A real race in Caracas

A real race in Caracas

In Venezuela, as in the U.S., 2012 is an election year, and in both countries the opposition is deep in its primary process. In the States, the conservative vote has splintered as its candidates veer ever further to the right. But in Venezuela, the opposite dynamic seems to be at work: a campaign remarkably free of personal attacks has seen three centrist candidates polling at a combined 90 percent, leaving their hard-right competitors in the single digits.

In the context of Venezuela’s growing authoritarianism, the very notion of holding an open primary to pick a challenger to Hugo Chávez is radical. This is, after all, a country where the harassment of opposition activists by the state remains the norm. The clean and forward-looking primary campaign, held in the face of constant surveillance and judicial harassment, has vividly illustrated the contrast between the two competing visions of the future at stake.

It all amounts to a startling reversal of fortune for Venezuela’s long derided anti-Chávez movement. For much of the last 12 years, words like "fractious," "disorganized," and "hapless" have frequently been used to describe it. But, as so often happens with stereotypes, this picture is both grounded in fact and increasingly outdated.

The opposition earned its Keystone Pols image in the 2002-2004 period, thanks to its promotion of strikes, demonstrations, and even an attempted coup. A series of high-risk gambits led to a string of spectacular own-goals. One day it was crying electoral fraud in the absence of clear evidence, the next it was calling for a mass walk-out of dissident workers from the state oil company. These moves disrupted people’s lives, alienated swing voters, and unwittingly helped consolidate the president’s support.

Slowly, but steadily, some key lessons have been learned. In 2009, a new umbrella group for opposition parties and NGOs, the Roundtable for Democratic Unity (with the unfortunate Spanish acronym MUD), was created. It has become the first coherent coordination mechanism for the dozens of groups that oppose Chávez.

By crafting a consensus around the idea of a primary, working towards a set of agreed rules to hold them, and agreeing on a common political platform that all candidates are pledged to, the MUD has brought organizational depth and political coherence to a group that badly needed both. It has given the opposition some gravitas.

The result has been a primary campaign mercifully free of internecine squabbles. The marginalization of opposition extremists, along with a level of message discipline and commitment to unity undreamt of a few years back, has emboldened them. Recent opinion polls show their strongest candidate running neck-and-neck against the President.

Still, the road ahead is full of pitfalls. Facing down a silver-tongued rabble rouser at the helm of a cash-flush autocratic petrostate was never going to be a bed of roses. But after much trial and even more errors, the Venezuelan opposition is finally building an organization that gives it a real chance against Chávez.

The clear front-runner is 39 year-old Henrique Capriles. The popular governor of Venezuela’s second most populous state, Miranda, Capriles has run a results-based campaign stressing his record of school-building and his equal dedication to both his opposition-minded and chavista constituents. His messaging is centered on a clear rejection of political sectarianism and ideological polarization — key planks of Chávez’s governing style.

His nearest rival, Pablo Pérez, is also the young, moderate, governor of a key state: Zulia, Venezuela’s most populous. Both he and Capriles are running on records of achievement and both explicitly portraying his candidacy as a path to national reconciliation. Meanwhile, more radical candidates such as 73-year-old Diego Arria, former Venezuelan ambassador to the U.N., who calls for Chávez to be tried for Crimes Against Humanity at the International Criminal Court, languish in the single digits.

Even 13 years into the Chávez era, memories of the pre-Chávez era remain politically toxic in Venezuela. That makes youth a key asset. Little separates Capriles and Perez ideologically, though the old political parties that ran the country before the Chávez era have bolstered Capriles’s credibility . . . by endorsing Pérez. Capriles, by contrast, has gained endorsements from key left-wing parties that were until recently part of the Chávez coalition, thus signaling to disaffected chavistas that he’s a safe-harbor for their confidence.

Regardless of where your sympathies lie, the competition can only be good for Venezuelan democracy.