The 2008 election gambles: part 3, Opposition decomposition

We have discussed in the previous 2 posts the motivations of chavismo and Chavez with the electoral strategy they will follow to try to win the November election. Now we can discuss the opposition organization. It is fitting that I discuss them last because after ten years of chavismo they are still defined by a reaction to chavismo actions, not really by their proposals. Some will argue that this explains a lot of the weakness of this one and I will agree at least up to a point. Let's see first who comprises the political opposition in this eve of November: the political parties, the student movement and the people of foot.

The political parities situation in Venezuela.

The primary process

There is nothing better than local elections to see politicians crawl from under the rocks they were hiding for years. No other election in third world countries offers the possibility for a politician to get its own pay check without depending of the good will of the higher authorities elected through a parliament or presidential vote. Now it is the chance for many mediocrities to try to carve for themselves a tiny quota of power. The only surprising thing here is that actually so many people still seem to believe that under the Chavez regime being the governor or the mayor of some area actually implies some power. Besides Zulia and a couple of other states who manage to have real income, no matter who elected you , you depend in large part on Caracas charity. If you do not think so ask Morel Rodriguez, Nueva Esparta sole opposition governor outside of Zulia. Contrary to Rosales who leads the main Venezuelan state, he must rely a lot on chavista indulgence and strange dealings to preside over his battered island economy.

Now after 4 years of chavista mismanagement many politicians who feared their career over believe that they smell blood and are making a run for it. Even though the main parties of the opposition have agreed a few months ago that they will endeavor to have single candidates in every district, too many think that they can get the nod, or even the election, on their own merits. Maybe, but pollsters are very stern on this: almost everywhere the chances of victory for an opposition candidate will depend on the unity. They also point out that even established local figures who are perceived as purposefully breaking unity will be severely castigated at the polls.

Realistically there are not 20 districts in Venezuela where the opposition could run two candidates and still win without much trouble. Caracas has three, Miranda one, Carabobo maybe 2, maybe half a dozen in the Andes area, and another half to a dozen in the rest of the country. I doubt that even Zulia, today a so called bastion of the opposition, has any district where the opposition can run two candidates without worrying about chavismo. In other words there are not 10% of Venezuelan districts that can run more than one opposition candidate. Whomever thinks otherwise is either delusional or secretly sponsored by Chavez machinery. Obviously with so few safe districts there is no safe state house: nowhere could the opposition run more than one serious contender for governor (1).

An yet in spite of this clearly negative situation we observe two phenomenons: in some districts the "primary" battles of the opposition are becoming nasty enough that they could end up in a division of sorts, AND the opposition runs this campaign as if we were in any democratic country, with fair umpires to monitor all over, with real prospects to make local changes independently of what happens in Miraflores Palace.

In all fairness the "primary" campaign has been working better than expected. The dead line for each party to select its own candidate for any district has been sort of met with a few glaring exceptions such as Chacao, where even if three opposition candidates were to run chavismo would still have zero chances. Unfortunately the mediatization of the Chacao conflict risks to influence other minor disputes and could escalate them. Now, June brings us the deadlines for each party to solve its general opposition "primary" disputes through polls. I have the feeling that this is not going so well as in general we do not know which pollsters will be chosen and if indeed the opposition can afford the huge amount of polls, and expenses, that are required to have a "trustworthy" result that all will abide for. Again, I think that a general primary would have been much better, and should have been already held, putting to shame the fake PSUV primary of last Sunday where vote counts will not be necessarily announced and where too many candidates will be decided by Chavez alone.

The uninspiring political opposition

The process has at least brought a benefit: everywhere the discussion within the opposition have appeared in a very favorable light for public opinion even as some of the diehard abstentions criticize the process and its multiple choices. It seems that there is a general disposition, a general motivation of the population to get involved, to participate. Chavismo delays, coupled with an extremely short primary season where "candidates" did not have a chance to advance their opinions and combined to a rigid electoral rule are not very promising or exciting.

It is fortunate that the primary process of the opposition so far as evolved positively because it has served to mask the major deficiency of the opposition: its unwillingness to tackle the dangerous reality of Venezuela as Chavez is trying to impose his political project in spite of his loss last December. This blogger includes himself in the list of those who look with astonishment the major opposition candidate talk exclusively of potholes needing to be fixed. True, that is what local elections are about, to propose ways to solve local problems. But what is almost unforgivable is that so few of them find the time to denounce what is going on in the country. Maybe I am missing something, maybe I am not aware of secret polls which indicate that the pothole plank is the best way or only way, but I have my doubts as to the effectiveness. Many people could become disheartened about this silence when an election is always an opportunity to vent off all what is wrong in country, even if the priority accorded to some themes are different according to the stake of the election. The risk the opposition is running is that many will stay home because they find out that pothole solving is not solving milk scarcity.

