“New Game:” The Opposition’s Opportunities and Constraints

Michael McCarthy

Leopoldo López’s #lasalida campaign has changed the game in Venezuelan politics by opening a window for sectors strongly opposed to the Maduro government to take their politics to the street. What implications does this street-based strategy hold for the “opposition” as an organized group of parties and social groups that once stood united behind Henrique Capriles?

Chilean analyst Fernando Mires argues that the Venezuelan opposition is now composed of three political groupings: one behind López, one behind Capriles, and the student movement, which has one prominent leader, Juan Requesens, but multiple currents running through it. Mires’ article does more splitting than lumping but, in fact, it may not do justice to the severity of the opposition’s new unity problems.

With absurd disputes breaking out between the head of the opposition’s Democratic Unity Table (MUD) and the director of human rights NGO, El Foro Penal, the portrait of a tripartite opposition may not capture how frayed ties are between groups self-identified as parts of the opposition. The spat reflects animosity toward MUD Secretary General Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, who has received strident criticism for participating in dialogue with the government.

It may seem counter-intuitive that the opposition would be so divided while dialogue takes place, but a closer look reveals why.

 

Running through the political groupings of López and the student movement is its uniting argument: an opposition made of a pluri-centered mess is advantageous because it renders a sense that a buzzing protest movement is afoot, of a molecular mass that is resistant to orders from anyone. The point here seems to be that unity is not the top issue. The priority is maintaining  a level of street mobilization that will “awaken the Venezuelan people” to the need for a “transition to democracy.”

Running through the political grouping behind Capriles is a different argument: an opposition made of a pluri-centered mess really is a mess since it will not be seen as a credible actor that can confront a crisis or governing. In this view it is important for the opposition to back up its positions with responsible actions that attain widespread support.

These are very different positions, and it is important to recognize that 2014 is a non-electoral year. Thus, these disputes can be seen as rehearsals of what in all likelihood will be a rough-and-tumble year of “primary politics” in 2015 when the country is scheduled to hold Congressional elections and everything will be on the table for neutralizing your internal opposition.

Along these lines, the short-term stakes pertain to a battle for control of the opposition’s base, which is not made up of social sectors such as pro-labor and pro-free trade democrats so much as characterized by a difference of opinion as to whether chavismo is likely to be a permanent fixture of Venezuelan politics or not. In this sense, the battle for the opposition’s base bears watching, as it could well have significant long-term effects on what posture the opposition strikes towards the majority that voted for Chávez. .  

In any case, the precarious state of unity within the opposition means the bombshell of López’s #lasalida campaign continues to reverberate.

Michael McCarthy is Professorial Lecturer in Latin American Politics at Johns Hopkins-SAIS.