What Lessons Did Venezuelans Learn from Their Parliamentary Elections?
Venezuelans are increasingly wired. The number of mobile phone subscribers within the country has more than doubled since 2005 and, along with Indonesia and Brazil, they boast the highest Twitter penetration in the world. It’s not surprising, then, that this month’s parliamentary elections saw a clamor of well-wishing citizens trying to use technology to galvanize civil society.
In many ways, these citizen efforts were successful. “The good news for Venezuela is that representative democracy—which Mr Chávez promised to replace with a “participatory” version—is still alive. Turnout was 66 percent, and there were few claims of irregularities...neither side challenged [the results],” wrote the Economist. High turnout can be attributed in part to the outsize degree of social media use among Venezuelan citizens—as Global Voices reported, “Days before voting began, on September 26, people used social networking sites to encourage friends and followers to vote. People’s Facebook statuses called for the people of Venezuela to vote like they had never voted before.”
While these accomplishments are even bigger when you take into account Venezuelans’ notorious lack of trust in democratic institutions, they do not mean that civic-minded Venezuelans can rest easy ahead of the upcoming presidential contest in 2012.
LACK OF COLLABORATION
Their biggest handicap in this round was a lack of collaboration. For example, the goal of the Ushahidi platform when it’s used in elections is to allow citizens to easily report irregularities like vote buying or fraud. As other activists in the region have discovered, a key strategy for successfully implementing the tool is coalition building so that (1) more citizens are likely to hear about it and understand how to submit reports and (2) a unified method can be devised for verifying these reports. Yet Venezuelan civil society produced not one but four separate Ushahidi installs.
This meant not only that they had trouble getting a coalition together, but also that there were four different SMS codes, Twitter accounts, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses for Venezuelan citizens to report election irregularities to. Venezuelans are wired, sure, but are they that digitally fluent, or should they have to be?
When I asked the people behind the different Ushahidi maps why they didn’t collaborate, they told me that it wasn’t for lack of trying. Iliana Munoz of “Dale Poder a Tu Voto” said that her team immediately reached out to the other organizations in an effort to create just one platform, but that “in none of the cases was it possible.” This, she says, was due to a mixture of logistical obstacles and disagreement over whose map to use. Andres Azpúrua of Voto Joven said that Dale Poder insisted on using their own map rather than anyone else's, but that his team had made modifications to the code and was therefore keen to stick with their own platform. These missteps are indicative of a rush toward tools at the expense of planning and strategy, a mistake that should be avoided at all costs in 2012.
POLARIZATION AT THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM
Everyone I spoke to emphasized that if they had had more time to do so before the elections they would have been able to create just one integrated Ushahidi map. But the lack of collaboration itself may be rooted in the larger problem of polarization as much as in the time strain. “The existence of more than one site,” said Illiana, “reflected the effects of [social and political] polarization on the efforts of civil society, where you often see duplications of social initiatives instead of coalitions and alliances.”
One can imagine just how exacerbated this polarization will be in 2012 when Chavez faces his possible ouster. Ahead of the ’12 election, different facets of Venezuelan civil society would do well to develop a unified strategy for ensuring not just that they harness new tools like Ushahidi to get out the vote and foster trust in the democratic process but also that they bolster the use of these tools by taking into account the various obstacles to coalition building that they’re going to face.
Are you in Venezuela or have you worked or spoken with members of Venezuelan civil society who are working in this field? Let us know what you think.