Perhaps once could make an excuse as to not wanting to discuss Chavez involvement with the FARC (which I think is an error as we could do a lot of red baiting in some areas). Perhaps one could understand a reticence at discussing corruption, moral and political, at national level (though at least it is discussed at local level, uselessly as many are subjected to term limits). But one cannot understand that the opposition is not picking up the banner of regional autonomy, the accusation of increasing centralization which is already affecting negatively our quality of life at local levels. Are the opposition candidates so afraid of Chavez accusing them at some point of trying to break up the country? Are they so unable to articulate their love to country? I have a hard time to motivate myself to vote for a candidate that promises at best to work with what crumbs Caracas offers and not to fight to get all what Caracas owes us.

The political opposition sin

But what seems the gravest for the future chances of the political opposition to unseat someday Chavez and chavismo is that they are not learning. That opposition politicians are very creative at offering how to fix potholes is used to hide their lack of creativity at finding ideas on how to face chavismo. With the Venezuelan barrel now above 100 USD there is little that you can do against a shamelessly populist government: we should be happy that they will pick up efficiently the garbage for 4 years. Should we settle for that?

What is scary about how the political opposition is running its campaign is that it thinks that the result of December 2007 will translate automatically comes November. Clearly the opposition after ten years does not seem aware of who they have in front of him, of what this Chavez guy is capable of to cling to power. The illegal barring of opposition candidates? Who cares, let's put other ones, we will win anyway. The resurgent totalitarian project in spite of the December rejection? Nah, it will not happen, Chavez is leaving in 2012 anyway, we'll fix that then. That the new governors will not have a way to deal with a National Assembly that will rob them of all what they can get away with it? Not a word! Apparently manna will fall from heavens. That the CNE could rob the opposition of at least a couple of dozen of town halls and 2 to 4 state houses? Let's not discourage voters!

The political opposition clearly does not seem to understand that it did not win the 2007 referendum: it was Chavez who lost it by failing to motivate his people to vote for the constitutional change. The results are clear: if the opposition improved slightly its total from December 2006, it is solely due to many former chavista voters saying NO then. The opposition also suffered of abstention. There is absolutely no guarantee that these folks will vote against Chavez again. There is no certainty that they will vote for an opposition candidate, the more so the political opposition takes them for granted and minimizes the current legal offensive of chavismo to counter the December defeat. You do not get chavistas to vote for you offering to fix potholes: they know better than anyone else know that potholes will be fixed only when Chavez decides to fix them.

But there are still 4 full months of campaign ahead of us and in politics 4 months are an era. We shall see if this thing perks up some.

The student movement

The student movement that did so much to effect the Chavez loss last December has been rather quiescent. True, a lot of its leaders graduated and thus cannot be considered still as student leaders. But that is not the problem: the problem is how quickly some of the main leaders found their way inside some political parties, one of them even running at 27 for Caracas mayor. True, anyone almost can do better than infamous Bernal who had the nerve to claim that Downtown Caracas will soon look like Paris, but still...

UNT seems to have been the main beneficiary of the student rush to official politics. Its avowed social democrat orientation? But fortunately some have realized that waiting for a year or two before running for any office might not be such a bad idea. Thus Yon Goicochea announced that he would go to graduate school and to manage a political fund he will set with the Friedman prize money he got, thus remaining a credible student leader. But for all practical purposes the brilliant generation that elated us through 2007 is gone and the new one is not peeking out yet. Will it? Possibly, but we need to wait a crisis to see that, and local elections are not the best scenario to highlight a powerful student movement (2).

At least whatever student movement exists maintains activity and launched its first big rally of the year, reaching the National Assembly to protest against the possible extension of the enabling law. It is to be hoped that as the content as the new laws, such the one forcing you to rat on your neighbors, come to the forefront the student movement might be reborn enough to supply the political opposition relative emptiness of emotion.

The civil society.

Since the political opposition is not representing yet the core interests and worries of the population, as it cannot come up with any strategy to fight Chavez back, as the students can only do so much, we are again looking from inside the population for means of resistance. I use resistance deliberately because this is what we are reduced to as Chavez undaunted by his clear defeat of December is still trying by illegal ways to push his socialo-communist agenda. So, how does Venezuelan society articulates.

The self styled Chavez protesters. The phenomenon that we saw becoming increasingly vocal through 2007 keeps growing: they are the "lower" classes who are supposedly getting the benefits of the revolution. Well, more and more of them are unhappy and growing protests are interrupting our daily lives. The favorite action is to block for hours a main highway causing traffic total collapse of an area. Usually they always ask for Chavez to come, or to send someone because the people that he named are betraying the revolution. They claim loud that they are with Chavez all the way to the end. But you sense that they not only could well stay home again next November, or worse, vote against Chavez since this one is not directly on the ballot even if he pretends to be. And for them pothole fixing might not be such a bad idea to blackmail Chavez.

The opposition hoi poloi. It is rather quiet so far. however it is getting used to show up when it matters such as when the escualidos that live around La Carlota stopped, for the time being, the take over of the airport to build housing for pro Chavez supporter instead of the park for Caracas promised by Chavez. They also seem to be showing up to the "debates" between the different "primary" candidates of the opposition. I have received reports that the candidates that do not show up are promptly booed (and probably forfeit any chance to win in that district). We can only welcome this phenomenon that shows that people are starting to understand that they will only get rid of Chavez is they start working at it. Let's hope that the wave keeps rising until November and force the political opposition to shape up.

