Venezuela remains in somewhat of a twilight zone following Sunday’s election — CNE (the National Election Commission) has declared Nicolás Maduro the winner by a narrow margin, but opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has refused to concede until a full audit of all of Sunday’s votes has been conducted.
The following days will put a brighter spotlight on Venezuela’s opposition than at any time since the early 2000s. The last broad opposition coalition, Coordinadora Democrática, disbanded in 2004 when it lost a referendum in August 2004 to recall Hugo Chávez from office by a lopsided margin of 59.1% to 40.6%.
Capriles (pictured above with Lara governor Henri Falcón)is the standard-bearer of a new, broader coalition — the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, the Democratic Unity Roundtable). The MUD formed in January 2008, and Capriles was selected overwhelmingly to lead it into the October 2012 presidential election against Chávez. His loss to Chávez was by a margin of nearly 11%, but it was a better performance than any presidential challenger to Chávez in 14 years.
Capriles and the MUD have a lot of hard decisions ahead.
The first involves whether they have hard information that Maduro and the chavistas falsified the vote. As Maduro had the state media, the state oil company, the public bureaucracy and then some behind him, Sunday’s election was far from fair, though Maduro may have nonetheless won an essentially free vote, despite reports of all sorts of dirty tricks. But in the poker game that’s taking place today in Venezuela, we don’t know whether the MUD is holding a straight flush or a pair of 7s.
That defines the broader second decision facing the MUD — regardless of whether it thinks it can prove electoral fraud, will it do so? Capriles has two options here.
There’s the Al Gore / Richard Nixon model, whereby he can concede defeat for the unity of the nation, notwithstanding difficult questions about the election that may well never be answered, as was the case in the 1960 and 2000 U.S. presidential elections.
There’s also the Andrés Manuel López Obrador / Mikheil Saakashvili model. This is a high-risk / high-reward model. If Capriles presses his case on all courts, the result could be like what followed Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, where Saakashvili mobilized popular opinion to dispute Eduard Shevardnadze’s fraudulent victory in the 2003 presidential election. But it could also be like the 2006 Mexican presidential election, when López Obrador fought an increasingly noisome battle against what most Mexicans concluded was a narrow but legitimate victory by Felipe Calderón.
But what is the MUD? So far, it’s been relatively united in the goal of bringing Venezuela’s chavismo chapter to an end, and it seems likely that the taste of victory in Sunday’s presidential election will fuel more unity. But it’s a far from homogenous coalition.
Here’s a look at its main components:
- Acción Democrática (AD, Democratic Action) is one of the two parties that dominated Venezuelan politics between 1958 and 1998. Formed in 1941, it was one of the strongest voices for democracy in Venezuela, and after a coup in 1945, the party formed a government for three years, known as the trienio. Ousted in another coup, and banned throughout the military dictatorship of the next 10 years, Democratic Action returned to power in 1958 elections under Rómulo Betancourt, who’s viewed somewhat as the father of Venezuelan democracy. A democratic, center-left party, Betancourt effected moderately successful rural land reform, though his refusal to support leftists in Latin America who took power by force left him bitter enemies with Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the younger, more radical leftists in his own party. Democratic Action was elected in four of the next six presidential elections, including the presidencies of Carlos Andrés Pérez, who presided over a heady (and corrupt) oil boom in the 1970s and also over painful economic upheavals that led to the deadly Caracazo riots of 1989. Despite the fact that it represents some of the older, more distrusted elements of the opposition, it holds 19 seats in Venezuela’s National Assembly, more than any of the other opposition parties.
- COPEI (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente or the Political Electoral Independent Organization Committee), is the more Christian Democratic of Venezuela’s former two-party duopoly. Like Democratic Action, COPEI became increasingly corrupt during the 1970s and the 1980s. Its founder, Rafael Caldera, who was elected president in 1968, returned in 1993 as the octogenarian leader of the last gasp of the AD-COPEI period — it was Caldera who pardoned Chávez in 1994 for his attempted February 1992 overthrow of the Pérez administration, and it was Chávez who succeeded Caldera after the 1998 elections. COPEI holds just eight seats in the National Assembly, though César Pérez Vivas held the governor’s office in the Andean state of Táchira from 2008 to 2012 — it was one of the states that the opposition lost in the December 2012 regional elections. The executive secretary of the MUD, Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, who bears some resemblance to KFC’s Colonel Sanders, is a former COPEI deputy.
- Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT, A New Era), formed in 1999, is perhaps the strongest of the Chávez era parties, though it’s based in Zulia state, making it largely a regional party. Zulia is the country’s most populous state and its location on the western Caribbean coast and its role as the traditional locus of the Venezuelan oil industry makes it a very important state. It currently holds 14 seats in the National Assembly, and from 2000 to 2012, it controlled the governor’s office in Zulia. Former governor Manuel Rosales was the opposition presidential candidate in 2006 and his wife, Eveling Trejo de Rosales, the mayor of Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second city, is a popular public servant. Pablo Pérez, who served as governor from 2008 to 2012, lost the MUD’s presidential nomination to Capriles in February 2012, and he lost his own seat to Zulia’s popular former chavista governor Francisco Arias Cárdenas, a huge opposition setback in December 2012.
- Primero Justicia (PJ, Justice First), which became a political party in 2000, is Capriles’s party. It’s relatively center-right and Christian democratic in nature, and though it has only six seats in the National Assembly, the fact that it’s Capriles’s party means that many of its leaders, such as party head Julio Borges, would stand to gain relatively more influence in the event that Capriles makes it to the Venezuelan presidency — in 2013, in 2019, or anytime in between.
- Proyecto Venezuela (Project Venezuela), is the party of Henrique Salas Römer, the opposition candidate who lost to Chávez in 1998, and Henrique Salas Feo, who was governor of Carabobo, the third most populous Venezuelan state from 2008 to 2012. Like Pérez in Zulia, however, Salas Feo lost his December 2012 reelection bid. The party nonetheless retains a relatively strong presence in Carabobo.
- Voluntad Popular(Popular Will) is a party formed in 2009 by popular former mayor of Chacao municipality Leopoldo López. The great-great-grand nephew of the great libertador Simón Bolívar himself, López was originally seen as the strongest potential candidate to challenge Chávez in the 2012 presidential election. Chávez responded to the threat by having López banned from holding public office through 2014, a move that garnered widespread international opprobrium. Like Capriles, just barely in his forties, he is one of the tanned, fit, bright young Turks of the opposition.
Other influential leaders in the MUD are part of even smaller movements outside the constellation of the main parties described above.
Caracas’s mayor, Antonio Ledezma, is a key opposition figure and a former member of Democratic Action, despite the fact that Chávez essentially stripped the mayor’s office of power when Ledezma won the mayoral election in 2008.
Henri Falcón is perhaps, second to Capriles, the biggest opposition star of them all. A former chavista, he was elected as the governor of Lara state in December 2008 with PSUV support and won 73.5% of the vote. He split with Chávez over extending term limits in the 2009 referendum, however, and in December 2012 he ran as the opposition’s candidate in Lara — and was reelected by the largest margin of any opposition figure in Venezuela. I argued earlier in March that under the right conditions, Falcón might even have been a better candidate for the opposition than even Capriles.