November 6, 2002

I wasn't that excited about this week's VenEconomy editorial, but my boss insists that primaries are absolutely crucial and that we have to start writing about them now.

Primaries, please

Monday, November 4 was a historic day for Venezuela. For the first time, the chavista rhetoric about “participative democracy” where the people are the protagonists took tangible shape – though in a way very far removed from what chavismo had envisioned. Handing in over 2 million signatures to demand a consultative referendum, the opposition made a decisive show of how far it has come since the inchoate days of April – polishing its credentials with irreproachably democratic actions. As Juan Manuel Raffali said, Monday’s actions will divide the history of the opposition movement into “before” and “after.”

The country was hardly surprised by the reception received at the hands of the government’s most militant supporters. It barely seems strange any longer that activists bearing citizens’ signatures to demand a referendum were branded “fascists” by their opponents. It’s hardly even newsworthy that some of the government’s backers fired guns into the opposition crowd, wounding at least nine, including a reporter whose life was saved only by the bullet-proof vest that has become standard equipment for journalists. These acts of barbarism have been seen so often that they’re almost commonplace by now. Yet they continue to shine a spotlight on the government’s dwindling democratic legitimacy, and on its growing embrace of violence as a way to hang on to power. On the whole, it was yet another public relations disaster for the president’s incongruous campaign to maintain a patina of democratic civility.

Yet the hard part is only starting for the opposition. As the momentum builds towards a referendum, the once seemingly distant prospect of a presidential election looks more and more likely within a relatively short period of time – six months, say. With the collapse of the chavista regime accelerating, the prospect of power has already started to poison the cooperative relationship within the Coordinadora Democrática. To the extent that the Coordinadora’s members begin to see each other less as partners in a common struggle and more as soon-to-be electoral competitors, the cooperative spirit that has marked the last few weeks could start to fray.

So, paradoxically, this present time marks both the peak of the Coordinadora’s prestige and its most dangerous juncture yet. As elections loom ever closer, it’s crucial that its members continue to reaffirm their commitment to work collaboratively, eschewing the temptation to grandstand for electoral advantage. It won’t be easy: grandstanding is, one sometimes feels, hardwired into the way many Venezuelan politicians conceive of their jobs. But at this juncture, the cost of division is simply too high to bear; dividing the opposition is the president’s last remaining hope for remaining in office.

In a nightmare scenario, three or four opposition candidates, including at least two heavy-hitters, would run for election against Chávez, splitting the vote enough to allow him back into office. Of course, the president could conceivably try to increase the chances of that happening by finding some way to call a new election very soon, leaving the opposition no time to choose a single candidate. This might contradict everything Chávez has been saying for several months now, but it would not be the first such radical turnabout for him. Certainly, from a rational choice point of view, it’s probably his best option. Yet even in an abrupt-election scenario it’s conceivable that opposition voters would flock to whichever candidate looks to have the greatest chance of defeating Chávez – conceivable, but by no means a foregone conclusion.

The only way to really ensure that the president is defeated cleanly at what now looks like an inevitable presidential election a few months down the road is for the opposition to agree on a single candidate. It’s crucial that the choice be fully democratic, legitimate and binding on the entire Coordinadora. And the only way to achieve that is for the single candidate to be selected through a primary election, preferably in two rounds.

This would certainly be a radical innovation for Venezuela, but in the present climate of heightened democratic sensibilities, and given renewed revulsion with old-style backroom political deal-making, the Venezuelan opposition looks ready for such bold proposals. Spurred on by the growing urgency of making sure President Chávez leaves office, the proposal might just catch on. This will, in any case, be the next great debate within the Coordinadora.

Some might think it too early to be speculating on such topics. After all, it’s not even clear that a consultative referendum will be held at this point, much less that Chávez will face his opponents head-to-head at the ballot box any time soon. But given his vested interest in splitting the opposition by holding elections sooner rather than later, an ounce of prevention will be better than a pound of cure. If the Coordinadora doesn’t launch a serious debate now on the method for selecting a single candidate, it could be caught out by a chavista power-play; after all, even if elections were called for next April, that would leave a fairly short window in which to organize a primary and hold a serious public debate. So it’s not at all too early to start talking about primaries. It will soon be too late.