No Unity, no Identity: the Venezuelan Opposition's Limbo

Eons ago, the political parties and leaders out of the chavista movement melted themselves into the unitary agenda as the only way to defeat the caudillo. 20 years later, they are both weak as a coalition and individually

This is supposed to be a big year for the Democratic Unity Platform, the alliance of mainstream opposition parties. It’s the year of the Platform’s primary to choose a candidate for the 2024 presidential elections. We know, of course, that organizing such a primary will be incredibly difficult, especially after the opposition turned on its one political strategy to oust Maduro, the Interim Presidency, and will now have to deal with the consequences of that decision. One of those, the lack of trust among members of the Platform; another the humiliation the Platform has self-inflicted in the eyes of the public. 

Overcoming these issues is a seemingly impossible task. It’s even harder when you lack a distinctive political identity, a problem that plagued Hugo Chávez’s rivals in the 1990s, and which has only become more entrenched.

The political parties that make up the Unity Platform are hard to distinguish. 

Honestly, without going onto their websites or researching them online right now, what separates Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular—politically speaking? What are their views on taxes? What are their national security priorities? 

If they found themselves in power tomorrow, what issues would they debate? Where could compromise be found? Where would they stand their ground?

There’s nothing to feel bad about if you can’t answer these questions off the top of your head. The truth is the parties haven’t done the work necessary to distinguish themselves. They exist, primarily, as an opposition force to counterbalance the PSUV in power. Parties like PJ, VP and Un Nuevo Tiempo were born during the time of chavismo, to oppose chavismo. They exist, politically, only in that realm. It’s hard to know what they stand for because they have worked hard on defining themselves as “not the PSUV”. 

This isn’t something that happened by accident, it’s also not the exclusive result of negligence but rather the product of going all-in on a single approach.

Extraordinary problems call for extraordinary solutions, and the Unity Platform’s political leadership knew that. The parties understood (once upon a time) that they were facing an exceptional rival under exceptional circumstances, thus they knew that bickering among themselves wouldn’t lead them anywhere.

A decision was taken: to commit completely to the goal of ousting the PSUV from power, regardless of which party actually ended up winning the election. This is the reason that the parties’ own political identities suffered so much over the years. All their efforts needed to be directed in the same direction, chasing after every vote. For this reason, the parties couldn’t become individual entities fighting for relevance, they needed to act as a single force. 

This strategy even worked. In 2012 and 2013, the parties united strongly behind Henrique Capriles Radonski who rode a massive wave of popularity all the way to two presidential elections. Fatefully, it wasn’t enough. Capriles had come within just 223,599 votes of Miraflores, one of the narrowest margins in Venezuela’s modern era, and far closer than anyone had been to the PSUV before. It was a big blow, and the parties had risked their own separate identities and put their entire weight into a single approach that just didn’t pay off.

What’s followed since then has been a huge “what now” moment, and the answer appears to be: carry on. The whole alliance is so invested in the “unity” play that it’s become very difficult to jump off. The parties and their leaders carry so much heavy baggage from all those near-misses of 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2019 that they seem caught between two terrible decisions, either stay in the same boat and sink or jump off and drown. 

That dichotomy may seem exaggerated, there are other ways for the parties to reinvent themselves, but they’re not viable strategies for ousting Maduro in 2024. If anything, Maduro may be hoping for the alliance to just fall apart. Having a bunch of indistinguishable opposition factions is crucial to his 2024 strategy as Tony Frangie Mawad and I wrote back in December of last year. The death of the Unity Platform works in his favor.

It’s a tough position to be in. On the one hand, the Platform’s lost the faith of the public and many would like to see it go, on the other, its death would only help the PSUV in the 2024 elections. 

There isn’t enough time to conduct a grassroots renewal of leadership either, but there is a way to jumpstart the process. Including fresh new outsiders and wildcards could be a strong push in the right direction. 

The Unity Platform could count on its parties’ bases, the movement’s reach, and its financial strength in order to push forth an outside candidate that could help reunite the voters that feel so tired of it all. To be clear, a good candidate isn’t the single problem that needs to be solved, the opposition would still need to secure electoral guarantees and concessions that would allow for free and fair elections, but these achievements can’t be secured without a strong negotiating position, and separate, indistinguishable factions can gain no such position.

There’s one probable exception, though, on a political actor who is trying to have a brand on her own. Maria Corina Machado and her party, Vente Venezuela, are in quite an interesting position to serve the role of wildcard for the Platform. Machado has already shown she’s willing to participate in the upcoming primary, and her party has long been working on crafting its own quasi-libertarian (sometimes conservative) identity that’s attracted a rather good following. Machado can make use of the Platform’s advantages for a 2024 run, although she may prove to be a pill too hard to swallow for some of its voters.

Machado looks interested in filling the vacuum, but she has little room to maneuver, and, as with many things in life, timing is critical. The Platform may need to go at some point but killing it so close to the elections, with no viable alternative, can’t be considered a wise choice.