Breaking up is hard to do

Katy says: A few days ago Primero Justicia, Venezuela’s third-largest political party, suffered a public split. A group led by Chacao mayor Leopoldo López (pictured right) and former assemblymen Gerardo Blyde and Liliana Hernández resigned from the party alleging a lack of internal democracy, saying in the process that the party had “aged quickly” and questioning its internal democracy mechanisms. In this post, I will argue that their claims are baseless, and that their decision amounts to a group of media-friendly politicians putting their individual interests ahead of their party’s, and the country’s.

The group’s claim could be summarized in three points: they wanted the party to have an “impartial” electoral referee, a trustworthy electoral roll and they called for party members to directly choose their national authorities. What they really wanted was control over the party’s institutions, and since they did not get it, on February 3rd, the day of Primero Justicia’s internal elections, they announced they were abandoning the party.

The rulebook

As in every organization, elections procedures are stipulated in the rulebooks. In the case of Primero Justicia, these are quite clear: the party is a legislative body, in which the main decisions are made by the National Political Council (NPC). This body is elected by party members directly, and it is responsible selecting the party’s national “executive” authorities. Regional and local bodies all have a say in the NPC’s composition. The party structure resembles more closely a parliamentary system rather than a presidential one, which in itself, as any rational person would agree, does not make the party un-democratic. Lopez, Blyde and Hernández were all, until recently, members of the NPC.

This rulebook was the product of a consensus reached when the party was formed, and it is legally registered and signed by all of its founders, including López, Blyde and Hernández. The book also includes an article naming Julio Borges as National Coordinator of the party, whereby the signees (again, including López, Blyde and Hernández) grant Borges the legitimacy to guide the party and assume its top leadership position.

In spite of this, the NPC and Borges have a history of clashes. The most famous one occurrred after Borges announced he was running for President, when the NPC famously sided with Accion Democrática and agreed to withdraw from the 2005 Legislative elections. Borges saw this as a mistake and a challenge to his leadership, yet he accepted this democratic decision and moved on. The NPC was clearly in the hands of the radical opposition segment, and López, Blyde and Hernández were calling the shots.

Borges then used his presidential candidacy as an opportunity to tour the country, establishing close links not only with ordinary Venezuelans and swing voters, but with regional party representatives that were beginning to feel neglected by the Caracas wing of the nascent organization. After having publicly rebuffed its leader and presidential candidate on the issue of the Legislative elections, Borges’s slow and steady work ensured that, at present, the NPC sides with his issues most of the time.

Getting in touch with the party base would seem like the basic thing one has to do in order to win an internal party election. Sadly, this is something the dissenters have not done enough of, and it is one of the main reasons why their decision to leave the party is deeply linked to a desire to avoid a humiliating defeat in a national party election.

The conditions

Back in July, the dissenters decided to withdraw from all party activity, alleging that they were a separate current within Primero Justicia and that were not represented by current authorities. That particular feud was sparked by the NPC’s decision to remove Blyde from the General Secetariat for having gone to Rosales to negotiate certain elements of the campaign when, at the same time, the party’s presidential candidate and legitimate leader was negotiating a coalition with Rosales.

Blyde’s reckless attitude not only hurt Borges’s standing within the nascent opposition coalition, it also put in jeopardy the opposition’s unity around the Rosales candidacy. To add injury to insult, Manuel Rosales incorporated people from both tendencies in his campaign leadership team, thereby granting legitimacy to the dissenters’ complaints. This was clearly something he should not have done if he had any respect for the party’s institutions.

Leopoldo López then became the Rosales campaign’s de-facto general manager. Rosales picked López to chair the campaign’s organization in Caracas, confident that Lopez’s apparent charisma would translate in a convincing victory for him in the capital. Borges took all this as a slap in the face but said nothing for the benefit of unity.

The facts showed that Lopez’s charisma was overblown. Rosales managed only 962,020 votes in Miranda, Vargas and the Capital District, 15,000 fewer votes than the opposition had gotten according to the disputed results of the Recall Referendum, when the voter electoral roll was much smaller. It was a bona-fide disaster for the opposition, yet López never took full responsibility.

Since the dissenters had decided to withdraw from the party that July, acting authorities went ahead with plans for internal elections in the first trimester of 2007, something none of Venezuela’s major political parties have done in the past 10 years. The NPC named an Electoral Commission mostly comprised, as was natural, of supporters of the party’s leadership, the only ones who were actively participating in the party’s move to get out the vote and, frankly, the only ones who were even going to the meetings.

The irony is that, as Primero Justicia was becoming the only major Venezuelan political organization to hold internal election, dissenters were shamefully calling the party “autocratic” and “undemocratic,” even hinting that they might be better off participating in Un Nuevo Tiempo, a party that has never held internal elections. López, Blyde and Hernández rarely, if ever, asked voters to cast their vote for their own party, and they were seldom seen wearing the party’s colors during the presidential campaign.