NGOs. The well know NGO such as SUMATE are increasingly silent. But that should not distract form the fact that new ones are forming such as the recent group to defend the December 2 result. Formed by citizens, newspapers, scientists and the like, they are trying to organize themselves to create a civil front that will try to counter the sneaky laws that today chavismo is advancing. And we can be pretty sure that recent measures such as the Rat Promotion Law will stir up existing groups or generate new ones.

Is there an electoral strategy for the opposition?

The problem here is twofold: the political opposition is woefully disadvantaged and it has been unable to repair its self inflicted wounds.

The first thing to recognize if one wants to be fair with the political opposition is to measure the huge advantages that chavismo has, from resources to all the legal levels of the country. If to this you add that everyday it becomes clearer that political opposition leaders will need to risk their skin to bring back real democracy and legality in Venezuela you can understand the reluctance of many of them to discuss what needs to be discussed.

Yet this does not excuse the self inflicted wounds of the political opposition which keeps a deep credibility problem among the people they are supposed to represent. If it all started with the inner contradictions that appeared in August 16 2004 when we were left wondering whether there was fraud or not in the Recall Election. But since then more mistakes happened trumping even stunning victories such as the massive abstention of 2005: no plan to contest the legitimacy of the new National Assembly and thus this one has been dictating awful laws for two years... Looking back, if they were not willing to hit the streets to refuse to recognize the new National Assembly they might as well should have gone on voting.

Thus we have now a weird campaign where the political opposition goes through the moves and where we pretend to follow them and support them. But the fragility of the construct is a reality and any missteps can make too many voters decide to stay home in November. Since I do not see any general strategy of the opposition except a plea for unity to get at least real pot holes fixers I will suggest some simple themes that should be delicately hammered through the campaigns, themes strong enough to inspire people, but weak enough to attract a few chavistas to secure your victory.

Defend decentralization. Embrace decentralization and underline at every campaign stop that all decisions depend more and more from Caracas, from people named by Chavez and not from local authorities. Do not worry about chavista communal councils: there is little you can say to convince them otherwise, though many people unhappy about their ways will on their own support you. Besides these councils are probably prey of internal fights because their natural leaders did not make it to the PSUV electoral lists. Go as far as to say that if you are elected at least Chavez will have to name its best elements to counter your actions (look at how well Maracaibo looks these days through the uneasy cohabitation of Rosales and Di Martino). The glorification of crossover voting so dear to many Venezuelans can only help you.

The referendum was lost by Chavez. Repeat this all the time and shamelessly state that you will defend the present constitution that can only be changed through a constitutional assembly that is supported by all without exception. Meanwhile, assert that you do not agree with some of its provisions but you will obey it contrary to Chavez who is violating it these days. Still be light on that one, always like an after thought, just to demonstrate that you have more tan just a parochial vision.

Chavez is in Caracas until 2012. Say that you voted against Chavez but that you recognized his victory. And thus folks should vote for you because that way they will get the best of both worlds: populism from Caracas and pothole fixing from your local mayor. Never show that you have a national plan, never promise a recall election on Chavez: you only want what is better for your area and protect it from Caracas abuses. This can even work in Caracas, the most abused city in Venezuela.

Recall Election for the National Assembly representatives. This is for those who are running for governor. When you are in luck and a given audience is receptive, offer to support a recall election on the local National Assembly representatives if you win. Say that you will not promote one against Chavez because he is gone in 2012, but say that if you win the ones currently sitting for your state in Caracas will sabotage you. It is risky but it is worth the risk because you could get two bonus for this risk: 1) of course if you win you will have a mandate to get rid of the lousy National Assembly leeches that will effectively sabotage you and 2) you motivate your base to vote for you promising them a national action without antagonizing possible pro Chavez cross over voters (they might even be equally pissed at their representatives than the anti Chavez voters!).

Whatever position an opposition candidate runs for if s/he manages to include at least two of the above to his pothole fixing plank s/he will greatly increase the chances to get voted in because this is the only way to really motivate opposition 'abstentionist' not to stay home. Or put in other words, there is not enough chavista votes that could be ganied to compensate what the opposition politicians will lose if they fail to motivate their own base on election day.

And for the next and last post of this series, this blogger will boldly throw his first predictions.

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1) That also is true for chavismo. However chavismo today is assured of winning without any problem at least a third of town halls, even if they were to run more than one candidate, which will not happen unless the "dissident" runs the risk of become even more grievously insulted than the expected opposition candidate.

2) The chavista student movement is reduced to nothing. As regular universities keep holding elections and chavismo accumulating defeat after defeat, there is no election at the UBV and other such chavista centers where "consensus" "camaraderie" "revolutionary spirit" maintain the pseudo students that were promoted by chavismo in 2007. Since then there has been no new blood. The ones that were presented then are now appearing just as any chavista politico. Whether chavismo has realized that it was unable to sustain a vigorous student movement and forgot about the issue we do not know, but at least it helps the transition inside the opposition students to run without major trouble.

-The end-