The early 2012 Jockeying Report

They may not be doing it publicly yet, but make no mistake about it: the opposition’s early hopefuls for the 2012 presidential nomination are already quietly but actively...

They may not be doing it publicly yet, but make no mistake about it: the opposition’s early hopefuls for the 2012 presidential nomination are already quietly but actively jockeying for position.

Early polling – and standard, it’s-too-early-for-this-to-mean-anything caveats apply – apparently shows Miranda governor Henrique Capriles Radonsky well out in front of the pack, with the stragglers making an early move to coalesce around Zulia state governor Pablo Pérez and pushing for a later-rather-than-earlier primary to give themselves time to catch up. Meanwhile, people like Maria Corina Machado or Antonio Ledezma will be struggling to keep the nomination fight from becoming a straight-up two horse race.

The early scheming is – to their credit – not being done in public view, but the urge to get going early is understandable. With the most trascendental presidential election in a generation taking place in 2012, this year is just a prelude to the next.

I’ve been talking to sources in the opposition to gage answers to the most pressing questions: how vulnerable is Chávez? When will the opposition select a unity candidate? Who will it be? Do they have a shot? Will there even be an election?

One big question has to do with the timing for a primary. Thankfully, nobody is really challenging the need for a primary at this stage.

Capriles backers want it early – December 2011 at the latest. They’re also pushing for early primaries or other agreements to select opposition candidates for regional elections – also scheduled to take place in 2012 – to be dealt with after the Presidential candidacy has been decided.

An alternate coalition, headed up by AD and UNT, appear to favor a later date, pressing for a 2012 primary. These two, who have come together in a semi-calition called the “Bloque Socialdemócrata“, are lining up to launch the candidacy of Zulia governor Pablo Pérez. Yesterday, Alfonso Marquina pretty much pulled the curtain on Pérez’s campaign, and adeco support for it.

However, Pérez and the adecos appear to be facing a steep climb. Pérez, while likeable, is not well known outside his state, and after the underwhelming campaigns of Manuel Rosales in 2006, Oswaldo Álvarez Paz in 1993, and -gulp- chavista two-timer Francisco Arias Cárdenas in 2000, opposition experts seem convinced that the governorship of the nation’s most populous state is simply not a springboard to the Presidency.

But Pérez’s main problem is not his accent, but his numbers. The internal polling we referred to – which we have heard about from our sources, but have not seen first-hand -apparently has Henrique Capriles Radonski in the mid-30s. His lead over the rest of the pack is apparently in the double digits.

More importantly, Capriles is beating Chávez comfortably in their head-to-head – not surprising, given Chávez’s increasingly dismal numbers.

The Capriles camp is obviously encouraged by this, and they are hoping this pattern holds up through the year. They also realize chavismo has Capriles in their crosshairs – and here, the metaphor is literal and perfectly justified. This might explain Diosdado Cabello’s bizarre tirade yesterday on the floor of the National Assembly against Capriles’ party, Primero Justicia.

There are several wild cards in all of this. One of them is Antonio Ledezma. The Caracas Mayor has a small, yet not insignificant base of support. He has gained a lot of sympathy from having most of his powers taken away. He also shares a base with Pablo Pérez, which provides the potential of serving as a stalking horse benefitting the Capriles camp.

Another wild card is Leopoldo López. López is telegenic, smart, and young. Sadly, he is barred from running. His support is also solid, though not spectacular. He has recently anounced his new party was recognized by the CNE, and they will hold party elections – strangely, open to the public – on April 3rd.

It appears as though Leopoldo is counting on a ruling by the Interamerican Court for Human Rights to overturn his sentence. Even if that were to happen, the odds of chavismo obeying an OAS command seems unlikely. So, rather than a candidate, López looks to us more like a contender – along with Lara governor Henri Falcón – for the season’s most sought-after endorsement.

And we keep hearing stories about Maria Corina Machado running an exploratory committee. Her victory last September was impressive, and she has tons of media savvy. But nobody’s explained to us how a Merici girl without a party machine to leaflet for her can be competitive in Parapara. Perhaps her surprisingly low national polling numbers are a reflection of that.

But the biggest wild card of all is the possibility that there might not be an election, or that Chávez will change the rules of the game so dramatically so as to making it impossible for a fair contest to take place. It’s not clear to me yet that the opposition candidates, nor their parties, have a strategy in place if this were to happen.

As you can imagine, we’ll be blogging more and more about this stuff in the coming months. It’s early going, and just about anything could still happen. But for now, the only thing we can say for sure is that the race is on.