Raise Your Hand if You Lost an Election but Still Went on to a Top Job Under A Different Leader

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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.

You can ask Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hague about that.

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.

Just…let go.

It’s really better for everyone that way.

1 COMMENT

  1. I think political parties in Venezuela are in some sort of internal vicious cycle. One of the reasons why they don’t resign (and that a lot of people don’t want them to resign) it is because of the apparent feeling that there is no one else to replace them. Which is logical because if these people are holding to a party office for so long, they don’t let the other younger generations to go and take the spotlight.

    The difference with other countries is that good leaders naturally grow inside the party and if a leader resigns, either for failure to accomplish something or retiring, there is still the hope in the younger leaders. Besides the handful leaders from the 2007 student movement, I still see the same people.

    • sure, but just think: if John Kerry had pulled a Ramos Allup, would we ever have heard of this skinny guy Obama?! If Hague had decided his NUMBER ONE priority was to remain Conservative leader, would David Cameron still be a policy researcher working in total obscurity? Wouldn’t THEY then be able to argue that they couldn’t let go because there was nobody able to replace them?

      Venezuelan parties have it backwards: new party leaders are able to grow in stature only if they can get the big, visible national positions.

      • Exactly. That’s why it is a vicious circle: the old ones stay to long because there are not new ones, but there are not new ones because the old ones are still hanging around.

        And this doesn’t only affects leadership, it affects party policies. At least in the center-left, the progressive parties are sooooooooo left behind because there is not new blood with new ideas.

      • I wonder if this has something to do with this: what would Borges and Allup do for a living if they were not there as head of those parties? I know Borges is elected deputy but I wonder if he would keep that seat if he didn’t have the privilege of being the one PJ guy who week after week gives those boring presentations.

        Ps
        Spaniards also make jokes about the difficulty of conjugating the verb “dimitir” in first person singular.
        Perhaps it comes from there: what do all these guys do? They couldn’t even be regular civil servants like others in their respective economies, could they?

      • He wouldn’t have been allowed to pull a Ramos Allup even if he wanted to. The Democratic party would have sent him packing. You lose, it’s time for a change.

        Of course, the US is a mature democracy (even if it doesnt always act like of it late) with lots of precedant and history in intraparty democratic transitions.

      • I think that parties in Venezuela lack structures that would allow younger personalities to emerge, there are simply very few spokesmans other than the caudillo-figure of each party. I simply don’t remember any other spokesman from AD other than Allup.

        There is a need to develop a meritocratic visible structure in parties, in wich each member get some of the spotlight and each member needs to be mature enough to wait for his/her chance so the leader is not permanently under public attack from his followers, and the leader needs to be mature enough to aknowledge when it is his/her time to go step down.

        Probably PJ and VP are the parties I can think of that have a more-than-one-spokesman structure.

        It’s all part of the maturity of more developed nations that we clearly lack.

  2. I think it would be easier to convince Rafael Ezquivel to resign as head of the FVF than to get the guys you mentioned to resign as the heads of their corresponding political parties, and that says it all. You are aware of that, aren’t you?

  3. Failure is not necessarily a reason to withdraw from a struggle which is long and difficult and bound to include lots of failures and defeats before its final denoument . People learn from failure , grow on failure , failure doenst incapacitate people , often it strenghtens them. I believe the american notion that Success is everything and that it happens magically and instantly to superb people just because of how great they are is a bit puerile . If you look at all the great men in history they ve had to face failure and defeat before tasting the fruits of victory and accomplishement . Its what history teaches us.

    Of course mature people know that there is a time when circumstances or age or the surgence of a new vibrant leadership makes it best (for the cause they sponsor) if they withdraw from their leadership positions . It takes character because the normal human tendency is to hold on to what ever youve gained in life . People are afflicted by something psychologists call ‘loss aversion’. Losing your status or position involves a loss in ones sense of self regard and thats always painful .

    In a democracy the expected thing is for leadership positions to rotate regularly , but sometimes too much rotation robs the leaders of the experience they need to mature their habilities and talents and that leads to improvisation and slipshod decisions that hurt the cause they represent . Expertise is born of experience and exposure to problems and mishaps over time . Our culture is too much taken with love of the next new thing , with fascination for the new and different , with the rejection of the known and familiar .

