July 26, 2008

Primaries and the Oppo Brand

Quico says: Tomorrow, the Venezuelan opposition is going to do something we have never done before: choose a gubernatorial candidate through a primary election.

As it turns out, Aragua's pioneering experiment, which is being organized by a re-invigorated Súmate, isn't exactly a cliff-hanger: absolutely everybody seems to take it for granted that Podemos's candidate, Henry Rosales will win comfortably. After all, the guy has Didalco Bolívar's machine behind him. And it sure helps that his only viable competitor, UNT's Hiram Gaviria, is not participating.

Amusingly, Jurassic specimen AD head honcho Henry Ramos Allup, during his vicious little press conference yesterday, said his party is supporting Rosales...even though AD has its own candidate on the ballot! You gotta feel for José Trujillo: rumors that his wife is gonna vote for Rosales too could not be confirmed.

Rosales's only other institutionally backed candidate was put up by the Comando friggin' Nacional de la friggin' Resistencia - apparently now morphed into a full-fledged political party - so no, the outcome isn't really in doubt.

In fact, the Aragua experiment is more a logistical demonstration than a political decision-making mechanism. Aragua became a kind of lab where oppo Election-Obsessive types got to run their own Fantasy CNE, one that says Yes to every item in their election wishlist, from see-through ballot boxes to hand counts to a circular ballot that won't give the candidate listed first an unfair advantage. Certainly, María Corina Machado isn't shy about pitching it that way (starting on 6:04):

(the rest of the interview is worth watching too, btw, for different reasons.)

Personally, I've been on the fence about Primaries for a long time. It's not that I'm against them, it's that I worry that people project their fantasies of a well-functioning, united opposition onto them. As MCM herself notes, every method for selecting candidates has advantages and disadvantages. But, to many in the opposition, the idea of primaries has become a kind of fetish, a magical solution allowing them to sidestep the painstaking institutional reforms we need if we want to become organizationally cohesive and effective.

We need to keep our wits about us. Gaviria's decision not to participate in Sunday's vote illustrates the limits of primaries in coordinating the aspirations of politicians when institutions are weak. Primaries work - when they work - because they are embedded in a set of institutional practices, both formal and informal, that even Súmate can't impose. In their absence, primaries can't even guarantee unity. Ask Hiram, he'll tell you.

The question, though, is whether it's possible to do worse than we're doing now. I think that would be hard. Fairly or unfairly, the survey-augmented backroom deal method the opposition settled on to choose our candidates, and particularly the very public bickering it generates, are making us look horrible.

To my mind, much of the criticism is unfair and immature. A lot of the time, aspiring oppo politicos are getting crucified simply for wanting to get elected to office, as though aspiring to elected office wasn't the dictionary definition of a politician's job. But whether it's fair or unfair isn't really the point, the point is that tremendous damage is being done to our ability to get our people elected to office.

An electorate weary of personal ambition, primed to think the worst of anyone who would step up to the plate and try to run for something, is being treated to an unending display of the kind of political behavior it hates most. How does this help us, again?

The thing to latch on to in that last passage is the pronouns: the bickering is making us look horrible, it's hurting our chances in November.

One thing I've noticed more and more is that opposition supporters almost never speak this way. People who swear up and down that they hate Chávez, people who would do anything to kick out the chavista tool running their states and municipalities, bizarrely switch to the third person when they start to discuss the people who should replace them: it's always they who look ridiculous with all their bickering and shortsighted personal ambition. Reductio'd to its absurdum, the view verges on a kind of hazy, semi-conscious anarchism, where what people really want is for states and cities to run, without anybody specific running them.

This unwillingness to identifywith the people who must run the country if we don't want it to be run by chavistas stands in sharp contrast with what happens in the US. Up north, even after an enormously bruising primary campaign, democrats were still under extreme pressure to think of the party as "us". Refusing to do so came to identify you as a raving crank.

¡Que envidia!

The depth of anti-chavistas' resistance to identifying with the opposition came through very clearly in my latest survey. Asked about your views on Venezuelan politics, a staggering number of readers who detest chavismo simply refuse to identify with in any way as "pro-opposition":

Looking through those "it's complicated" answers, it's clear that y'all are basically anti-Chavista NiNis. Some typical comments:
Strongly anti-chavista but not finding much solace in the viable opposition

Not necessarily pro-opposition, but strongly anti-Chavez

Sympathetic towards the opposition but knowing things are never so bad they can't be made worse.

While the opposition is better than the government, it’s appalling

Pro Venezuela, which chavismo is not but opposition is not doing much better either
As far as I can tell, these kinds of views are very widespread. The opposition "brand" is pretty much in the dumpster, widely reviled even by - especially by - its natural base.

The opposition just doesn't offer an emotional "hook" we can hang a first-person pronoun on. There's nothing about it you could feel good identifying with. As Juan Cristobal knows only too well, declaring your enthusiastic support for an opposition party in Venezuela is sort of like declaring yourself a Nudist at a polite cocktail party: there's something off about it. It's just not something normal people do, certainly not something normal people do proudly. Worse yet, our leaders seem not to grasp that, not to have any sense that this is a problem that demands their attention.

We shouldn't think of primaries as a magic wand able to lift the Oppo brand out of the dismal slump it's in. But they could be a start: one step in a much longer road to repairing the relationship between anti-chavistas and the people who represent us.

For this year it's too late, but in a couple of years, we face National Assembly elections. When that time comes, we can't afford to keep pissing on our own brand by shutting our voters out of the process for choosing our candidates. And agreeing to be chosen through primaries could play an important signaling role on the part of our leaders, sending a clear message that the opposition has turned a decisive corner.

So here's hoping that the Aragua primary goes off without a hitch tomorrow, and definitely establishes the method's viability down the road. It's no magic bullet. It can't replace the arduous task of rebuilding the opposition's image. But it's not nothing.