A quite competitive race is under way in one of the safest opposition seats in the country. In one corner, the MUD coalition and Lara’s State Governor Henri Falcon. In the other, the incumbent Assembly Member, Eduardo Gomez Sigala, which has the backing of Maria Corina Machado. And at the center of it, the dilemma between “internal democracy” and “political consensus”. Or maybe there’s more to that…

Lara is considered as one of Venezuela’s bellwether states and it’s not expected to be different for the December 6th legislative election. The opposition coalition (known as MUD) is heavily favored to win both here and nationwide, according to many pollsters. However, local attention isn’t focused on the main races between the opposition and the ruling PSUV-GPP coalition.

Instead, an oppo-on-oppo fight has broken out in what was supposed to be the safest opposition circuit in the entire state. Eduardo Gomez Sigala, a 61-year old hard-right local businessman and former head of the National Industry Chamber (Conindustria) is again running as an independent, while – after refusing to even allow him to run for his own seat in a primary – backed much more moderate rivals “by consensus”.

Is this just an isolated case or part of a larger internal purge by mainstream parties to those looking for a more forceful response to Nicolas Maduro, represented under the overall line of a “political transition”? Or maybe it all has to do with an incident back in 2009, before he was elected, when he was detained briefly after allegedly assaulting an official who was busy taking over his company?

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Lara State’s Deep Blue 3rd Circuit is formed by parts of capital Barquisimeto (parishes Catedral and Santa Rosa) and two adjacent municipalities (Palavecino and Simon Planas). They call this “Lara’s Chacao”, relatively better off areas that usually breaks for the opposition by large margins.

But that’s a simplification: in Lara-3 middle class strongholds (Santa Rosa parish, suburban Cabudare) are cheek-by-joul with more competitive working-class areas (La Ruezga, El Cercado). And there’s also rural Simon Planas municipality, which is considered the most Chavista in the whole State, according to previous election results.

The circuit elects two deputies and both the incumbents are running again: AD-stalwart and Henry Ramos Allup right-hand man Edgar Zambrano and Eduardo Gomez Sigala. But Zambrano is shifting places, as he’s now the MUD’s top list candidate for the entire state, replacing Alfredo Ramos (who left the National Assembly to become mayor of Barquisimeto).

Gomez Sigala is seeking re-election in the circuit, but this time he’s doing it on his own. For the Lara 3 spots, MUD went with Teodoro “Comando” Campos, former State Police Commander, Lt. Governor and a close ally of the current Governor Henri Falcon. The other is longtime AD político Alfonso Marquina, an old-style bruiser who’s currently the deputy for Miranda’s 1st Circuit (running in his circuit instead is Delza Solorzano).

At the center of this conflict is Gomez Sigala’s claims that the MUD’s main parties and Governor Henri Falcon made a deal to cut him out of the running, denying any possibility of holding a primary. According to Maria Fernanda Pérez, political reporter for the local newspaper El Impulso, political parties had been discussing scenarios since last year to try to keep everyone happy. And Gomez Sigala was always the odd man out.

Gomez Sigala says the MUD’s decision isn’t so much about political backroom deals, but rather about what he considers “the lenient behavior of certain sectors of the opposition” who would rather find a modus vivendi with the government than take on its real role as opposition.

He points to Henri Falcon as someone who’s playing the government’s game. Falcon is a strong believer in “dialogue” as a way to defuse the political conflict in the country. And coincidentally, Edgar Zambrano has constantly insisted in meeting with Nicolas Maduro to open talks on multiple issues, from political prisoners to the economic crisis.

But Gomez Sigala also has sort of a personal beef with both Falcon and Campos: Back in 2006, then Chavista mayor of Barquisimeto Falcon ordered the expropriation of the Turbio Valley that surrounds the city, following the late Hugo Chavez’s orders. Three years later, authorities took over Gomez Sigala’s estate Bureche and arrested him. The one who carried the orders was then State Police Commander Teodoro Campos.  

Surprisingly, the selection of both Campos and Marquina for the 3rd Circuit was an indirect consequence of the CNE’s ruling that established a mandatory 40 % quota for female candidates. This forced Campos to jump from the 1st Circuit (Western Barquisimeto, which elects 3 deputies) and bringing Marquina to Lara. This was made in order to keep with the already decided posts for Avanzada Progresista (Henri Falcon’s party) and Primero Justicia (Marquina joined PJ from UNT back in 2013).

Marquina (left) and Campos (right) flanking governor Henri Falcón.
Marquina (left) and Campos (right) flanking governor Henri Falcón.

