This first ever real total primary in Venezuelan history will also be bewilderingly complex, at least for an outsider point of view. So this very first post is going to try, with graphs, to enlighten the non Venezuelan reader (and refresh the neurons of the Venezuelan ones). The first thing to know is that the primary is not going to be that complex after all: if there is a multitude of possible candidates now, by the end of 2011, as I hope to show below, there will be at most 6 viable presidential candidates, and by late January 2012 it is to be hoped that that number will have shrunk to 3-4 maximum, giving us hope that the winner will cross, without discussion, the 50% result. The best way to understand what I mean is to look at Venezuelan political history since 1950.
Let's start with an explanation on how to read these slides. I have not tried to give an accurate interpretation of right or left. This is because, as I have explained elsewhere, in Venezuela there is a political "tradition" that we are all on the left, all preferring the common good, at the expense of the individual if necessary. That this was "the talk" but that in practice the result was quite different is another topic of discussion. Also, some political parties have shifted so much between "right" and "left" that their classification is basically nonsense, reflecting the crass opportunism that has ruled Venezuelan politics, in particular since the 90ies. I must say that I did not include all the parties that have had any significance in Venezuelan history, limiting myself to mention those that I think were mentioned at some point in this blog. You thus must read these slides from top to bottom, reflecting the evolution of political parties, their influence, their by products, etc... avoiding to impinge absolute accuracy from these slides: I am just trying to give you an Ariadne thread to find your way through the coming months.
Finally, it will help you to open each slide in an individual window or frame as you read this text, if you are still reading this far. And do not forget that all of these interpretations below are mine only, are certainly questionable by many historians, etc, etc... no need to start a useless debate unless you can prove me wrong, glaringly, which I will in fact accept gladly as in history I am always willing to learn new stuff.
The first slide, circa 1950, reflects how it all started in Venezuelan modern politics. The Gomez years of stability had effectively made irrelevant the XIX century political divisions, if we can define individual ambitions as political in the way we understand that word today. Gomez was in fact a "Liberal" if we go by that... Through the first half of the XX century diverse foreign influences came to develop new ways of thinking, while at the same time an indigenous intellectual movement of students under Gomez gave rise to the first true political party of Venezuela, Accion Democratica, clearly positioned to the left of the center left of those days. URD, which was also born from that student movement was in a way more the heir of Venezuelan past movements, in particular those who opposed Gomez and his successors but could not stomach AD. Even though in some aspects URD could sound further to the left than AD. Finally COPEI and the Communist Party were more a product of foreign ideologies than native stock.
The 1945 forced arrival of AD to power changed irremediably the old Venezuelan political culture. URD put a fight against AD, COPEI also tried but URD would fade with time while COPEI would eventually succeed and reach power twice by looking more and more like AD.
But the price was high. The need of all being to the left, with "el pueblo", of all imitating AD vices more than virtues (which disappeared fast anyway) created a political vacuum on the right. Since politics like nature abhor a vacuum, AD and COPEI were understood with time as being on the right and in the case of AD this had drastic consequences as the left of the party kept splintering in droves to create more genuine leftist movements, the most important one having been the MEP who at some point was thought to be able to defeat AD.
The Communist party also did its share of errors by remaining Stalinist for too long and thus giving rise to a democratic left with the MAS. Causa R, and its descendant PPT, were more of a trade union origin and as such rose as much from the left as from AD labour base.
The historical failure of COPEI was its refusal to assume itself as a liberal right, because Rafael Caldera could not wait 5 more years to 1973 to become president, and because of the humiliating defeat of Uslar Pietri in 1963 who run clearly to the right of AD. But that did not stop COPEI from its own divisions, a more leftist version with Convergencia and a more technocratic one with Proyecto Venezuela. I must stress that as it is often the case in Venezuela a "division" might not look as such since the new parties are often created from defectors of a given party with outside personalities joining in. e.g. if the bulk of the Convergencia and PVzl voters come from COPEI but we cannot properly say that they are mainly COPEI clones.
This evolution and permanent questioning eventually lead us to 1998 where all major parties were greatly diminished and where the newer ones did not manage to impose themselves as a new better alternative. It was this atomization, coupled with years of mediocre economic performance, that created a political opportunity for Chavez. If there was the formation of a new vehicle with the MVR, the parties that had the experience to manage the Chavez 1998 campaign were the old guard that rallied to him, namely the PCV, the MAS and the PPT. Soon the authoritarian nature of the new regime was going to expel its right wing component, break down original allies forcing them to either join the new PSUV or leave the Chavez coalition which became a single party system, the PSUV where tiny movements still try to gravitate around (the PCV itself having become a tiny gnat).
The anti Chavez coalition of 1998 tried first to run as three blocks but they united in a very damaging fashion around the candidate of PVzl to lose the vote in the end (hence the brackets in the slide). This catastrophic image damage was never repaired, and it cost PVzl its chance at becoming a novel leadership party while forcing promising politicians within the anti Chavez group to create new political parties not associated with the 1998 debacle.
