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Elections in Venezuela? You mean, is there a winner in that lot?

By Daniel Duquenal

Part 5: some old players are trying a comeback, some new ones are trying to prove themselves. Describing the side opposing chavismo for the regional elections is not an easy task. The only thing that unites the opposition is its desire to remove Chavez from office, although this does not seem as pressing in every player. From the old parties to the new ones, from the Civil Society and its Non Governmental Organizations to local political factors, there is quite a mosaic to consider when describing what are the offerings and the chances of the opposition in an electoral contest. One way to sort it all is to divide loosely the opposition in three groups.

The old establishment tries a come back.

The victory of Chavez in 1998 and the force feeding of a new constitution seemed to have put the traditional old players of Venezuelan politics on the verge of extinction. The country was preparing itself for the long wait until some new force will rise and challenge Chavez. Alas, the messiness of the chavista rule practically ensured a resurrection of some of the dead politics. This should not be too much of a surprise. After all, the electorate of Chavez did not come from "spontaneous generation", it came largely from the file and rank of AD and Copei who ruled Venezuela from 1958 to 1998, something that chavismo is loath to recognize. That many former Adecos and Copeyanos defected the chavista cause is not surprising, AD and Copei still share with Chavez the populist language that does appeal to this large fraction of the electoral body. That type of electorate has a limited loyalty.

Unfortunately for Copei it seems that AD is the main beneficiary of this light revival of fortunes. Copei is still paying for its historical error of having tried to be more populist than AD instead of following its natural calling to become the center right political party that Venezuela needed. From its internal divisions are born some of the movements that want to create a modern and efficient right political movement and they will not return to Copei. Copei knows this quite well, and has decided to keep some of its populist approach trying to link its fate in a more resurgent AD, happy to get back a couple of governorship if possible.

But AD is coming back from exile without having learned much it seems. One can detect some of the old arrogance, some of the same intransigence of the AD of old when it tries to negotiate political agreements. The fact that AD does not have a "presidential" candidate weighs heavily on its mood and is the only reason why AD is still in the middle of the Coordinadora Democratica, a very uncomfortable place for AD who is not used to share the decision making process.

What makes everything worse is that neither AD nor Copei show the slightest sign of remorse for their past actions, actions that brought upon us the Chavez calamity. A good heartfelt apology would be welcome, and that is what the civil society would like to hear to accompany AD in its quest to unseat a few chavista governors.

The civil society is restless.

When the "Punto Fijo system" collapsed in 1998, it was for the civil society to pick up the pieces. In fact one could trace clearly the birth of the large anti Chavez movement to March 31 2001 when a few thousand of people gathered at Plaza Brion to protest against a decree that would intervene private education establishments. Old political parties were probably as surprised by the turn out than the organizers themselves. But the civil society, helped by the media which was starting to feel the heat from chavismo, quickly mushroomed into larger and larger forms of protest and when the political parties got in, we reached April 11 2002.

Discredited political parties could not have rallied people the way that institutions like CTV, or FEDECAMARAS united with all sorts of N.G.O. did. They were the real motors of the anti Chavez movement and political parties have been trying desperately since to harness that force. It has not been easy, not only because the nature of such a grass root movement makes it near impossible to direct, but also because large sectors of the civil society refuse actively to be directed toward a common goal, so afraid they are, perhaps justifiably, to be manipulated.

Thus all these N.G.O. and grass root movements face the very Hamletian question: to become a political force or not? Which is the inevitable end of the road if they want to avoid the fate of falling into irrelevance and oblivion.

The new players test their muscles.

One N.G.O. that has successfully made the transition to political party is Primero Justicia. Founded by a group of young lawyers to try to bring access to a fair justice to the people in general, PJ grew rather fast during the first months of Chavez rule. To everybody surprise it picked up two juicy townhalls in 2000, and 5 assemblyman, running only in the Caracas Metropolitan area. Since then they have become the "bete noire" of chavismo as they represent all what chavismo is bad at: efficiency, novelty, youth, future and even honesty.

But chavismo is not the only enemy of PJ. It is fair to say that AD is as weary of PJ as Chavez is. And that can be heard quite often when the tongue of a few AD leaders slip when they feel safe. After all, if AD can be seen as a "chavismo light", it is as much at risk from PJ than this one. One consequence of this unified animosity against novelty forces PJ take rather strong positions on the political scene, positions that other newcomers seem to like to follow.

The twilight years of the old system did gave rise to some important dissident regional forces that have become significant players. Proyecto Venezuela, with PJ the closest we have to a center right party, has risen from its efficient work administering Carabobo state. But PV, a scission from Copei itself, has failed to gain significant following outside of Carabobo, perhaps due to the competition of PJ. Both of them appeal to the same electorate, and even a case could be made that both of them find their electorate into the moderate to anti populist wing of the once large Copei.

Causa R is yet another one of these regional forces that suddenly acquired National significance when it became a serious contestant for the presidential chair in 1993. Like Proyecto Venezuela, Causa R can be traced as coming from one of the old parties, the labour wing of AD. Although from the left, Causa R opposed Chavez from the very beginning and if it paid a price for it, it seems to be making a significant recovery. In particular it benefits from its leader one of the few and articulate, if too passionate, visible head of the opposition.

From the left also comes the MAS who has the dubious distinction of falling into the old and new player category. Old, because it was born in the 70ies and has shared enough of the governmental responsibilities before 1998. But new because it tied its lot to Chavez, greatly helping this one to reach office. By 2001 they had seen the light and after a painful break up and internal division the MAS has been a consistent force in the opposition. Still, it has been maimed of part of its electorate that remained with Chavez and it is hindered by a certain tendency to forgive too much to AD and forget the not so brilliant past. Curiously the MAS could be the link between AD and PJ/PV/Causa R since it stands to lose less from them than AD.

We have thus quite a complex combination which is even more complex when one adds more scissions from AD such as Alianza Bravo Pueblo or defectors from Chavismo, and more, and more. It remains to see how these forces will find in themselves to reach a minimum of accords to be able to take away as many state houses and town halls as possible.

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