    I dont think Capriles failure to win one election makes him inelegible for continued leadership within the opposition and that the oppo should as a result just jump blindly into the abyss of a leaderless search for that new grand charismatic leader that may possibly be able to do things better but which may not even exist yet.

    I am as aware as most of Mr Capriles flaws and defects , but equally of his peculiar strenghts and habilities . he is not my ideal candidate , but neither are others which personality and boldness and brilliant eloquence I admire . What I like about him is a kind of dedicated doggedeness and patience , his pragmatism and long term strategic view of things . i am wary of epic and heroic gestures , they are sometimes very succesful but they have to be used with caution . They dont always carry the day however much they inspire our admiration .

    • I agree, and I might add that “Name Recognition” is especially valuable now that informational hegemony makes it impossible for any new leaders to get a message heard.

  4. When I try to imagine anyone asking Ramos Allup to resign, I can’t help but think about Gollum shouting “My precious!”

  5. Quico, I congratulate you for this post. But nevertheless remember that this trait in Venezuelan politics comes prior to Chavismo’s arrival to power. Caldera and Alfaro Ucero blighted the two main political parties that we had and this power vacuum was filled by a gang of thugs and drug kingpins.

  6. Excellent post. We see that RJ Medina is gone but his replacement is Fernandez Daló, a classic political operator.
    I maintain that Capriles cannot do both jobs well: Governor and opposition national political leader. One of the two or both are being neglected. .

  7. I was talking about this same issue to some young PJ activists. There is a real generation gap in that party, which is surprising given how most leaders are under 50. The way the newer kids think about the party and about politics is much different than the Borges-Guanipa framework, but sadly, there is little chance these guys will rise to the top any time soon. That’s what doomed Copei and AD, and the current parties are on their way to the same place.

  8. American candidates are a poor example since they are rarely (or never) national party leaders. They are typically regional career politicians that throw their hat in the rink and do so by raising money and parading publicly. If they reach the national candidate level they achieve national recognition and if they lose they usually live off of that recognition in the years to come. They can always throw their hat again if they want to, nobody can stop them since the postulation is something they decide by themselves and it is basically an open process. In that sense Kerry could have never blocked ‘al flaquito’ (Obama, I mean, not the other one), you know, Hillary tried and failed (yet, she may try again).

    But I do agree in general with the principles espoused in this article. Rotation is healthy for politics and blocking new leaders is a bad practice that eventually spells death or staleness for Venezuelan parties. What I disagree with is the notion, not explicitly stated but clearly present, that what we need is to get rid of the current leadership to solve our problems (just get rid of the MUD & Capriles). I find that a bit of magical thinking, and negative because it means throwing down the drain whatever popular following the current leaders have achieved, to then sit and hope that someone new will come and pick them up and have better ideas and strategies than the previous ones, without even having the benefit of their experience. Also putting Borges and Capriles, who by any notion are new leaders of new parties, in the same category of Alfaro Ucero and Caldera is preposterous.

    Instead of a series of: clean the slate and start over again with new leaders, NEXT!
    What is needed is unity, unity, unity. Old leaders and new leaders working together, getting over their differences, coordinated and with discipline not to break the unity.

    • “American candidates are a poor example since they are rarely (or never) national party leaders.”

      I think that’s kind of the point.

      “What I disagree with is the notion, not explicitly stated but clearly present, that what we need is to get rid of the current leadership to solve our problems (just get rid of the MUD & Capriles).”

      You guys, I think we have a winner for straw-person of the year.

      “Also putting Borges and Capriles, who by any notion are new leaders of new parties, in the same category of Alfaro Ucero and Caldera is preposterous.”

      Kids still say “chévere cambur”, right?

      Somewhere out there, Claudio Fermín knocks back his drink and sighs….

      • [“American candidates are a poor example since they are rarely (or never) national party leaders.”

        I think that’s kind of the point.]

        So how could they hold on to a power they don’t have?

      • [“What I disagree with is the notion, not explicitly stated but clearly present, that what we need is to get rid of the current leadership to solve our problems (just get rid of the MUD & Capriles).”

