Has Venezuela's Opposition Finally Learned How to Win?

By Joel Hirst

Venezuela's weary opposition is set to go to the polls on September 26, its 11th such outing since President Hugo Chavez came to power in 1998; this time voting for all 167 members of the unicameral National Assembly.

Five years ago, in the last National Assembly election, the opposition abstained en masse from the contest, claiming unfair government advantage and challenging the secrecy of the vote. Too late, they realized that their decision to hand over control of the legislature to President Chavez proved disastrous, allowing him five years of unencumbered lawmaking. Opposition leaders have resolved not to repeat that fiasco, and the winds may be shifting in their favor.

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With their gaze firmly set upon the upcoming elections, early this year the opposition put aside internal divisions and banded together under the umbrella Table for Democratic Unity (MUD). They divvied up seats by party and region, allowing room for popular candidates and adopting an aggressive GOTV message. They made electoral material available and assembled a broad coalition. This is a stunning success, given the infighting and jockeying for power that have accompanied previous elections.

In addition, as their luck would have it, this election comes at a difficult time for President Chavez. According to various surveys, his popularity dropped in July to the mid- to high-30 percent range (although it has since rebounded). His lowest polling numbers since the national strike of 2002-2003, Chavez's dip in popularity is partly due to a scandal surrounding thousands of tons of food imported by the revolutionary government and subsequently left to rot in warehouses across the country; and the horrifying lack of citizen security. According to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, there have been over 120,000 murders during the Chavez administration.

The opposition has zeroed in on these issues with rare electoral discipline.

Perhaps sensing danger, Chavez has changed his campaigning style. Instead of portraying himself as a unifying leader, in this contest his persona has instead featured a radical, red-shirted revolutionary emphasizing the need for "true" socialism - again inserting himself into the debate despite not being on the ballot.

The opposition MUD has raised the stakes as well, billing this contest as a final fight to "Save Venezuela." For both, the importance of this election extends beyond the National Assembly itself; it is seen as a practice run for the presidential elections in 2012.

Despite the factors working in the opposition's favor, the challenge to turn unity and discipline into victory is daunting. The Venezuelan government uses the "power of the incumbency" masterfully. Chavistas have been known to use state resources for their campaigns, intimidate voters and pad the electoral registry. According to an analysis of previous voting patterns, a Venezuelan polling firm estimated that the 2009 Electoral Reform Law that allowed for gerrymandering has put as many as 6 or 7 secure opposition seats into play for the Chavistas.

For the opposition the challenge is to reach the magic number of 57, the number of seats necessary for the MUD to rob Chavez of his two-thirds majority and to block the types of sweeping legislation that have been the hallmark of the last five years. Current estimates are that the opposition could pick up roughly 50 seats. If this is the case, it all comes down to voter turnout - a difficult issue for both opposition and Chavistas, especially for National Assembly elections.

Should President Chavez lose his two-thirds majority, he would likely have to choose between two unpleasant options: soften his rhetoric and negotiate with the opposition - something for which he has not shown great appetite in the past - or pursue radical and extralegal methods of advancing his political project.

If the past is any lesson, Chavez may be reluctant to compromise because this would mean, among other things, accepting more financial oversight over his administration. That, in turn, could seriously affect the advancement of regional projects such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, his hallmark plan to promote 21st century socialism across the hemisphere.

For the opposition, winning fewer than the 57 seats would relegate them to token adversaries. They could slow down Chavez's plans and shine light on the inner workings of an opaque assembly, but they would be unable to avoid being legislatively steamrolled.

There remains almost two weeks of campaigning until election day - a lifetime in Latin American politics. But at the very least the opposition seems eager to avoid the costly mistakes of the past. And this time the choice between the two alternatives seems starker than ever.

Joel Hirst is an International Affairs Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations focusing on Venezuela and the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas. You can follow him at www.joelhirst.com or http://twitter.com/joelhirst.

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