October 2, 2009

The indefatigable push for primaries

Juan Cristóbal says: - As most of you know, I've become a strong supporter of holding opposition primaries. In my view, they would be good for our chances of winning the upcoming Parliamentary Elections, good for the country, and good for the ultimate goal of stopping Chávez.

But the idea, first proposed by Leopoldo López and now supported by Yon Goicoechea, among others, is not getting a ton of traction.

Part of it has to do with the lack of details, but a big chunk of it has to do with the typical laziness in our political class, with their whiny attitudes and their disgraceful tendency to get discouraged at how haaaaaard it is to be the opposition to a dictatorship.

Their knee-jerk reaction to reject proposals that takes power away from them and puts it in the hand of their constituents is, in a way, totally understandable. If things keep going the way they are, the decision over the Assembly elections will likely evolve into a huge fight between those who want popular participation and those who want to preserve the power that the status quo gives them.

Still, it’s early enough in the process to believe a rational discussion can still take place.

An op-ed piece today by Eugenio G. Martínez goes a long way toward focusing the discussion. Martínez lashes out with abandon, listing a barrage of questions for this and other proposals. Are we going to have 167 primaries?, he asks. Who can vote in the primaries? Is a "consensus better"? Who will make the decision in this "consensus"? Who will make the ultimate decision?

And on he goes, circling around one basic question: do we have our s**t together?

Well, we don't. But one way to start getting it together is by asking the right questions, and that is what Martínez gets right.

The next step consists of knowing what we are discussing, bringing down our options from the terrain of the hypothetical to the realm of the concrete, and arguing about that.

It's easy to dismiss primaries as overly complicated, expensive, ill-defined behemoths when they have not been properly defined. It's much harder to do that when you're discussing a very specific, limited proposal.

So, in light of his fair questions, and in view of the fact that a lot of the opposition's traditional talking heads have proposed a vague and uninspired combination of primaries and consensus, I have the following proposal that tries to reach some sort of middle ground. Here goes.
  1. We hold primaries by state.
  2. Súmate is in charge of organizing the logistics.
  3. Primaries are open to any and all voters.
  4. Each voter chooses one political party.
  5. Parties do not have to be restricted to official organizations recognized by the CNE and, in fact, can be open to anyone. For example, we can think of "Movimiento Estudiantil" as one of the options available.
  6. Voting is manual, following the successful experience in Aragua last year.
  7. Ahead of the vote parties make proposals to the voters, pointing out who their likely candidates and platforms will be.
  8. Campaign are based on these personalities and proposals, with the understanding that by voting for these parties, people are really voting for these people.
  9. Once results are in, the parties come together in state-wide "Mesas de Unidad."
  10. Each party gets votes in the "Mesa" in proportion to the votes they got in the primary. So if, say, in Zulia, UNT gets 45%, Movimiento Estudiantil gets 30% and PJ gets 20%, then those would be the proportion of votes in the Mesa de Unidad for each party or group.
  11. The Mesa then determines unity candidates for that state, with the "order" in which they are listed based on party negotiations, opinion polls and natural leadership.
If we did it this way, the rosters of candidates would broadly reflect the results obtained in the primaries, plus or minus a few "special cases."

Each party would decide who their eligible candidates are according to their own internal rules. The decision of which "tarjeta" to list the unity roster under would be based on a more detailed understanding of electoral rules, and acknowledging the fact that if a party does not register candidates, it may be deemed illegal.

The way I see it, this makes the process simpler and faster. You don't turn primary voting process into a complicated disquisition on the merits of individuals, and you get a mix of popular participation and political negotiations.

Most importantly, you weed out parties that don't really count for much.

You don't like this proposal? Fine - lay out your reasons.

Think Súmate is not capable of organizing this? Let's hear from them, or let's propose an alternative organization.

Do you think it's too expensive? Ok, give me a cost estimate. But keep in mind that opinion polls are expensive too, and the Scotch that will be served in those closed-door meetings where this mythical "consensus" will be reached ain't gonna come cheap either. If we're going to argue the merits of each proposal on the basis of costs, let's! But let's do it with actual figures. And be prepared to argue why we can have a potazo for Globovision but not have one for a more organized, better opposition.

The discussion should also center on the benefits. One of the main obstacles holding the opposition back is lack of organization. By allowing the electorate to decide who should get a seat at the table and, more importantly, who shouldn't, we would go a long way in streamlining the decision-making process while at the same time giving it some much-needed legitimacy.

Primaries aren't a panacea, but the lack of primaries will be our undoing. While some of the points against primaries (cost, complications) are valid, they are surmountable. Pushing the idea of primaries aside in favor of doing what we've been doing so far and which, frankly, simply has not worked - that's just suicidal.

Folks, this is not rocket science - if Colombia's opposition can have primary elections, there is simply no reason why we can't have ours. It's one thing to be a naysayer, it's quite another to propose real arguments.