An Oppo Fit For Primaries

Quico says: Throughout the day yesterday, Juan and I had a sprawling big fight about his Primaries post, all revolving around the question: is there any way the oppo leaders we have can be imagined signing on to an agreement like this?

After sleeping on it, here’s my view: it’s imaginable. Hard to imagine, but imaginable. But only, only, if there is very substantial pressure from below. In fact, it’s going to take a virtual intra-opposition insurgency to get it done.

Right now, the calculus for the party bosses – Omar Barboza, Ramos Allup, Julio Borges and whomever-ends-up-least-maimed-by-the-COPEI-dust-up – is straightforward. Select candidates in a smoke-filled room – como toda la vida – and your own power, standing and status within the opposition is strengthened. Let grubby voters select them via primaries, and you start to become superfluous. Ergo, if possible, avoid primaries.

Simple stuff. These guys are weighing up costs and benefits and coming to their own conclusions. That what’s best for them doesn’t happen to coincide with what’s best to the opposition (or the country) is neither here nor there. That’s public choice for you.

So it’s not enough to say you want primaries. You have to spell out what you’re going to do to get them. Convincing us primaries are the best thing from your point of view or from the country’s point of view isn’t good enough, because it’s not you or “the country” that’s going to make this decision. This decision is going to be made the day Barboza, Ramos Allup, Borges and COPEI-survivor-man (plus assorted hangers on) sit up in bed, weigh up their costs and their benefits and conclude, “shit, if I don’t support this primaries thing estoy jodido…

How you do this, operationally, is an open question. I have no specific idea how it is that you create a climate where saying you’re against primaries is seen as utterly unacceptable, tantamount to coming out against motherhood and apple pie. I guess making sure these guys get asked about it every single time a microphone is put in front of them is a good start.

The second consideration here – and I think this one is too easily dismissed – has to do with resources. To an extreme that I think most oppo supporters find difficult to comprehend, the oppo parties are just flat broke. I mean, really broke. Not-sure-how-I’m-going-to-pay-my-mobile-phone-bill broke. Can’t-actually-afford-to-implement-any-of-the-thousands-of-good-ideas-people-come-to-me-with-every-day broke.

The natural base of donors you might expect them to go to for funds are tapped out: terrified of Disip finding out they finance the opposition and utterly certain that a bolivar given to the opposition is a bolivar wasted because these guys are just never going to come to power.

Now, campaigning costs money. The travel costs money, the ads cost money, the billboards cost money, the events cost money, everything costs money. The opposition doesn’t have it. And organizing the actual primary costs money. Voting stations cost money. Ballots cost money. Counting infrastructure costs money. Information campaigns cost money. The opposition doesn’t have it.

Now sure: when you’re not the one having to write the checks that are going to bounce all over town like vulcanized little tokens of your pelabolismo, it’s easy to sort of wave that away, to figure “well, c’mon, they just gotta do better,” or even “hey, the excitement a primary campaign would create will be its own financing boom.” Maybe. What’s for sure is that, from the insiders’ points of view, they’ve been working their butts off for years now trying to step up their fund-raising and have been finding an extraordinarily, unprecedentedly hostile atmosphere for it.

So the demand for primaries is, at this point, a little bit like shouting at a homeless man again and again at the top of your voice demanding that he go get a suite at the Ritz-Carleton and then rolling your eyes in disgust when he starts to tell you about the obstacles.

Which comes back to saying that what we need is not so much primaries as such. What we need first is something subtly different: an opposition political establishment able to hold primaries, in two senses. First, because its leaders are drawn to them as a result of their own, hard, cold cost-benefit analyses, and because the material resources are in place for candidates to actually compete and the event to actually be held.

But then, the debate needs to be different. The question isn’t “primaries/no primaries.” The question is “an opposition able to hold primaries/an opposition unable to hold primaries.”