What’s the position of MUD’s candidates? During a rally on November 19th, both Campos and Marquina briefly explained to me their positions on Gomez Sigala’s candidacy: Marquina said “personal aspirations cannot be above the needs of the people” and that “unity is the guarantee to defeat the government”. Campos says that the real conflict is between the MUD and the PSUV and that “some marginal elements” don’t truly represent the will of voters.

Those direct comments aside, it feels like the MUD campaign prefers to ignore the issue altogether. They don’t see Gomez Sigala as much of a threat, but more as a minor distraction. Both Campos and Marquina are way more comfortable in pushing their platform that discussing the split.

The following day, I spoke with Gomez Sigala in his office: He wasn’t surprised by the MUD’s candidates’ reaction, saying MUD’s insistence on “consensus” was simply a smokescreen to justify the imposition of candidates and that a victory of the MUD-Falcon formula will only bring “more of the same”.

And Gomez Sigala isn’t completely alone: Several political organizations are backing him and his alternate Deborah de Valecillos, like the MAS party (which left the MUD in 2013), Unidad-DR, OPG (Organized for Governing) or Free Voters (EL). The controversial MIN-Unidad tried to nominate him without his permission, but he quickly forced them to drop his name from its card.

Gomez Sigala also has a political wildcard in the support of Maria Corina Machado and her political party Vente Venezuela. Back in September, Machado came to Barquisimeto to publicly back his aspiration. She called the lack of primary as  “an injustice” and that “Larenses have the right to choose what is the kind of opposition that truly represents them.” Machado came again twice in recent weeks to support him, including his closing campaign rally.

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Machado pushed for primaries nationwide inside the MUD, but the coalition decided to hold them in only +30 specific circuits (none of them in Lara State), citing time and money constraints. In comparison, Chavismo held open primaries for all its circuit candidates.

And there’s another major difference between the MUD and EGS/MCM: their views on the possible role a future National Assembly might play in solving the on-going political conflict. MUD has chosen to focus more on bread-and-butter issues: ending food shortages, tackling inflation or solving the fiscal deficit. Gomez Sigala wants a more ambitious, transformational agenda: saying the AN can also push a political transition without leaving its lawmaking duties.

And as a businessman, Gomez Sigala toes a hardline on economic freedom: a theme you don’t really see in the MUD campaign, which prefer to rally around more specific pledges like finishing the long-delayed Yacambu-Quibor water project.

But on many issues the Gomez Sigala and the Campos/Marquina formula don’t seem that far apart. They share priorities like solving the economic woes and fighting the crime epidemic.

What about the possibility that Chavismo could end up winning the 3rd circuit thanks to the rift inside the opposition? Given prior electoral history and demographics, it seems highly unlikely. The MUD got 50% of the total vote five years ago (both of its candidates combined).

And the PSUV-GPP isn’t making a real play for it. Beside some posters in the main city roads, their candidates Naudy Ledezma and María Colmenares are barely present in the public conversation. Why is that?

Adding up to their struggle with the huge unpopularity of the Maduro administration, Chavismo in Lara is facing troubles of its own. As confirmation of their local leadership vacuum, the PSUV-GPP chose former Defense Minister Carmen Melendez to top the Lara list. Both PSUV-Lara head Luis Jonas Reyes and his father, former State Governor Luis Reyes Reyes prefer to do their part by helping their campaign through CorpoLara, the State’s parallel governorship created by the central government to nullify Falcón’s work as Governor.

 

Does Gomez Sigala really have a chance?

He believes so. And his camp have shown that several polls that gives him advantage over the MUD. But the MUD also says they have the lead and show their own polls to prove it. So, who’s right? That depends.

“If you look for name recognition, Gomez Sigala has the upper hand, but if you measure vote intention, then the MUD wins easily”, comments El Impulso reporter Maria Fernanda Perez. Some voters I spoke to are sympathize with Gomez Sigala but feel that his candidacy hurts the overall opposition (the Unity mantra).

Gomez Sigala’s camp is putting efforts to tell voters about the cards carrying his option, including commercials on cable TV. At the same time, both Teodoro Campos and Alfonso Marquina are doing plenty of public appearances all across the circuit, tying themselves to the MUD brand. Both camps are fully embracing social media outlets.

Lara-3 race could be seen as an anomaly in this election, just like El Hatillo race was in the 2013 municipal elections. In the big picture, this race confirms the long and painful internal struggles of the MUD, a large multi-party coalition created by necessity and with its share of ups and downs. The institutional MUD has been decisively taken over by its more moderate wing. Will that play in the more radical opposition areas? Lara-3 will hold a good part of the answer.

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