The tragedy of the Venezuelan opposition

The opposition camp in Venezuela is more divided than ever. Yesterday’s reasons for unity have now become reasons for breaking it up. And Chavismo is winning some breathing space. Español

Tomás Straka
16 November 2017

Photo courtesy of Nueva Sociedad. This article is being published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original article here.

The regional elections of October 15 were a true catastrophe for the opposition in Venezuela. Few times in history has an electoral event had such overwhelming consequences: practically, the destruction of the loser – nothing less. The Democratic Unity Table (MUD), the alliance of parties that, with some success, had been confronting Nicolás Maduro, has dissolved and the parties that made it up, each with its own interpretation of what happened, have now regrouped into three large blocks which are more or less opposed to each other. The candidates who, until the day before the elections, had been well placed in the polls, are now blurred to the point that nobody seriously considers them as potential candidates for the forthcoming elections in 2018. And the opposition voters, who are still in a majority, have sunk into hopelessness and do not know if to give up and accommodate as best they can with the situation, or to find a way to move abroad.

How was this hecatomb possible? How is it that, after four months of protests that practically paralyzed the country, with a government disapproval  rate of about 80%, international condemnation and sanctions, the worst economic crisis in the history of the country and the possibility of a default in the very short term, Maduro can claim victory and such a huge one at that? 

The answer to these questions is key to understanding the changing Venezuelan situation and to extracting some useful lessons for political analysis. The way in which each side played their cards, with one side being able to gather its forces while the other dispersed theirs, the importance of the narratives and of the leaders who give meaning to events that move the population, and the role of appearances for conquering power or maintaining it, are all factors that have been at play in the chain of events and decisions that led to the results of the October 15 elections. 

How is it that, after four months of protests that practically paralyzed the country (...) Maduro can claim victory and such a huge one at that?

Let us start with the appearances. The sheer size of the protests and their continuity in time led many to think that the regime’s fall was near. But the truth is that, except from the dissidence of Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, the government block did not break, at least not in any apparent way, or enough so as to be forced to accept the opposition’s demands: an electoral timetable, the freeing of political prisoners, the opening of a humanitarian channel. On the contrary, while the police, the National Guard and the so-called "collectives" managed to control - although barely - a society which felt tired after more than three months of protests and more than one hundred dead, Maduro took the lead by calling a National Constituent Assembly (NCA). 

From that moment on, the opposition struggled to avoid its establishment and it won some great victories, such as the symbolic referendum on July 16 and the condemnation of Maduro’s initiative by many foreign countries. But the move allowed the government to lead the debate. And here is where the narrative links with the appearances: Maduro had no reason to roll back on his decision, but he made a couple of feints, such as his proposal to postpone the NCA if the opposition was willing to accept it. The indications are that the opposition leadership was so sure that they would manage to stop the initiative that, apparently, they did not prepare for the possibility that the NCA would finally be established. On the other hand, considering that opposition to the NCA was very strong among their followers, it was almost impossible for them to accept participating in it without offending them. The long list of unfulfilled promises which were made during the dialogues between the opposition and the government before the crisis also went against their heeding Maduro’s offer.

The game of appearances and the narratives that give them meaning had another side to them: probably in order to consolidate the mobilization against the NCA, it was stated that, if the Assembly were finally established, that would give absolute power to the government. But this meant that it was recognized, in advance, that absolute power would be bestowed on the government if this actually happened and that therefore, if it did happen, everything would be lost.

The opposition’s narrative turned out to be a rope tied around its neck

And, well, this is indeed what happened. And the opposition’s narrative turned out to be a rope tied around its neck. On July 30, when the National Electoral Council declared that eight million Venezuelans had voted for the Constituent Assembly (an estimated seven million participated in the referendum on July 16), the opposition leadership did not hit back with anything forceful. At the most, they said that these figures were the result of a huge fraud. A few days later, Smartmatic, the firm in charge of the vote counting, said that the results had been manipulated, thus endorsing this thesis. But elections of governors had already been called by then, and this meant that the opposition had to face the dilemma of either participating in these elections, despite all the serious doubts about their fairness, or refusing to do so and thus risk losing power spaces and leave all the governorates in the hands of Maduro’s government. 

It was decided – on the basis of sound reasons – to go for the first option, but it is obvious that many voters saw in this an incongruity: how can you ask voters to participate in elections which are organized by those whom you yourself have accused of being dishonest? Although there were leaders who did call for the voters’ abstention, it did not take too much effort to sow doubt, especially because instead of explaining the risks and the reasons why it had decided to participate, the opposition chose to jump on an over-confident narrative which said that it would surely win, if not all, almost all the country’s governorates. 

And this is where Maduro confirmed that he was a better player. While in the opposition-dominated constituencies people decided not to vote - maybe the loss of middle-class voters who have emigrated began to be felt too -, the government ran an efficient voter co-optation machine through its aid – especially food - distribution channels and its well-disciplined militancy. Some observers say that this is very similar to what the Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party does: electoral authoritarianism – that is, a system in which there is no need for massive fraud, you have only to add up many different forms of shifting the advantage to the government’s side so as to win always, with or without a majority. The forms in which the government can do, and does it range from last-minute transfer of middle-class opposition voters to polling stations further away from their homes, or to polling stations located in places they would consider dangerous, to using food distribution councils to mobilize voters. 

The result was the knockout of October 15: nineteen governorates for the government and five for the opposition. 

Again, there was some talk of fraud, but low voter turnout was quickly blamed for the results, which suggests that the government's victory was perfectly clean – or that the defeat was recognized by the opposition. The icing on the cake was that four of the five elected opposition governors were sworn in before the National Constituent Assembly which had been declared illegitimate by the opposition. 

Maybe the experience has taught some lessons to the opposition players

Following this, the differences that everyone knew were brewing inside the MUD surfaced and ended up splitting the alliance into three bloks: the Social Democratic parties Democratic Action and A New Time, which have taken the option of operating within the limits set up by the regime (although some say it is simply connivance with the established power); at the other end, the Liberal party Come Venezuela and the Social Democratic Brave People Alliance led by María Corina Machado and Antonio Ledezma, which, united under the I Am Venezuela alliance, are committed to uncompromising resistance; and, finally, Justice First (center), Popular Will (Social Democratic) and Radical Cause (Socialist), which present themselves as the true heirs of the MUD under a new alliance, Venezuela Comes First. 

Notwithstanding the fact that the rejection by a majority of the population, the disastrous economic situation which is bound to get even worse, and the international sanctions, do not make things easy for Maduro, the opposition tragedy has meant that political discussion now focuses on the possibility of Maduro running for re-election next year, or on whether the United Socialist Party of Venezuela will opt for a leadership renewal and present as a candidate young Héctor Rodríguez, a promising figure of Chavismo who has just won the very strategic Mirando State – which covers, basically, the hinterland of Caracas - and who, so it seems, is currently rising in the polls. It is being ruled out that any other figure stands any real chance. 

The disaster experienced by the Venezuelan opposition will probably be a study case. For it shows that, in politics, things are not what they seem and that the narratives which are built on them can carry fundamental weight. The game continues and there are still cards up the sleeve. Maybe the experience has taught some lessons to the opposition players.

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