Venezuelan Opposition Struggles to Reinvent Itself

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde

On the heels of its electoral set back in the December municipal elections, the Venezuelan opposition is currently undergoing a process of debate, struggle and perhaps change. The opposition framed the December elections as a plebiscite on Maduro’s government, and lost. Naturally questions about leadership and party differences have come to the fore.

The next important electoral context will not happen until the National Assembly elections scheduled for the end of 2015. This is unusual for the busy electoral calendar of recent Venezuela’s history, which has had one and sometimes two important contests every year.

The lack of an impending electoral event means Henrique Capriles leadership will probably be challenged or simply loose importance. Datanálisis’ Luis Vicente León believes that other opposition figures, such as Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado, will attempt to “strengthen their own and their parties’ profiles.” Carlos Ocariz of Primero Justicia, the winner of Sucre Municipality in December 8, could also emerge as a national opposition leader.

This struggle between leaders will be overlapped by a struggle between the varying opposition parties, especially between the traditional parties (such as Acción Democrática and COPEI) and the newer parties (Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular). While the latter have most of the new and popular leaders, the former have some of the more experienced politicians and, in the case of AD, still have formidable networks and mobilizing capacities in the interior.

The role of the Mesa de la Unidad (MUD), the umbrella organization of opposition parties, will also be debated if opposition parties decide that a common electoral platform is not needed at this moment. León believes it is unlikely that the MUD will transcend its electoral purpose: “It is probable that [opposition] parties will choose to go out to work by themselves [outside the MUD]. The party that manages to bring together the most people will become the natural representative of the opposition.”  

These lines of contention within the opposition were already being played out before the December elections. On December 7, on day before the elections, most of Venezuela’s daily papers carried a statement signed by several opposition politicians, including Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado, petitioning for a “popular mobilization” in order to call for a National Constitutive Assembly. It soon became clear that Machado and López were acting outside the MUD and that, although the possibility of such a petition had been discussed inside the organization, most of its members were against the idea.    

On December 18, The leader of the opposition Acción Democrática party, Henry Ramos Allup publicly criticized Machado and López for proposing a Constitutive Assembly: “If with these [electoral] results we call for a constitutive assembly, we are finished; who would want to sign it knowing of the experiences of the Tascón and Maisanta lists?”

Ramos is referring to the lists of people that signed for a recall referendum against Chávez in 2003 that have been used since then to discriminate against people working in or applying for work in the government.

Ramos Allup focused his criticism on Machado and López, avoiding direct criticism of Capriles. When asked about the possibility of Capriles as opposition candidate for Presidential elections in 2018, he argued that it was still too early to discuss it. He also argued that the “plebiscite strategy” for the December 8 municipal elections made sense at the time in terms of increasing voter turnout.

The leader of Voluntad Popular, Leopoldo López, has also so far refrained from openly contesting Capriles leadership–even when directly asked for criticisms of Capriles in a December 23 interview. He declared that framing the December 8 elections as a plebiscite had been an “inevitable” strategy and had served the purpose of turning the regional contest into a national one. However he called the MUD a “closed circuit” and said that there was a need for new spaces for “democratic unity.”

Responding to criticism inside the MUD that he and Machado had imperiled opposition unity by calling for a Constitutive Assembly, López said he felt he had a responsibility to be “at the vanguard” of democracy. His party Voluntad Popular, a relatively small party if compared to Primero Justicia, claims to have won about a third of all Municipalities won by the opposition in December 8.

Henrique Capriles, for his part, has criticized López for framing the municipalities won by Voluntad Popular as anything other than wins for the MUD and his own leadership. Asked in a recent interview about López’s triumphalism, Capriles answered indirectly referring to his own party Primero Justicia: “I went out to campaign for the MUD–not for a political party and not so that parties could divy up the votes. I told Primero Justicia that this is something that is totally besides the point. Candidates won because of the MUD. If they had set out on their own they would not be Mayors today and it’s important not to forget that.” 

The strong reaction to the recent murder of actress Monica Spear and her husband also showed some of the problems the opposition leadership will face. Capriles attended an invitation by President Maduro, extended to all governors, to discuss security issues and actually shook hands with Maduro. While some opposition followers commended the brief Maduro-Capriles greeting, other criticized Capriles for “selling out.” Capriles was quick to answer the critics, tweeting: “For the safety of Venezuelans I am willing to go anywhere.”