        You guys, I think we have a winner for straw-person of the year.]

        Oh that notion is making its rounds all over the opposition right now. It is practically the number on topic.

  9. Good post, Quico. Here’s a bit from Professor Ricardo Sucre (UCV) on how the lack of leadership renewal is nothing new and is cancerous to our political system:

    “La fortaleza de la Generación del 28 fue la debilidad de las personas que integraron la Generación del 28 ¿Paradójico? Sí. Explico. Esa falta de grandeza es por la realidad en que esas personas vivieron: un país pobre, personalista, y dictatorial.

    La idea de la estabilidad, la paz, el orden, definió a esa generación que vivió su niñez en un pobre país pobre, y sus padres, vivieron la realidad de las Guerras Civiles o la depauperación y tristeza del Siglo XIX venezolano.

    La idea de construir un orden político estable fue el sine qua non de la generación de Caldera, y eso lo ejemplificó muy bien el Mandatario en un capítulo de Los Causahabientes; el capítulo de La Paz de Pozo Salado.

    Tal vez ese objetivo de buscar un orden los llevó a no tener “descendencia política”, porque eso significaba un personalismo transmutado. Rechazaron el personalismo de Gómez, por lo que no crearon descendientes, para no ser personalistas. Pero en ese tránsito, se conviertieron en conservadores. Se erigieron en una suerte de instancia final de decisión -el ejemplo de los senadores vitalicios que terciaban en la política diaria- que castró el relevo generacional. No querían tener descendientes, pero tampoco aceptaron que los “hijos” tuvieran su propia personalidad, y si algo caracteriza a la política venezolana, no es el parricidio -el asesinato de los padres- sino el filicidio -el asesinato de los hijos- y eso puede explicar por qué en Venezuela el cambio generacional es tan lento y difícil. Se prefiere matar a lo joven, para continuar con lo viejo.”

    http://politicaconsentido.blogspot.com/2009/12/caldera-normal.html

  10. I think there are three points here. The first is that there is that the opposition parties do not have robust democratic structures or mechanisms for accountability. That is the most disturbing point because that is precisely the state of affairs in the regime they should be opposing. They are not going to do any better if they come to power, you could predict.

    The second point flows from the first, which is that the leaders, being unaccountable, treat their jobs as sinecures, rather than allow for democratic renewal, and it sounds like Francisco has a solid argument that certain opposition leaders have overstayed their usefulness.

    The third point about there being an unwritten rule that if you lose on a national level, you should resign, I am not persuaded is the case, or should be the case, particularly in a situation where elections are neither free nor fair. As Bill correctly points out- above- good politicians learn and improve through defeat. I was particularly struck (not that my impressions matter) for example, by Capriles’ capacity to learn and improve his presentation during the course of the last campaign. Do you throw all that out, particularly when the “test” of the leader’s performance was completely rigged in the regime’s favour? We don’t know if it was a failure of leadership because the system is not fair. And apparently, the mechanisms for accountability within the opposition are weak. How is a leader properly judged (a) within a completely rigged system and (b) with weak internal structures of accountability within his or her own political organization? It seems to me that mandatory resignation is an arbitrary solution to this problem. Usually the person who resigns makes a statement like: the people have spoken and I accept their verdict. Whereas here, the best a leader can say is, millions of petrodollars within a completely corrupt electoral system have spoken…

    I’d just say that when I look at the prominent opposition leaders in Venezuela, there is no shortage of ability and talent, but there is a deficit of representativeness. The closest on this front is now Leopoldo Lopez, who is now living the experience of many thousands of normal Venezuelans of being the victim of a corrupt justice system. It seems to me that opposition leaders should be especially modest and restrained in their personal ambitions when one among them is in jail for no reason. Which is why the political infighting that is reported on here is disturbing.

