The key institutions that make up a democratic polity are not always formal rules set out in written documents. Some of the most important ones are informal: norms of behaviour, unwritten but widely shared understandings of the “right” way to behave in politics.
Take the simple notion that party leaders who lose a national election must gracefully resign, right away.
You won’t find that written down in any formal rule book. But the stability of some of the world’s most venerable democracies hinges on it.
The lose-an-election->resign rule comes with its own set of unspoken norms and assumptions. The resignation is agreed to be honorable. It is not a punishment. It does not bar the resigning leader from going on to fill important, even top roles in the future.
What it does do is allow the party a moment to collect itself, to reflect, to have a conversation with itself about what comes next and to sift through its ranks for the next generation of leaders. The lose-an-election->resign rule allows parties to renew themselves, to avoid becoming captured by given cliques of party leaders. It guarantees the party as an institution, and not just a vehicle for given people’s personal ambitions.
In Venezuela, we have an old, arcane debate about party democracy. It misses the point. A party “democracy” where a given leader controls the internal politics of the institution single-handedly serves none of the purposes of renewal and reflection that a simple norm like lose-an-election->resign does.
Formal rules can never guarantee real internal democracy in parties that leaders treats his post like a lifetime sinecure.
To my mind, the morass opposition politics has devolved into has everything to do with the opposition’s leaders inability to reimagine the act of resigning. In a culture where resignation is seen as failure, as a final act, as a renunciation of any future possibility of power and influence, parties are guaranteed stale leaderships that increasingly dig in to tactical positions and (mistakenly) treat them as matters of principle and gradually lose any capacity to act coherently and constructively on the national stage.
Just flip through any newspaper from 2001, or 2006, or 2011…look for stories about opposition politics…you’ll see the same names you see today. The guys who founded Primero Justicia still run Primero Justicia. The guy who took over AD after the 1998 collapse still runs AD. ABP, UNT, Avanzada Democratica…you can’t point to any opposition party in Venezuela that has genuinely renewed its leadership, unless you count Copei, where the succession battle was so poisonous and divisive it effectively destroyed the party.
So here’s my simple, straightforward, free, overdue prescription for how to renew opposition politics: Henry, resign. There’s no shame in it. Julio, let go: spend a year or two at HKS. Henry, Henrique: how about concentrating on running your state for a while? Omar: ever thought about retiring? There are precious moments to be had with your grandchildren you’re missing every single day.
Guys, do it together, at the same time. Don’t treat it as a defeat. Don’t write bitter parting letters calling those of us who’ve criticized you chavistas. Thank your supporters, wish your successors the best of luck and make yourselves scarce.
It’s really better for everyone that way.
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