Could killing the 2016 recall break the chavista coalition?

We tend to overestimate chavismo's room for maneuver. But killing the 2016 recall puts huge strain on the pro-government coalition. If it didn't, they would've done it months ago.

We in the opposition have a tendency to overestimate the government’s power. We see the institutional rot, we see chavismo‘s evident contempt for the rules of the game and we conclude that they basically face no constraints: they do what they want when they want, with nothing hemming them in.

Keeping the ruling coalition together is much trickier than we tend to realize, especially in the middle of an economic cataclysm.

It’s an understandable point of view, but it’s a mistake. The clique in power faces risks and constraints just like anyone else. Until you’ve understood that, you haven’t understood what makes Tibisay Lucena’s announcement yesterday quite as risky for the government as I think it is.

And, in a way, it’s obvious: if chavismo faced no constraints, the Recall Referendum process would’ve been killed months ago.

The constraints chavismo faces are basically internal: how do you keep all the different groups whose power you depend on rowing in the same direction and minimize defections amid an economic collapse, in an increasingly hostile public opinion climate?

We often elide this problem. But, for chavismo, this is the problem.

How do you keep the peace between narcogenerals and the rest of the military high command, between high-ranking and middle-ranking army officers, between PSUV’s left-wing pro-Cuban extremist faction in line with regional and mid-ranking officials and the grassroots? And how do you rank and file chavistas who are going hungry, who can see the CLAPs don’t work, and who never really liked Maduro in the first place from defecting en masse?

All these tensions are played out behind closed doors: they don’t turn up on our Facebook feeds or on the pages of El Nacional. So we have a hard time seeing them.

But keeping the chavista coalition from breaking up in the middle of an economic cataclysm that’s hitting many of those groups directly, and in an increasingly hostile public opinion climate, is much trickier than we realize.

Yesterday’s announcement will create serious problems for the already precarious balancing act of keeping all these different factions minimally on side. The smart way to assess its impact is to think through how it will play out on each of these fault-lines.

How do you keep the support of hundreds of thousands of neighborhood activists who loved Chávez but never really believed in Maduro on side if you can’t even feed them?

The DEA-indicted narcogenerals may be all too happy to see the prospect of a 2016 referendum recede, but it’s easy to see the move will generate more social discontent, more looting and disorder, and more political discord, and it will be the rest of the armed forces that will be called in to face down dissent on the streets. How do you think non-narco-tainted generals feel about having to order troops they can barely feed onto the streets to repress the political and social fallout of protecting their drug-trafficking colleagues?

At any rate, ordering soldiers out onto the streets to crack bones is easy enough if you have a bunch of suns on your epaulettes and get to watch the whole thing from an air conditioned room in Fuerte Tiuna: but do you really think the mid-ranking officers who actually have to go out there and do the bone-cracking feel the same way?

How about the hundreds of PSUV activists who depend on a state governor for their careers? They know that, in the current public opinion climate, to head into a regional election on a PSUV ticket is a kamikaze mission. If you’re in that position, or if you’ve been hoping to become a mayor or a governor in your region one day, you saw your political life flash before your eyes yesterday during Tibisay’s speech.

All those guys are going to lose, and for what? For the sake of protecting some distant Caracas elite that plainly has no idea how to run the country?

And the grass-roots? How do you keep the support of hundreds of thousands of neighborhood activists who loved Chávez but never really believed in Maduro on side if you can’t even feed them?

The key to understanding why it’s taken so long for the government to move decisively to do something they keep telling us they intend to do — punt the referendum to 2017 — is that that’s a move that creates all kinds of coalition-management problems for them. That’s the reason yesterday’s announcement was made so indirectly, so vaguely, with so much built-in wiggle room.

The government is desperately casting around for a way to kill the 2016 Recall without setting off a chain of defections from its ranks that could end up destabilizing it as much as the recall itself. No la tienen fácil. And the next few weeks, in particular, are going to be very hard for them to manage.