A tale of two oppositions

We walk the same direction but different sides of the road...Ìû“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief it was the epoch of incredulity…”.

Those of you who have read “A tale of two cities” surely recall the memorable opening paragraph of Dickens’s masterpiece, which started depicting the turn of events in France and its distinction from its historical Anglo-saxon rival.

What does pre-revolutionary XVIIIth-century France and its contrast with Britain have to do with Venezuela’s self-destructing “revolution” in the XXI century or those “coup-plotters” from la MUD coalition?

One could argue that, as with Britain and France back then, over the past sixteen years there have always existed not two different nations, but two different oppositions, nowadays branded as “radicals” and “appeasers.”

Many people have their theories about why this gap exists. My particular take is that the divide within the opposition is based on the lack of consensus for defining the type of regime that sits in office since the start of chavismo. This difference in opinion has led to many misguided steps.

On one side, the current “appeasers” are the faction who still believes that this is a government which has transgressed the Constitution and hasn’t delivered governance to the people, but they still don’t label it a dictatorship. On the other front we have the “radicals”, the ones who scream “Dictadura” whenever they can.

The problem that lies ahead for the democratic opposition in Venezuela is about a proper diagnosis for the current state of things, something that hasn’t been properly pondered about since 1999.

Venezuela under chavismo and its multifarious gradations in governing the country has shifted from a flawed democracy to a hybrid regime and, up until 2013, into an ever more totalitarian regime.

The idea that Venezuela was a “hybrid regime” made sense up until, say 2005. By then, the government was one that legitimized itself through elections while tampering the political institutions in place, in order to secure its power.

When the late Hugo Chavez championed a new Constitution, granting him more powers and setting the stage for chavismo to stay in power until 2021, 2030, dosmilsiempre, the demised “Comandante” secured dominion of most of the nation’s political institutions, after a period of sharp political instability, which included the failed coup in April 2002, the national strike in late 2002, a defeated recall-referendum in 2004 and the withdrawal of the opposition in the 2005 parliamentary ballot box. All of the pursued gambits of the opposition (back then the “Coordinadora Democratica”) in any of the aforementioned circumstances had to do with a shortsighted manner of not upholding the little spaces left in the political institutions in order to stonewall the late “Comandante”’s schemes.

Within that period, as chavismo was converting Venezuela into a hybrid regime, today’s appeasers were actually right. Strategies for stopping chavismo back then, should have focused on hindering chavista’s power grab on every branch of Government and try their fortunes in the ballot box by building popular support prior to the staggering oil windfall that would commence in 2004. Let us not forget that Chavez’s polling numbers in 2002 were somewhat similarly dreadful as those of today’s Nicolas Maduro.

Now, after the demised “Comandante” won reelection with a comfortable margin in 2006, chavismo became ever more authoritarian. Its oil-might and populist agenda consolidated its place in history by dismantling term limits for office, nationalizing industries of the economy, shutting down or buying out private media outlets, securing enabling laws and more executive powers; in short bypassing any principle of a given democratic political process.

Between 2007 and 2013, as the hybrid regime consolidated and removed any veto forces that might disturb chavistas’ tenure in office, the opposition chose to follow the prescription of retaking the electoral card as THE way for ousting chavismo, clinching to small but important victories in local elections and in the parliamentary elections of 2010.

Putting aside the tiffs between appeasers and radicals, the opposition deserves some credit during this period for uniting themselves in electoral processes and raising confidence from its constituents in them (this might’ve actually gained skepticism in the presidential elections in 2013 but that is other fish to fry later). Unfortunately as they eyed the prize of “el coroto” in 2012, selecting Capriles to be the contender against Chavez and the Petrostate, things as we regret to remember with a modicum of guayabo didn’t go as planned.

So what does all of this tells us for 2015?. The MUD coalition in its majority wants parliamentary elections to take place. They claim that a precipitous fall in the Government’s ratings in the polls would pave the way for a huge gain in the National Assembly, and a morale boost that may open the doors for an exit to this mess.

Although I reckon that one objective should be to prep up for the Parliamentary elections, whenever and if the Government decides to call them, this is not an end point. Feeding the expectations of its constituents with the parliamentary card could pose a huge credibility threat to the MUD’s political calculations.

Back in 2010, the opposition clinched 52% of the popular vote but less than 40% of the National Assembly’s 165 seats. In that year, the electoral turnout was almost 70%. The electoral rules (still in place) are based on an appalling combination of gerrymandering (which backfired for chavismo in 2010) and malapportionment (where it succeeded), which grants chavistas more seats in the Legislative body with less votes.

The best that the MUD coalition can hope for is to win a majority in the National Assembly without locking a 2/3 majority for debugging the other political institutions, the main goal of this strategy for ousting the regime later.

Attaining this would require convincing the vast majority of the constituents to turn out and vote, and channel disgruntled ex-chavistas frustrations for voting for them. One thing is Maduro’s ratings or the PSUV’s popularity, and another is that public frustration automatically translates to the opposition’s camp. As former UCAB rector President Luis Ugalde highlighted in an interview for ProdavinciCon este gobierno no hay salida. Y con la Oposición, tal como está, tampoco.” – there is no solution with this government, or with this opposition.

The opposition must do more than denounce the status quo, because simply decrying chavismo’s many faults does not make a narrative or a viable alternative.

By dropping the hybrid-regime facade, today’s radicals are quite right in shouting “Dictadura!”. Even if the opposition can cope with all of the challenges it faces (jail terms, harassment, media shutout, funding problems, etc.), I find it very difficult to believe the Parliamentary elections will be a game changer. My deepest concern is that the MUD coalition seems to be focusing its political agenda on the parliamentary elections, selling it to its supporters as the exit-strategy of this crisis the same way Nicolas Maduro promises surfacing our financial woes with a “Dios proveerá” economic policy.

If this scheme is mistaken, the expectations of the MUD’s constituents and many of the disaffected chavistas who might support it could turn against it, leaving room for a rabble-rouser to emerge from the shadows and lead their frustrations as well as those of displeased chavistas.

Not so long ago, Henrique Capriles engaged with a disgruntled citizen who asked him what to do, and his rejoinder was “organize!”. More disgruntled people may question not just Capriles, but the entire MUD bloc for addressing the economic, political and social mess that is Venezuela in these days.

It is crucial that both appeasers and radicals find common ground on what to do. The initiative of “Acuerdo para la Transición” could be a starter. Parliamentary elections are as important as creating a viable alternative to our macroeconomic disaster, and a governing plan ahead in the coming years for the right set of policies that could stabilize this mortally-ailing patient named Venezuela (whether is ebola or chikungunya, again).

If we learned anything from last year’s protests, it is that these demonstrations need to be focused toward achievable goals. Demanding fair conditions for this year’s elections, or pressuring the regime against noticeable transgressions to the Constitution (like what happened in late December 2014) are a few examples for making the parliamentary strategy more credible and boosting its chances of succeeding.

Uniting the two oppositions is going to require a common goal. In merging the tactics of the radicals with the strategy of the appeasers, taking to the streets to demand fair conditions for elections could serve to rally both sides of the opposition to a common cause.