Without the Goat and Without the Rope: The Opposition Braces for a Miserable May 20th

My unified theory of May 20th: the government had a pathetically easy time engineering what has become a poisonous, pus-oozing split at the heart of Venezuela's opposition.

Photo: Reuters, retrieved

For years Venezuela’s opposition has been described as “fractious”, but I’ve never seen it like this. Ahead of the vote on May 20th, the opposition is divided at all levels. The split between those who want to vote and those who want to abstain is tearing up not just the opposition as a whole, but each of its parties individually: every single one — aside from AP— is now riven between those signed up to MUD’s no-participation line and substantial portions that secretly (and not-so-secretly) are working to get Henri Falcón elected.

The rift has a regional angle, too, with many state and local political activists incensed with the Caracas- and exile-based National Leadership’s decision to boycott. Infighting had long been a hobby for the opposition, but more and more it’s the main event: the thing opposition leaders spend the bulk of their energy on.

It’s horrifying.

How did we get to this point?

As I see it, the government played us. Again.

To see how, you have to rewind to late last year, when the government started toying with the idea of early presidential elections to capitalize on MUD’s already-visible disarray.

Early —very early— in that process, Henri Falcón signalled that he would participate in elections no matter what electoral conditions were on offer. Knowing that, the task of splitting us became straightforward: a simple matter of humiliating the more radical bits of MUD into a boycott.

Easy peasy.

It’s like the goddamn groundhog came out and saw its own shadow, foretelling six more years of dictatorship. 

The ‘how’ was straightforward. They held a high profile set of negotiations in the Dominican Republic, then conceded absolutely nothing around the negotiating table.

In drawing the opposition into negotiations, they knew the more radical leaders would need to issue guarantees to their followers. “We’ll talk,” they’d be force to say, “but we’ll only sign provided we get X.”

After that, splitting the opposition was as simple as not giving them X.

As expected, Julio Borges painted himself into a corner: forced to choose between splitting the opposition in two by calling for a boycott Falcón wouldn’t agree to and accepting a humiliating climbdown that would destroy his credibility with his own rank-and-file followers.

Falcón’s early signal he would participate no matter what deprived Borges of the one bit of leverage he might have had around the negotiating table: a credible threat of a genuinely unified boycott.

The result is as predictable as it is dispiriting. By all accounts, Falcón’s candidacy hasn’t exactly caught fire with the electorate, meaning the opposition now faces a very real prospect of ending up without the goat and without the rope. Maduro has a real prospect now of winning a contested vote without having to falsify the final tally, a miserable Nash equilibrium that could put the final nail on the coffin of organized political opposition to his regime. It’s his wildest dream come true.

It’s like the goddamn groundhog came out and saw its own shadow, foretelling six more years of dictatorship.