The unity fetish

Juan Cristobal says: Sometimes, when I’m bored, I like to indulge in a bit of political S&M and lurk in the opposition comment boards on Noticiero Digital and Noticias 24. You know, just so I can say I have my finger on the pulse of the opposition’s lunatic fringe.

Because, let’s not beat around the bush here, those places are scary. The clichés, the insults, the bad grammar and the SHOUTY ALL CAPS POSTS!!! come at you thick and fast. Going by what you see there, you couldn’t be faulted for thinking that the opposition consists of people who are either insane or stupid or both.

One of the more baffling rants that I keep running into has to do with the campaign for mayor of Chacao.

As you probably know, UNT, the party of the very popular incumbent mayor Leopoldo López, decided to nominate Liliana Hernández. López, prevented by term limits from running again, had a fit and sided with his hand-picked dauphin, city councilman Emilio Graterón. When UNT threatened to sanction Graterón for breaking party discipline, he fled the coop and is now running as an independent. Primero Justicia, meanwhile, launched the telegenic Ramón Muchacho. Muchacho argued that if UNT couldn’t get its act together, he would not withdraw.

So we’re running three solid candidates. And the natives are getting restless.

The anger has to do with the fact that none of the three candidates seem all that enthusiastic about stepping aside for someone else. There are several proposals for unity out there, but none have stuck. The latest one is a primary that only one candidate appears to be willing to take part in. So by all accounts, it’s looking like we will be running with not one, not two, but three strong, viable opposition candidates in Chacao.

Well, the good folks on the comments boards have made this a casus belli. They don’t seem to care that the opposition has achieved unity in an overwhelming majority of states and municipalities, including most of the genuinely competitive ones. The Chacao experience is enough for them to conclude that oppo politicians are simply a lost cause.

In fact, some of them sound like they’re parroting the chavista party line. The government, in another example of the outrageous use of public resources for partisan purposes, put out a press release commenting on the state of “opposition disunity in Chacao,” noting in the end that the PSUV supposedly selected its candidates in a primary – brushing over the fact that internal fights within chavismo are reminiscent of Jerry Springer.

Chacao is much more important than its nominal value would suggest. With barely 72,000 residents crammed together into a tiny 13 square kilometers, it is, by any measure, tiny. Hell, the Chavez clan has farms that are bigger than that!

However, Chacao’s budget is the envy of many a mayor. With the heart of Venezuela’s business community and some of Caracas’s poshest neighborhoods within its boundaries, the budget constraint for Chacao is not binding, at least not relative to the rest of the country’s municipalities.

Chacao is also important for a symbolic reason: the place is a crossroad for anyone criss-crossing Caracas. Whether you are taking a bus from Petare to Capitolio, going to work as a maid in Altamira or taking your kids for a weekend stroll at the Sambil, you gotta go to, or at least through, Chacao.

Its budget and its location give Chacao disproportionate strategic importance. Chacao is the place where the opposition can show the country’s less well-off how it can govern when given the chance and a hefty budget. It is no coincidence that Chacao’s last two elected mayors have become prominent national political figures.

So, is the opposition in danger of losing the crucial Chacao election because of disunity? Hardly. According to the polls I’ve seen, Chavez’s candidate, the hapless, unknown Wolfgang Torres, is polling at around 2%. In some polls, his name doesn’t even show up.

There is a strong case to be made against primaries in Chacao. For one, they are expensive. For another, they artificially stifle competition between opposition programs and ideas. Because, if we’re honest, the only reason “unity” has become such a buzzword is because we fear that without it, we’ll lose all kinds of races against chavismo.

But in Chacao, we just aren’t vulnerable. It’s not even close. There’s really no compelling reason to compel a unified slate there. And yet, the hounds of opposition unity are after the three main candidates, and they’re hungry for blood. It’s like there’s an eagerness, a need, to jump all over opposition politicos and slam them almost as virulently as we slam chavismo.

This makes no sense. The good people of Chacao will have their primary: it will be on November 23rd. Bring your cédula laminada, aún vencida.

(Disclosure: I went to high school with both Muchacho and Graterón.)