Venezuela’s Opposition Has Two Big Problems

The Venezuelan opposition is up in the polls. But beware: That support can be easily lost.

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A little over three months from now, Venezuelans will go to the polls to select a new National Assembly, the country’s single-chamber parliament. With an economy in free-fall, inflation in the triple digits, and crime rates soaring, it is no surprise to learn that the opposition to President Nicolás Maduro is 20 to 30 percentage points ahead in the polls (depending on whom you ask).

You’d think the front-runners would be confident. In fact, though, there is considerable anxiety among their ranks.

There are numerous reasons for this. Experts point to worrying trends in recent polling numbers, which suggest that support for the opposition is far from solid. Opposition supporters worry that the movement’s leaders will be hounded by a judicial system firmly in the hands of the government. Pretty much everyone assumes the government will do everything in its power to squeeze its opponents. Regardless of what the government might do, the biggest fear is that the opposition will lose this election on its own. The possibility of an opposition “choke” is so palpable that a few days ago Bloomberg ran a story with a headline warning that the opposition could “snatch defeat from [the] jaws of victory.”

Yet the reality is that Maduro’s numbers are absolutely dreadful. According to Datanálisis, Venezuela’s leading polling firm, 87 percent of Venezuelans think the situation in the country is poor, up from 46 percent in April 2013, when Maduro narrowly won a disputed election. Sixty percent of Venezuelans blame the government for their many ills, and Maduro’s approval rating is a measly 24 percent, with 78 percent of self-identified “independents” disapproving of his leadership.

Maduro won’t appear on the ballot, yet his less-than-stellar performance in office is eroding support for the candidates of his ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela. According to the same poll, the opposition is outpolling the government by more than 20 percentage points. Among likely voters, the advantage grows to 31 points. Fifty seven percent of likely voters say they will vote for the opposition, while 26 percent say they will vote for the government.

Luckily for Maduro, however, his rivals have some serious lead in their wings.

The opposition has two main problems. First, people don’t like its leadership. Second, the opposition isn’t talking about the issues people want it to talk about.

The main opposition leaders are Henrique Capriles, twice a losing presidential candidate and the current governor of the central state of Miranda, and Leopoldo López, leader of a nationwide protest movement who has been imprisoned for 18 months.

When Datanálisis asked Venezuelans what they thought of the two men, those polled seem to agree: More people dislike López and Capriles than like them. Close to 50 percent of Venezuelans view them unfavorably.

To many of their supporters, this might seem grossly unfair. The jailed López is the country’s preeminent victim, and Capriles has made a point of being the moderate voice inside the opposition. Yet these traits have not endeared them to the public. This is particularly true of independent voters: Large majorities of them dislike both leaders. Capriles has even made a persistent attempt at courting voters loyal to the ideals of Maduro’s deceased predecessor, Hugo Chávez, but his approval rating in that segment is an embarrassing 3.9 percent.

These numbers are no flukes. They have been around for months now. They suggest that a majority of Venezuelans simply aren’t interested in what the opposition’s leaders are selling them. That they are still willing to vote for the opposition’s leaders is more a reaction to Maduro’s deeply unpopular government than a belief in the opposition.

Venezuelans clearly want Maduro’s government to end. They don’t believe the president has the answers to their problems. According to the same poll, 68 percent of Venezuelans want Maduro to leave power in 2016 at the latest, a full three years before his term ends.

Yet few in the opposition are discussing this. Opposition candidates for the National Assembly promise to use their majority for things such as investigating corruption or passing laws to make the labor market more flexible.

Although these are important issues, people know deep down that the problem is Maduro, and unless he goes, nothing will get better. Yet in spite of this, there is no consensus on whether, or how, constitutional powers should be used to put an end to Maduro’s disastrous tenure. As one insider told me a few weeks ago in Caracas, the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), “is for selecting candidates, period. There is no consensus as to what we will do if we win the National Assembly.”

The opposition is the odds-on favorite to win at this point. But the situation presents a perfect opportunity for an independent upstart. Thirty percent of Venezuelans self-identify as neither pro-government nor pro-opposition, and 11 percent of Venezuelans say they would vote for independent candidates.

The MUD leadership will likely live to see another day. But its messaging and its messengers both have to change. Unless the opposition starts responding to voters’ concerns, and unless it does something about the ominous negative ratings of its leaders, victory this December — should it indeed occur — will come with an expiration date.

The photo shows an opposition supporter during a demonstration this month.
Photo credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Aug. 20, 2015: The late Hugo Chávez is President Nicolás Maduro’s predecessor; an earlier version of this article mistakenly said Chávez is Maduro’s successor.

 Twitter: @juannagel

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