This period also coincided with a growth in the registered party activists who were eligible to cast their votes in internal elections. This, combined with dissenters’ withdrawal from party activity, is the reason why the first two of the dissenters’ demands ring so hollow. Nobody would dispute that an impartial arbiter is necessary, and party authorities showed generosity in negotiating with the dissenters a committee everyone could agree with. Yet what the dissenters wanted was a commission where they had the majority, something that clearly went too far.

Furthermore, the electoral roll was made available so that it could be audited, only to be told by the dissenters that the roll of party activists had grown suspiciously over the past year and that they could not agree with it. Ultimately, what the spat boiled down to was a voluntary withdrawal from the party for the past year on the part of dissenters. Their posture demanding that Primero Justicia had to do what they wanted after they had abanoned their party many months ago was hypocritical, to say the least.

The third aspect of their requests was even more absurd: the dissenters simply demanded the party change its internal structure, just because. After agreeing to a federal parliamentary system, something perfectly democratic and new in Venezuelan politics, they decided that they would prefer if the system was more tailored to their own electoral possibilities. In effect, their demands were so outrageous, the only way the party could come out with any hint of integrity was for the institutions to stay put and for ordinary procedures to be followed.

Venezuela has a long history of caudillismo, of “personalities” commanding their own armies and wanting existing institutions to submit to their own interests. Primero Justicia is an attempt to break that mold. If the dissenters were serious about changing the party from a parliamentary to a presidential structure, they should have worked within the party structure to change that. They should have gone to the NPC meetings they stopped going to a year ago and put forth a proposal to change the party’s internal structure. They should have participated in internal elections and tried to win a majority of seats in the NPC to change the way the party was handled. They couldn’t have seriously expected the party to agree to every one of their demands, or else.

What people think

Ordinary opposition voters are dismayed at seeing a promising political party break into factions so early in the game. Some people think the exit of López, Blyde and Hernandez is a severe blow to the future prospects of Primero Justicia, and an ominous sign for the opposition movement as a whole. They are wrong on both counts.

The opposition movement will not suffer greatly due to this split. We were divided in factions before, and we remain divided in factions now. The fact that López and company are forming their own group will not make an opposition coalition any easier or any harder to maintain, given that a big chunk of it is already in Manuel Rosales’ party Un Nuevo Tiempo, and another huge chunk is unaffiliated to any political parties.

On the contrary, the dissenters’ exit is a victory for institutions, for playing by the rules and not yielding to the illegal demands of a rich, good-looking mayor who is popular with the Globovisión crowd but is unknown outside Eastern Caracas. While López, Blyde and Hernández resorted to ridiculous name-calling, Capriles, Borges, Ocariz and Briquet mainly stuck to the high road and refused to fall in their trap, openly asking dissenters to come back to the party and showing flexibility in willing to meet them half way. In preserving its integrity and refusing to meet the demands of opposition radicals, Primero Justicia becomes a party better positioned to win over the crucial Ni-ni vote once reality bites and Chavenomics comes falling down like a house of cards.

In the meantime, some people bemoan the loss of López, Blyde and Hernandez, arguing they were the most charismatic bunch in Primero Justicia. To them I ask: if they were so charismatic, how can you account for López’s ultimate failure in securing a win for Rosales in Caracas? If they were so popular with the PJ crowd, why not participate and prove it? It’s not like Primero Justicia was relying on fishy voting machines casting doubt on the results – the voting was manual, the voter roll was open to auditing, and they would have been able to place witnesses in every voting center.

Primero Justicia wished the dissenters luck upon learning of their departure. Their nascent political movement is going to need all the luck it can get, and one hopes their charisma is powerful enough to overcome the fact that its superstar leader (López) is prevented from holding elected office ‘til God knows when.

The most radical segment of opposition public opinion, including media outlets such as Globovisión, seems to have sided with the dissenters. This is regrettable because the dissenters are wrong. Their claims were illegal, unsubstantiated, overly dramatic and were seeking to harm the party that first gave them a platform. Furthermore, the way this split has been playing out in public, and the allegations being hurled at current Primero Justicia authorities, says volumes about the bitter ego trips some of the dissenters are engaged in. To this day, López continues to attack his former party in ways that are harmful to the opposition movement as a whole, seeking to build up his own movement on the ashes of his previous one.

Hopefully, all this infighting will end soon. In the meantime, one can only hope that, in going their separate ways, each side shows some restraint in how they characterize the other in public so that a future coalition remains viable, something the country desperately needs. Current Primero Justicia authorities seem to have made a fresh start and have turned the page. Will the dissenters do the same?