Hunger Strikes Challenge Opposition Strategy and Unity

Michael McCarthy

The effects of jailed political prisoners Leopoldo López and Daniel Ceballos’ hunger strikes—now in their eighteenth and twentieth days respectively—continue to reverberate in opposition power centers. Their political party Popular Will (VP) is effectively redefining the coalition’s agenda for contesting the government.

Coming off of the May 17 primaries, the opposition Democratic Unity coalition’s (MUD) top priority was selecting “consensus” candidates in two thirds of its districts. But now the top issue has become freedom for political prisoners, with attention centering on international calls to ramp up pressure on the Maduro government. For example, a MUD-backed 7-day “emergency plan for action” concluded June 10 with opposition party municipal council persons taking to the streets to express solidarity with jailed mayors Ceballos and Ledezma.

Aiding VP’s gaining a hold of the agenda was a May 30 López-convoked rally that exceeded expectations for turnout despite the MUD not supporting the demonstration and former Presidential candidate Henrique Capriles’s lukewarm backing.

The sequence of recent events is crucial for trying to comprehend the still unfolding ramifications of VP’s move to the fore. On May 17 the MUD held open primaries to select thirty-seven of its candidates for the 2015 legislative elections.

The primary vote also exceeded expectations for turnout but this failed to boost the negotiating position of parties PJ, UNT, and AD, three groups that heavily promote the electoral path. VP came in second in overall voting.

The primaries were followed by sustained closed-door negotiations about selecting the “consensus” candidates. But López’s May 23 video announcing the hunger strike disrupted the MUD negotiations over its consensus candidates.

Though the hunger strikes have changed the conversation away from the success of the primaries, this event can be understood as López’s intervention in the decision-making processes that will shape the opposition’s strategy going forward. It is part of the real politick maneuvering that is typical during primary season, the period in which jockeying for position is often at its most fierce.

The opposition has yet to agree on its candidates, who even if they do not know the date of the elections, have an interest in fanning out to the streets to begin electoral mobilization.

The prolonging of the primary juncture for the opposition raises questions about what proposals opposition party candidates can promise to follow through on. The special relevance for the Venezuelan case is that opposition parties face the linked challenges of staying disciplined about their messages and overcoming serious credibility problems.

Another challenge is the need to pivot away from a message centered on liberty to a message centered on the severe economic crisis and the hunger strikes clearly complicate that move. It is instructive that it was the government itself that leaked López’s video.

During the 2010 Parliamentary elections, the MUD served as a venue for coordinating proposals and as a vehicle for parties to subordinate their interests to an alliance’s greater goal of political change. But expecting the MUD to play this role may no longer be plausible. Instead, the MUD could be come an ornament that honors a hollow cry of unity rather than a fulcrum for collective action.

Michael McCarthy is a research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.