president on October 7 and the US one month later. Despite the many differences between our two countries, we have some important similarities,” Carter said. “One is that both countries are debating the fundamental relationship between State and society. What guarantees do our governments want to provide to all our citizens, especially the most vulnerable? Who will pay for these guarantees? What mechanisms need to be strengthened to ensure that core human rights and fundamental fairness are protected? These are difficult issues, and neither country is handling the debate very well.”
At his Center’s 30th anniversary commemoration, Carter went on to say that “we have one of the worst election processes in the world in the US.” That was, of course, borne out in Florida during the presidential poll in 2000. For this columnist, who has been in the thick of four US presidential elections, including the current one, Carter’s assertion does not come as a surprise. What is surprising though is that everyone carries on nevertheless as if it does not matter, while official Washington lectures other countries on democracy.
With the most expensive election campaign in history only a few weeks away from its culmination in the US, it is now mostly forgotten — but Carter reminded us — that when he contested to replace Gerald Ford in the White House in 1976, he raised zero dollars for his election. Nor did Carter raise a cent in election funding four years later when he unsuccessfully fought against Ronald Reagan.
In those days, not all that long ago, US presidential candidates accepted public financing of elections. But that acceptance also imposes strict limits on election expenses, making it impossible and unnecessary to raise any money outside the public funding.
By contrast, in this year’s American presidential election, $6 billion are being raised and, thanks to a US supreme court ruling, donors of most of this money do not have to be identified. Carter recalled a time when election fights were gentlemanly: there were no negative attacks by a presidential candidate on his rival.
His wife Rosalynn corrected the former president to say that there were no negative thrusts against a candidate personally, but yes, attacks were aplenty on policies. She should know. The Carters became one of only three presidential couples since World War II to exit the White House after a single term because of Reagan’s negative campaign of Carter’s policies, especially his Iran hostage policy.
Latin America’s evolution into functioning democracies is as remarkable a change as the collapse of the Iron Curtain in Europe. To realize the sweeping nature of that change, it is necessary to recall that when Carter was US president, almost all countries in Latin America were ruled by military dictatorships.
At the Carter Center’s 30th anniversary, the former president pointed out one aspect of this change that often escapes even those who recognize that Latin America has seen historic changes in recent years. All but two countries in the entire western hemisphere now run their elections entirely through public financing.
Carter made this point equally forcefully at the Washington conference as well. “Money in politics undermines the fundamental tenet of democracy — political equality.” He pointed to a bizarre situation in the region: Venezuela and the US share an anomaly in the region in that these are the two countries where public financing is not at the core of their elections.
In Mexico, on the contrary, there is a limit of $24 million on election expenses per candidate in choosing a president, all of which is provided through public funds. A Mexican president serves only one term in office. He is also prohibited from campaigning on behalf of a successor belonging to his party so that there is a level playing field for all candidates. Mexico has also banned any negative campaigning.
“On this and other election issues, several Latin American countries offer better practices that can benefit us all. Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and many other countries regulate television advertising,” Carter pointed out. He admitted, however, that “the problem in Venezuela is that an incumbent running for re-election can place government ads that look very much like campaign ads and command broadcast coverage of his speeches.”
When Venezuela goes to the polls next month to decide if Chavez, who has ruled the country since 1999, should be given another term, an incredible 96.5 per cent of its population of voting age would have been registered to vote. While intense voter registration drives over recent years have made this possible in Venezuela, an ironic contrast is offered in several US states as that country heads to its November polls.
Such anti-democratic efforts in the US are partly in reaction to the steady rise of its Spanish-speaking immigrant population. A leading civil rights group, the Advancement Project, reckons that in Florida, the percentage of eligible voters who are Latinos is in excess of 26 per cent while in New Mexico, this figure is slightly more than 38 per cent. Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008 and will do so again this year.
A drive to intimidate Spanish-speaking voters and deprive them of their franchise through complicated voter identification requirements is now intense in Republican-ruled states and many of these laws are being challenged in courts. The Advancement Project estimated recently that legal obstacles could prevent more than 10 million US citizens of Latino heritage from registering or voting in the coming presidential election.
In the run-up to Venezuela’s presidential polls, there has been a lot of brainstorming in Washington about the conduct of the election and its possible outcome — which is only to be expected in the light of the frosty ties between Chavez and successive occupants of the White House. David Gespass, president of the National Lawyers Guild, an organization of American lawyers, law students and legal workers founded in 1937, was recently in Venezuela to observe its electoral system. Gespass told this columnist that Chavez was vulnerable in the coming election and the opposition has, therefore, united behind a single candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, a state governor, 18 years younger than the 58 year-old president.
Gespass made a memorable point. Lawyers normally look at three components of State: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. In Venezuela, there is a fourth branch of government, the people. That may explain why Venezuela has had 14 elections and referenda in the last 11 years, with an impressive turnout each time and rising. The hope is that next month Venezuelans will send a clear message that whether they want change or continuity, it will be through the ballot box.