January 22, 2008


Quico says: I'm on record complaining bitterly about the fragmentation of Venezuela's opposition into more and more tiny and ineffective parties. But recently, I've been wondering how new this structure really is...and to what extent can we think of these little parties as real parties?

It was this story that got me thinking: a spokesman for MAS, one of the parties that has been most comprehensively splintered into insignificance, just announced it wants to negotiate "unity candidates" with the other oppo parties ahead of October's state and local elections.

Hardly earth shattering stuff. Pretty much everyone in the oppo galaxy grasps the arithmetic realities of first-past-the-post elections: it's coalesce or perish. This is not controversial.

But if MAS, Causa R, Primero Justicia, UNT and the others recognize that they will have to put forward a single candidate in most places, in what sense are they really separate parties anymore?

After all, agreeing on a single candidate to represent you in elections is pretty much the defining trait of a political party. That's what parties are for! From the moment all agree to nominate a single "unity candidates" per district, don't they become, de facto, one big meta-party? And, at that point, doesn't each of the "little parties" come to look more like an internal faction within that larger, unacknowledged party?

For the sake of clarity, I think we should give this phantom party a name. I propose "Oposición Democrática". Its internal organization is tacit, yes, and remarkably fluid, (a euphemism, perhaps, for "chaotic".) Its most striking characteristic is factionalism: OD's faction leaders seem to spend nearly as much time trying to outmaneuver one another as they spend fighting the government.

For those leaders, jockeying for internal position is an engrossing blood sport. Anything goes, albeit with one important proviso: when the dust settles, only one odeco gets to be nominated in any one district.

The obsession with internal jockeying is no accident. When it comes right down to it, everyone knows it'll be the OD faction bosses who will decide the unity candidate in any given district. At the end of the day, the backroom horse-trading session that will make or break younger politicos' careers is one only OD faction-heads get to attend.

And so, an aspiring politico's career prospects depend entirely on finding a powerful cacique to fight their corners at that meeting. And a cacique's willingness to fight hard for a given protegé depends on a calculation about how useful the protegé is likely to be to him in the neverending factional fight within OD.

Unless you're clinically brain dead, you catch my drift by now. In many ways, the structure of the current opposition ressembles nothing so much as the heavily factionalized Acción Democrática in the 70s, 80s and 90s. The only difference is that, these days, instead of calling them factions we call them parties. We no longer call the forum where caciques argue the CEN, but we fully realize that it's in that setting that ultimate decisions are made. And we don't have disciplinary tribunals to enforce loyalty to the broader party because we've finally gotten honest enough to accept loyalties are focused on patrons, not on the Oposición Democrática.

The incentives pushing politicos to concentrate on strengthening their clientelistic bonds with patrons hasn't changed one bit. And just as in the era of the AD factions, the current opposition spends so much time obsessing about its relative strength within OD it seems to have totally lost sight of the public. Jockeying for position inside OD is a full time job: it leaves no time for extra-curriculars like articulating a vision for the future that resonates with voters' concerns and wins them over to our side.

The more I think about it, the more I think the virulent anti-party mood in much of the opposition base has to do with this. People intuit the isomorphism between AD and OD. The government exploits that intuition ruthlessly. And oppo politicians are so deeply immersed in the world of OD factional jockeying, they scarcely realize they are repeating the mistakes that destroyed AD in the first place.

Update: As if to confirm my thesis, Copei has just announced that OD will sign an agreement to present a single slate of candidates in October. Note that even to "announce unity" one of the factions gets out ahead of the curve, making the announcement on its own! Happy 23 de enero, everyone...