Primaries for the Venezuelan opposition?

Although away for a short vacation echoes of the internal debate of the opposition (assuming that it is actually taking place) reach me. The new coordination group seems to be dead on arrival as it is not yet able to make a difference with the long extinct and failed Coordinadora Democratica. And Leopoldo Lopez, with time on his hands, is proposing a primary system as the universal panacea to motivate all to go and vote and trash Chavez. Meanwhile, with the hot button of Globovision to hide the real stuff going on, the government is passing a new electoral law that will ensure that the opposition can gain a majority in the parliament only if it gets more than 50% of the popular vote, and I do not mean 51 or 52, I mean at least 55%.

What to do?

I have been thinking about writing about this topic but since I avoid writing about what should be done since I will never be given an opportunity to try it out, I dodge. But been on vacation, for once I will indulge.

The first think to be aware of is that a primary system will not solve any problem of opposition unity unless guarantees for small players are not respected. In real terms this mean that a representative seat must be guaranteed to any semi significant group, and its prima donna leader, if not they will lose any motivation to sweat it to get the other guys elected. It is one thing to unite behind a referendum proposal or behind a presidential candidate as the collective interest is obvious and the collective rewards implied. It is another thing to try to elect 10 Primero Justicia representatives when your own party will probably get zilch since it lost it all in the primaries. Egotistical perhaps but this is the way politics work, even ten years under Chavez autocracy.

On the other hand, behind closed doors negotiations do not guarantee unity and division over failed negotiations end up in dramatic losses like Bolivar State or the town halls of Valencia and Cumana last November. The answer? A combination of both. Some seats should be negotiated to guarantee representation to all parties even if the bigger ones (UNT, PJ) must make some concessions. And the bulk should be assigned according to primaries.

First, there must be reasonably appreciation of how many seats could a united opposition aspire to with the November result. As it stands now this probably would amount to 40% of the actual National Assembly, or say, rounding it, 60 seats. That is, the strategy must be to ensure 60 seats, anything above that is bonus. Thus we can already divide the potential seats in two groups: the 60 “likely” and the rest “less likely”. The first conclusion is that the “less likely” seats should be allocated under a strict system based on primaries, and that is that.

The second problem is to divide these 60 “likely” into two groups. The first group would be 15 seats assigned by negotiations so as to make sure that all get at least one seat. Think about it: PJ, UNT, AD, COPEI, MAS, PODEMOS, BR, CONVERGENCIA, ABP, PV, plus 2-3 regional groups and we are already nearing 15! The other 45 “likely” seats will be assigned through a primary system which is way more complicated to come up with than what people might think.

The electoral system of Venezuela is not very friendly to organizing primaries since we can elect representatives through lists and through districts. And in small states such as Yaracuy our 5 representatives come from 1 each from three districts and 2 from a list, precluding any real proportional representation. Thus we could risk CONVERGENCIA, the local opposition group, to claim all and not lift a finger elsewhere; which is what happened in the 2000 vote.

This is not an obstacle nor an advantage but there are ways to force all the small parties that get entitled to one seat to campaign hard: make these 15 winning seats depend as much as possible on the representation of the state at large to motivate as much the beneficiaries of the "safe" seat to move their butt during a campaign.

Example Yaracuy: the expected CONVERGENCIA seat should be in the list seat, that is, CONVERGENCIA will need to campaign all across the state in the name of all parties to elect its representative, and thus hopefully pull the other guys along in individual districts (assuming that CONVERGENCIA is not dead but that is another story). We could sweeten the deal by granting them one of the district seats but the other two and the second list should be designed through primaries. But no matter what, the agonizing CONVERGENCIA should be told that it will get only two seats, and if it works hard at it. If it refuses then Yaracuy will probably not elect a single opposition representative but CONVERGENCIA will disappear once and for all.

The reverse example would apply to Miranda were district seats are harder to win, such as the two from Eastern Caracas. As such Primero Justicia and COPEI should get their two “likely” from Petare district and work hard, the result showing up in the list representatives for the state at large which list is primary driven.

As you can gather, we are talking individualized primaries state by state according to what the original negotiation yields. Is this a problem? Not necessary. A nation wide primary would generate bitter resentment after a national campaign. We do not have that luxury. Besides I doubt that SUMATE has the finances to organize a single primary day. On the other hand having half a dozen of Sunday primaries allow for state by state strategies, diluting the humiliation for the losers while keeping the winners on their toes. Let’s take Yaracuy as an imaginary example: during the primaries CONVERGENCIA wins but with only 35% while UNT gets 25%. CONVERGENCIA is thus forced to content itself with 2 candidates (one safe and one primary), UNT one and the other two to the other runner up (likely PODEMOS and PJ). Thus CONVERGENCIA pays its errors of the past but is given a chance to rebuild and Yaracuy could surprise all by sending 3 out of 5 representatives when today it is expected to send 5 chavista.

What we need is a responsible negotiation without any grandstanding from any one. Primaries should also be seen as an excellent opportunity for all to build their bases and expand outside of their areas of influence. For example, what better way for Primero Justica to enter in Merida or Anzoategui or even Zulia but to run in a primary there? What better way for CONVERGENCIA to prove it is still relevant in Yaracuy but to try to win the primary there? What better way for UNT to prove that it is not stuck in Zulia by winning or at least reaching second in Caracas downtown primary?

Again, primaries in Venezuela are not the “solve it all” tool. We must respect the primacy of certain parties in their areas: Zulia should have a majority of “likely” in UNT as does PJ in Miranda or PV in Carabobo. Thus the importance of a negotiated chunk of representatives that I put at 15 but that could well be as many as 20 or 25 (but never more than 40% of the “likely” otherwise people might get pissed off). UNT, PJ and PV should recognize that if they will get a majority of elected representatives in their fiefdoms, they must make room for at least 1 or 2 from other parties.

All in all a very complex issue but as long as the opposition leadership does not start tackling complex issue in a mature and realistic way, Chavez will remain in office Iran style and each time it will be more difficult to boot him out through peaceful means. Assuming that this is still possible, but that is yet another story.

This being said, right now I am very pessimistic about a nice arrangement on this complex matter and I am certainly not holding my breath at been consulted on the matter even though I have proven that I know more about electoral projects than many of those who grace of their presence the screen Globovison, while it lasts. But heck, it was fun to write this and I cannot wait until I can say “I told you”!

Note: I limited this discussion to National Assembly elections which should come next year. Though if it were up to me the opposition should have started long ago a recall election drive on these creeps. But that is also another story. Back to topic, primaries discussion for local council elections would be an even more devilish endavour!

-The end-