As I have noted previously, fake polling and other suspicious activities in previous Venezuelan elections had helped those with a political agenda, including some journalists, advance their interests. There was less of this in Venezuela’s October 7 election than in some previous elections, but still plenty to go around. The dubious achievement awards for this election go to:
- Barclays, one of the world’s biggest banks: put out a report two days before the election stating that “an opposition victory looks likely,” and recommending to its investors that they buy Venezuelan bonds. Two days later Chavez won by 11 percentage points, and Venezuelan bonds fell by about 5 percent, although they have since recovered much of this loss. (As an intermediate to long term investment, Venezuelan dollar-denominated bonds are most likely a good buy, since the return is quite high and the risk of default is low. But those who took Barclays’ advice were betting on the election, and they lost.)
- Varianzas, a major Venezuelan polling firm, published an exit poll on the day of the election showing Chavez losing by a margin of 3.2 percentage points. A result this far off the mark has an extremely small probability of occurring by random error.
So, what I want to know: was anybody fired for these mistakes? Bloomberg noted that the lead analyst for the Barclays report was a Venezuelan who had “run unsuccessfully for public office as a member of Capriles’s Primero Justicia party.” Was it incompetence or just a desire to help the cause of the opposition that led to this gross error? You make the call. Polling firm Consultores 21 predicted a Chavez loss by 4.6 percentage points before the election. Consultores 21 had a track record of significant bias toward the opposition, but it was used by many media outlets to say that the election would be close. Will any of these people be taken seriously in other forecasts? If they made these enormous errors in the U.S. presidential race, the answer would be an obvious no. But there are special standards for sources on Venezuela . . .
Seven polling houses in September showed an average lead for Chavez of 11.7 percentage points. (The Wilson Center reported this as “Though major polling firms differ on where the race stands, they seem to agree that the final outcome is almost impossible to predict.”) So just taking the average would have gotten you within 0.7 points of the actual result. CEPR’s statistical analysis of the polling, correcting for past bias, estimated a 13.7 percent lead for Chavez, and gave Capriles a 5.7 percent chance of winning.
Some of the pre-election analysis was not dishonest but still difficult to understand. Political scientist Iñaki Sagarzazu analyzed past and current polling data and concluded on Oct. 2 that “As it stands the race is extremely close.” An 11 point margin is not extremely close, in the sense that pollsters with reasonable skill should to be able to predict the winner of such and election in advance.
As bad as the major English-language media coverage was, the Spanish-language media coverage was worse. ABC in Spain reported wild stories of a Chavez government “plan” to take over the country by military force if they lost the election – stories that were completely ignored in the major English-language media, but picked up in major Latin American newspapers. The Latin American media is the main reason that most people in Latin America have a view of Venezuela that is as distorted as, or worse than that of most U.S. residents.
Peru’s La Republica ran a piece this week by political scientist Steven Levitsky, who invented a new label for Venezuela under Chavez, “Competitive Authoritarianism.” For him, the Chavez government is “equally authoritarian” as the Fujimori government in Peru. Fujimori carried out a presidential coup in 1992, dissolving the Congress and suspending the constitution; the legitimacy of his government was widely questioned internationally throughout most of his tenure. He is currently serving a prison sentence for murder, kidnapping, and corruption that he was found to be personally responsible for during his presidency. Venezuela, by contrast, has had 15 elections or referenda under the Chavez administration, without any serious question of legitimacy; it has vastly increased voter registration and participation (more than 96 percent and 80 percent, respectively in the most recent election, which Jimmy Carter called the best electoral process of 92 countries that he had observed).
But for Levitsky, “there is not democracy in Venezuela,” but rather a form of authoritarianism like Fujimori’s Peru. This is a bit like asserting that the United States and Saudi Arabia have the same political systems, since in both countries the vast majority of the people have little or no input into the most important national policy decisions that affect their lives. Probably no political scientist could get away with such an exaggeration. But hey, this is about Venezuela – exaggeration is the norm, and anything goes.