The very discredited AD gave rise to a strong regional party, UNT, in Zulia. ABP was more of a Caracas centered division of AD. Some young COPEI activists joined with other more market oriented thinkers to create Primero Justicia which at first was also a Caracas based party but which is finally showing some signs of base expansion. It would be for PJ to become the right wing democratic expression of Venezuela that the system so badly needs, that is if we describe 'right' in today terms, offering more stringent economic accounting and protecting individual rights against the abuses of majority rule. I do not see that happening yet but it might be also due to the ferocious political discourse of chavismo that does not allow for such subtleties.
Still, the commie talk of chavismo is forcing all in its opposition to have a more liberal language, to recognize that the individual cannot be repressed for the sake of the community as chavismo wants, and needs, us to believe. The time will come, courtesy of the abuses of Chavez and his followers where we will finally have all sorts of real political options in Venezuela. That does not mean that a cliche right wing will emerge in Venezuela; after all, right and left are always adjectives modified through local adverbs. For example, Marine Le Pen in France can be seen as a sweet ingenue when compared to Sarah Palin or la Bachman in the US.... And Obama gets along better with Sarkozy and Merkel than Bush did.
The political readjustment taking place
Perhaps the very real reason while so many political parties did not want primaries this year is that they are not ready. No matter how reluctant they all are to abide to the historic moment, the process of redrawing the political map of Venezuela is actually just starting now. I suppose that in a way it is justified to postpone the election, if, and only IF these guys finally put their act together. We could even go as far as saying that PJ went along in the end because if it is true that all polls gave PJ as the winner of a primary held today, they would not get now the 50%, and probably not win a second round that would risk very much to become an all against PJ, seen as too powerful within the opposition. I am pretty sure that AD today would risk breaking up the MUD if PJ were to win: AD thinks only about AD interests.
The social democrat option
But AD also is becoming aware that they have no viable candidate and that their only option to obtain some parcel of power is through a coalition. Their only option is to reconcile with those that were forced out of AD, namely UNT and ABP in a so called "social democratic" alliance that even the MAS could join. I suppose that indeed such a movement is as "social democratic" as we could get in Venezuela though I suspect it still too tied to a populist past to guarantee us the modernity that we so desperately need. If such regrouping were to take place, there will be at least two to three months of ferocious negotiations, even some sort of primary to decide which of its possible candidates (4 so far) will get the nod of that alliance for the 2012 primary. The only one that has a chance to get a decent score in February on its own is UNT so I suspect that eventually AD and ABP's Ledezma will in the end bow to UNT. Which explains why Ledezma is right now in campaign to see if some polling miracle happens. I doubt it very much though if AD decided to throw its weight behind Ledezma, polls could even up between UNT and AD/ABP.......
The apparition of a democratic left
A more interesting movement with maybe better chances to reach a common candidate for 2012 is the democratic left of Venezuela. I have thrown together in that pinkish circle all of the disappointed of chavismo (Podemos, PPT, MAS) and those who never bought it (Causa R). Anyone of them alone would not register much more than a 5% in 2012 but together their summation could attract enough chavismo voting (the primary will be open) that they could pass the 20% mark or at least deny an outright majority to the winner. Maybe even win, but I doubt it, the pendulum is swinging right in Venezuela.
I think that the game is different for these people. First, they have a viable candidate with Lara's governor Falcon. But he is not quite ready to look presidential, and too marked as a traitor of chavismo for them to vote for him in a general election in 2012. Paradoxically in my opinion a more right of center challenge can pull away a few votes from chavismo who will not see any point in voting for the chavismo light offered by Falcon, preferring a real change. I am convinced that at least some within that left group are banking for the post Chavez era, when a PSUV made orphan by the defeat of Chavez might seek new spaces and then the alliance of PPT et al. could become that new home, in 2018. Falcon will then be still young enough to run and finally get elected president, returning the left to office.
The COPEI option, a center right that never happens
The COPEI effort seems to me more doomed. The problem here is that COPEI has not survived as well as AD and that its progeny is weak. The only one that prospered and stands well above the lot is PJ but this one does not want anything to do with COPEI et al, (nor does PVzl wants to have anything to do with PJ for that matter). There are also some atomized "right" groups that may go there but adding all of it up will not reach 20% in February 2012. It is too bad for them because if that group united behind PJ they would have it all set for 2012, forcing the social democratic group and the democratic left to unite if they want to have a chance at winning the primary.
The problem of that group is also that they have no clear candidate. Alvarez Paz could be a good one but today he is considered fringe, too much on the right. Salas Feo, Carabobo's governor, has a certain sympathy but he is too lightweight to run outside of his base. Besides, he did not do very well electorally at the last legislative election, beating chavismo but not as much as he should have done. Thus this group is going to have to get its man probably from the National Assembly. Some certainly have ambitions there, like Mendoza or Gomez Sigala, but I see no one strong for a national challenge. And forget Tachira governor,, absolutely unelectable outside of the Andes (and even there...). If I were to advise them I would suggest them to go for broke, become the liberal right of Venezuela and run in 2012 to build a real challenge in 2018. But this time around you are out.
