Venezuelan Opposition’s Increasing Unity spells problems for Chavez
The strength of Venezuela's opposition is increasing through greater unity ahead of the battle to remove Chavez in 2012.
Last week, in a show of increasing political unity, Venezuela’s opposition parties -- grouped under the umbrella “Table for Democratic Unity” (MUD for its acronym in Spanish) -- made an important step forward. They announced that they would go to the next presidential election with a “unitary card”.
Traditionally, each party has selected its candidate for the presidential elections before complex negotiations take place to present unitary candidates. This has often made the ballot large and unwieldy and given the feeling of a “splintering” of the opposition or the government.
President Chavez tried to address this problem with his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) -- but has recently backtracked and called for a “Patriotic Pole” again. In response, the MUD has, for this election, agreed to create a unity platform -- whereby all the parties come together under one new banner.
For many in the opposition, this was very difficult; it requires them to surrender their political party for the good of the opposition as a whole. For example, Governor of Miranda, Henrique Capriles Radonski -- should he win the primary -- would have to confront President Chavez under this new coalition banner and not “Primero Justicia”; a party to which Capriles has been very faithful and has helped to build from nothing into the powerful national force it is today.
And so, coming on the heels of a unanimous decision to head to opposition primaries, it seems that the Venezuelan opposition is headed in the right direction.
This does not mean that the elections of 2012 will be easy; President Chavez will undoubtedly seek to mobilise all the tools in his not unsubstantial arsenal to swing elections in his favour.
First, the socialist leader has a track record of using the resources of the state for elections. In 2009, for example, for the referendum on indefinite re-election, he drew down $12 Billion from the foreign reserves which he spent on that campaign. He also uses the fear factor, telling Venezuelan civil servants (an amazing five million in number) that he will know if they vote against him. And there are supposedly one million fake names on the voter registration lists which are impossible to audit because the government refuses to release the addresses of the voters to international auditors on the grounds of “privacy”.
Most importantly though, the revolutionary government uses an obscure administrative procedure called “disabling” to remove popular opposition figures from the field. This is done via the country’s Inspector General’s office, there called the “Controller”.
The Controller targets leaders and opens administrative investigations on a partisan basis -- ruling that this or that official has been “disabled” due to administrative findings. Not only is this a hindrance to the opposition, but it directly violates the Venezuelan constitution, which states that the only people forbidden from participating in the electoral process are those convicted in a court of law for a crime.
Using this process, the government silenced the popular former Chacao Mayor, Leopoldo Lopez. Lopez took his case to the Inter-American Human Rights Court in Costa Rica -- where a ruling is pending in August -- and has decided to participate in the MUD’s primary elections, in the hope that a victory there would force the Venezuelan government to remove his “disabling”.
The government has also threatened to open an administrative investigation into Governor Radonski -- who has led in the opposition’s primary polls. There are more than 400 other Venezuelan’s who have been illegally removed from the electoral process.
The Venezuelan opposition continues to make important steps toward unity. Apparently having learned the lessons of past disasters, they have agreed to set aside differences in order to seek to win power in the beleaguered nation.
For President Chavez -- whose energy is sapped by his fight against cancer and whose ministers, apparently fearing loss of power, have allegedly evacuated $10 billion to foreign accounts -- this is not good news.
Whatever happens in 2012, the results will be pivotal for the future of Venezuela; with repercussions not only in that country but across the hemisphere, including for the United States.
The international community should watch the process closely -- not only on election day but for the entire election period.
Joel D. Hirst is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC. He tweets at @joelhirst
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