David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
Today’s elections will be decisive in determining the political future of Henrique Capriles and the opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática. For months they have pointed to these elections as a sort of plebiscite on the government of Nicolas Maduro. In September and October it looked like they had played their cards well as they seemed to be headed to a solid showing, perhaps winning the popular vote.
Now however, it looks like they will they will be lucky to repeat their percentages from April, and could lose the popular vote by five percentage points, perhaps by as much as ten. Given their continual suggestions that Maduro is an unpopular and unsuccessful president it could be difficult for the opposition to rhetorically handle adverse results.
The past year has seen the opposition return to strategies from the past.
The government’s defeat in the December 2007 constitutional referendum galvanized what can be thought of as the electoralist wing of the opposition coalition. From early 2008 through 2012 they came together in plausible electoral coalitions, gaining ground in the 2008 regional elections, the 2010 legislative elections and holding successful primary elections in February 2012.
The success of this electoralist wing pushed to the back burner two of the core elements of opposition discourse before 2006: the assumptions that they were the majority, and that the Chávez government was illegitimate. These two ideas were at the core of the opposition’s landslide loss in the 2004 recall referendum as well as their disastrous decisiones to withdraw from the 2004 regional and 2005 legislative elections.
In 2012 the Capriles campaign was clear that they were a minority that needed to create a majority. Capriles carried out a serious campaign that energized the opposition. He rarely took on Chávez directly but tried to show himself as a positive, democratic alternative. Nevertheless, the campaign came up short as Capriles still lost by ten points. Two months later the opposition fared even worse in the governors elections.
This understandably generated some criticism of the opposition’s electoralist, non-confrontational strategy and when snap elections were called after Chávez’s death a different Capriles emerged. He came out swinging, confronting Maduro and Chavismo and questioning their legitimacy. And his unexpectedly strong showing in the April election cemented this approach.
In the process of contesting his narrow electoral defeat—Capriles has still not recognized the result—he has returned to the previous discursive emphases of the opposition: “we are the majority” and “the government is illegitimate.” This has certainly captured the sentiments of the core opposition supporters, but it also has two negative effects for their ability to obtain a majority.
First, it foments abstention. It takes some complex rhetorical twists to get supporters to turnout for these elections at the same time that you are suggesting the last elections were rigged. In this campaign video, Capriles continues to argue that he was cheated in April through voter identity theft and forced voting masked as assisted voting. But he also calls opposition supporters to participate in the December 8 elections in order to counter the possibility of fraud.
Perhaps more importantly, the opposition’s emphasis that it is already the majority reduces the felt need to actually connect with and respond to the needs of average Venezuelans. A number of opposition intellectuals have made this point recently. For example in this widely commented video conference, journalist Alonso Moleiro said that the opposition parties are chronically small, despite the fact that there is growing discontent in the country. He argued that the opposition campaigns with little imagination, makes decisions with an excess of formalism and does not do enough work in the street and in communities.
In the same video conference, journalist and author Luis Garcia Mora said that the opposition has shown a lack of political intuition and does not have enough connection with the majorities. He suggested that they cannot treat poverty like a sociological or economic problem of analysis. A politician needs to treat poverty like a drama and get emotionally involved. He suggested that the only protectors and advocates for the poor majorities since 1999 have been the Chavistas. (See also this essay by Boris Muñoz).
Recent polling data from Datanalisis shows that over two thirds of respondents do not know the opposition’s positions on issues such as crime, scarcities, unemployment and inflation. As long as the opposition maintains that it is the majority, it will feel no need to convince people by providing alternative solutions to their problems.
If the opposition repeats the April result or loses by less than five points it should be able to spin the loss as a good showing given the often grotesque levels of incumbent’s advantage that the government enjoys.
However, losing by five or more points could be difficult to spin. It will look like the opposition managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and could well spur a process of change that could displace Capriles as leader.
Note, however, that the actual popular vote totals will likely be contested. As much as five percent of the vote will go to independent candidates that identify neither with the government nor with the MUD. It is highly likely that the MUD will include those totals in their tabulations presenting all votes “opposing” the government as votes for the “Opposition.”
In the 2010 legislative elections Patria Para Todos ran as third party and obtained around 3% of the vote. Over the following two years opposition analysts and media included PPT votes into their sum of votes “opposing” the government. By 2012 it was presented as a fact that the opposition had won a majority of the popular vote in 2010. The same will likely happen this time around.