Original art by @modográfico
It has been said that “familiarity breeds contempt,” and ever since chavismo’s electoral rise in 1998, many of the leading faces within the opposition’s leadership have been the same. Much like that old rhyme against José Antonio Páez (“Desde esta República y la Otra República/ Vos Señor Mandando”), our public life has been characterized by a trend of longevity that belies and defies regular political cycles. Has there been a year without the presence of Mrs. Ramos, Borges or Ledezma?
It’s tempting to assume that every stab at political unity has been much of the same: some paeans toward a common program, unwieldy ruedas de prensa and awkward concessions after stinging defeats (and public recrimination). Rinse. Repeat. “Frijolito1 es igual a Frijolito2, es igual a la Coordinadora, es igual a Rosales.“
This seeming continuity hides the fact that, for good or ill, the “Democratic Unity Roundtable” – MUD, and hereafter “Unidad” – attempted to be qualitatively different. Realizing this sheds light into some of its most important successes, and highlights many of its shortcomings.
Had it been a mere reunion, would we be so frustrated today?
The early years of Chavismo saw the consolidation of the long-foregone conclusion of the old party system. The 1999 Constitution, while maintaining a commitment to political pluralism, was very hostile to the idea of political parties, substituting their preponderance in the 1961 text with that reeking euphemism of “organizations with electoral/political purposes.” And as AD and Copei’s support plummeted to historic lows, and Proyecto Venezuela never achieved the position of national leadership that the 1998 election paved the way for it to be, there was an important disarray.
Hard to fathom now, but by 2004, it had been AD, and not Copei, which had shrunk the most, marred by a loss of high to mid-level ranks and personnel, and losing almost every elected political office above municipal level. Democratic socialists, critical of chavismo’s authoritarian bent – which was very daring even back then – rallied around Francisco Arias Cárdenas, and the 2000 election went for the first time without a nominee from the traditional parties, a regional and social-democratic split from AD (the basis of Un Nuevo Tiempo), and a surge of new, fresher and hungrier organizations, of which only Primero Justicia stood the test of time. Needless to say, a combination of both was the seed from which Voluntad Popular would emerge.
Our public life has been characterized by a trend of longevity that belies and defies regular political cycles.
The void left by this political leadership was filled by the rise of “civil society,” bringing about the 2002 rebellion, the Carmona coup and the creation of the Coordinadora Democrática, the political coallition (together with Gente del Petróleo) behind the general strike of 2003, and the 2002-2004 OAS-sponsored dialogue.
Alas, chavismo survived the ’04 recall referendum with flying colors and the Coordinadora was destroyed after those regional elections, when the chavista MVR won every state but Zulia and Nueva Esparta. Then the ’05 parliamentary elections came about, and many parties chose not to participate, creating a domino effect which led to the lowest turnout in a national vote, in a futile attempt to delegitimize the status quo.
The 2006 presidential election became a turning point. The pact between Teodoro Petkoff, Manuel Rosales and Julio Borges to not participate in NGO Sumate’s opposition primary, wrestled the opposition’s limelight from civil society to party consensus. It is hard to remember this, but in early ’06 no opposition candidate had double-digit support in opinion polls. Rosales managed to reach almost 40% on election day.
A Change of Strategy
The actual, effective gestation of the Unidad came about from a course for parliamentary candidates in early 2009, and the parties’ initiative to establish a stronger, formal alliance, harmonized by Ramón Guillermo Aveledo. A flurry of meetings led to the launch, on the 8th of June, 2009, of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática and its structure. A common strategy was discussed and a framework for nominations within the alliance were agreed upon.
Thus, the 2010 parliamentary elections witnessed a growth for the opposition, carrying for the first time in a competitive election over 50% of the vote. Most of the PPT joined the opposition then, leading to the crowning moments of the Unidad: the 2012 presidential primaries, and the 2015 parliamentary elections, where the coalition gained more than 55% of the vote and two thirds of the National Assembly, under the stewardship of Chúo Torrealba.
Truth is, they all call for unity, but a unity led by themselves.
Two things then emerged: first, a long-lasting commitment toward electoral politics and sustainable growth towards a new majority, uncharitably called by some as the “electoralist obsession”; second, a consensus around a liberal-democratic platform aiming to recognize the need for both a strong set of social policies, and important market corrections to the nefarious policies of PSUV. A cursory glance at the Unidad party platforms of 2010, 2012 and 2015, all developed with the help of experts in various fields, show a general commitment towards a fairer, more open society.
There have been shortcomings besides the obvious defeats, with key factors at play in the uneven performances: the continuing rows and growing mistrust within competing parties inside the alliance (not only are the parties jealous of each other, they also oppose further strengthening into a single coalition that can usher in a political transition), and the failure to grow from the progressive politics (hailed in Miranda and Lara) as a political center. This progressive ethos, coupled with its electoral commitment, has estranged much of the traditional opposition’s base, which has moved ideologically rightward, to either fringe radical agendas, or mainstream calls for abstention (which have gained traction).
Unidad or Unity?
What lies ahead for the Unidad, whose obituary has been written time and again, is uncertain. Three alternative agendas battle for preeminence: there’s a left-leaning alliance between former governor Falcón, independent moderates like Claudio Fermín, and some other parties, which are set to make inroads in the upcoming elections; more famously, there’s an ideologically conservative, but more radical movement in #SoyVenezuela, led by the libertarian Vente, María Corina Machado’s party. Ultimately, the mainstream Unidad standard-bearers set around AD-PJ-UNT-VP, the “G4”, remains the more internationally recognized faction, and quite possibly the most electorally competitive.
Truth is, they all call for unity, but a unity led by themselves.
The opposition has not reached a sustainable sweet spot that rekindles those disappointed from its perceived blandness, and those put off by its more radical outbursts. Disappointment leads to mistrust, and mistrust to hopelessness. What do we, as voters and citizens, want from our leaders? Can politics, as the Unidad conceives it, actually be practiced in today’s Venezuela? The PSUV-State under Nicolás Maduro has deepened the repressive structures they set up. Most of our opposition leaders, whichever faction they lead, are consistently harassed, barred from for public office or have their positions nullified de facto, when they are not simply put behind bars.
The Unidad began with a massive gain in political capital, which lies dormant atop the social crisis underneath. The future of any significant political opposition will come from a commitment toward unity under a democratic banner. But who will lead it?
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