  11. I don’t think that “lose-an-election->resign” should be a rule as you say. For example Mr. Kerry lost in a close election to an incumbent President, just 2.4% below him, and just needed 19 Electoral Votes more to win. It’s not as if he lost in a crushing landslide that highlighted his party’s divisions and so on. It’s a different situation than having the same guys running the political theater for 14 years, those 14 years filled with astounding failures. Kerry remained a US Senator from Massachusetts, and in doing so, he helped rise an obscure Illinois Senator that went by the name of Barack Obama, to grab the Democratic nomination and win in a landslide the general election. Kerry didn’t resign, and even without doing so, he helped a new face rise from the shadows. The problem in this country is that our leaders don’t seem to want new faces around.

    • I think what Quico meant was resign your aspirations. I don’t think he has any problem with Capriles, for example, remaining governor of Miranda, but his claim to be a national leader (why else would he be talking about national topics?) is past its due date.

      • Capriles has a right to express his opinion about the national situation (however inconsitent it is), but I agree that he has to recognize his time as the main oppo leader has come to an end. He should put his remaining popularity to good use.

  12. I just have to point out that political parties in Britain and the US are vastly different in organizational terms, and that there are more than notable exceptions in recent decades: Richard Nixon, Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson… Not to mention the huge differences between catch-all, not centralised parties like those in the US, and those in other democracies (some significant and transitional leaders came of age as opposition leaders for a while: Gonzalez, Aznar, Mitterand, Kohl, Merkel, Prodi)…

    Moreover, you obscure the fact that Venezuelan parties do have internal elections (of the big oppo parties, AD, with “internas” back in 2009, is overdue, and yet local and regional changes do happen… Check your hemeroteca). We might not like the results, but it points to a different -if flawed- political culture and even leadership struggle (here, if you lose the internas, you create or join a new/different party). Some might look more active now, but perhaps their newly minted leaders will be around in a few years.

  13. As for Capriles, he remains as much as a national reference for some as others… He has no power to stop anyone from contesting him the right to be candidate in the future (because that right is not his to administer), but he has the right to run and remain around. So does Falcón, Machado, López, Medina, Arria, etc.

    You can ask anyone to quit, but they don’t have to…

  14. What about Leopoldo López? You seem yo have carefully avoided him. Shouldn’t he resign too? Doesn’t this reasoning apply to him?

    • Leopoldo López is too busy, you know, being IN JAIL for daring to defy the regime to actually lead a party. Also, VP is actually handling his absence fairly well, I see several good speakers from them.

  15. I applaud Quico’s post as well the many excellent commentaries it elicited. My take, however, is that the Anglo-Saxon/Western-European and Latin-American political behavior patterns have evolved over such a long time and are so linked with the evolution of the respective political/governace systems themselves that they are unlikely to be responsive to deliberate efforts to change them. Catatrophes can, of course, bring about such changes but, although we may all know that “there is no such thing as a free lunch” one often ends of wondering if the price was worth the meal. I’m thinking Germany, Japan, Spain, Yugoslavia, etc.

    I believe that the challenge for Venezuela, and most of the rest of Latin-America as well, is to create reasonably well functioning governments despite the ideosyncracies of their political systems. Costa Rica comes to mind as an example of a country that has made considerable progress in that direction.

  16. The U.S. has a history of defeated national candidates “sticking around”. Thomas Jefferson came up short in 1796, but came back to win in 1800. Andrew Jackson, did the same, in 1824-1828, and William Henry Harrison in 1836-1840. Henry Clay lost in 1824 and 1832, but stayed around as a leader, and lost by a hair in 1844. Grover Cleveland remains the only President to be defeated for re-election and and then be elected again later (1884-1888-1892). William Jennings Bryan was nominated (and defeated) three times (1896-1900-1908), Thomas Dewey twice (1944-1948), and Adlai Stevenson twice (1952-1956). Richard Nixon was defeated in 1960 and won in 1968.

    Britain certainly has no such tradition. Gladstone resigned as leader after a defeat in 1874, but was restored after the victory of 1880, and remained leader till his retirement. Disraeli lost in 1868, but remained leader through the 1874 victory. Salisbury lost in 1882 and won in 1895. Baldwin lost in 1929, but led the Conservatives in opposition and coalition, until they won in 1935. Churchill’s first election as leader (1945) was a rout, but he stayed on; the Conservatives fell short in 1950, and finally won under Churchill in 1951.

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