The only really new option
PJ's role I have hinted a lot above. It is truly the only party today that can run alone for the primaries with a good shot at winning. This is merely due to the projection of reasonable efficiency they have in the districts they rule over, with the top price of Miranda state, second only to Zulia, and which irradiates deeply in chavista misruled Caracas, making Caraqueños look with envy at the Caracas side inside Miranda state. Further more, if Capriles Radonski, Miranda governor, is leading the polls today, he is not the lone electable PJ. In a pinch either its secretary Borges or Petare mayor Ocariz could make a run at it if Capriles own run were to fizzle through a too long primary campaign. I personally do not like Capriles too much but I have to admit that he has thrived under adversity in Miranda where chavismo has tried all against him short of poisoning his drinking water. As such, in a post 2012 with chavismo sabotaging the new presidency since day 1, Capriles has demonstrated that he can deal with chavistas.
The problem with PJ is that I do not see them getting that 50% in February 2012. They will do well, probably win, but they will have a hard time at reaching that 50% which is more indispensable for them as within the opposition only AD is more disliked than PJ... It is not enough to carry Miranda and Caracas to win nationally and right now PJ is still very weak elsewhere except Aragua, Nueva Esparta ad a couple of other states. On the other hand their candidate problem is solved and this one can focus on making inroads outside of Caracas while the other groups still need at least a quarter to sort out their candidate.
Long shots, but not to be discarded just yet
To end this let's look at possible outsiders taking the February prize. If the primaries had been this year it would not be worth our time considering them, but with such a long political season many things may happen that suddenly one of these outsiders could become the chosen one.
There are several, the two main ones today being Maria Corina Machado (MCM) and Leopoldo Lopez (VP). MCM is just positioning herself and has the celebrity status, and that she is really the only woman in the arena with a chance (the other one is the UCV president but I do not think she wants to run, or has not shown much interest so far). MCM has no electoral machine, and even less outside of Caracas. However her real shot is at becoming the compromise candidate of the COPEI group of parties, heck, even the compromise candidate of the social democrats as UNT could run her if Rosales remains barred from coming back to Venezuela and Perez decides that he needs to remain in Zulia to ensure that state against Chavez. She is politically detached enough that she could fit anywhere, which might also be a minus as pragmatism is not very fashionable these days.
Leopoldo Lopez is steadily rising in polls and is hard at work building a real electoral machine. Unfortunately for him he is barred from running in 2012, unless his case wins a court ruling at the IAHRC and Venezuela is forced to accept it. Very iffy right now. However, even if in the end he cannot run he will have enough backing that his last minute support could decide the winner of 2012 primary. King maker is not bad, if you ask me.
Besides the UCV president already mentioned there is only another outsider who does not show up much in polls yet but who has a wealth of electoral experience and in 10 months could do some damage. Diego Arria is the lone politician from pre Chavez that has at least at chance at figuring. This is because he has been such a steadfast anti Chavez voice that inside the opposition he has been able to attract notice since a lot of other candidates, like VP, pretend that Chavez is just some guy there looking for votes too, as if all were normal politics. Unfortunately for Arria I do not see him as able to pry votes away from chavismo, his run so far being too much on principles and not enough on arepa y mondongo. And yet it might be a good long run strategy as others run too much away from principles which are essential to motivate fully an opposition electorate.
Right now, in spite of the very deliberately misleading title of this post, it would be foolish to predict a winner. Even though we see trends we need to wait for at least late July until we can start visualizing the possible outcomes. The only thing we can give so far is a preliminary picture which will influence the candidate nomination process of each group.
Capriles is ahead, and will remain so for as long as no other group comes up with its candidate. But right now he would not get much more than 30%.
The only serious potential rival to Capriles will be the "social democrat". If Perez gets the nod, he could even win as right now, just with Zulia, Perez would get a 20%.
In third but really with no chance, would be Falcon if the democratic left were to unite. With Lara, Aragua and disgruntled chavistas he could well reach a 15% right now.
The rest right now have no chance. The only two which I see becoming a remote possibility are:
1)Leopoldo Lopez if he can run since right now he would get a healthy 15%.
2)MCM if she were to become the COPEI/PVzl candidate, or Salas Feo if he straightens up in the months ahead. But in my book MCM is a much better candidate for that group though she might not want to be associated with them, which would leave them choosing between Salas Feo or Gomez Sigala.
Again, the campaign is long and history books are littered with front runners that died politically before election day. But that is not the point of this post: the idea was to let you know why by December 2011 there will be at most 5 candidates still running and why by February 12 2012 that number might have gone down to 2 or 3 at most.
This is the inner logic of the opposition, to finally decant into 2 or 3 major groups defined through some ideological make up rather than historical tradition. Times have changed and the renewal for all those who have not done so is there. Only PJ and VP escape that curse because, well, they have already done their aggiornamento and that is why they are significant at polls, and growing. All the others are laggards that have neither renewed nor detached fully from Chavez idiocy.