The government of President Nicolás Maduro is unpopular and seemingly vulnerable in a fair election. The dilemma is that the opposition has not been able to unite behind a single platform, which makes winning elections much more difficult. What needs to change if they truly want to win?
In the past thirty years, Chile has experienced efforts to vote out a military dictatorship (1988) and then, in 2009-2010, vote out the coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists that had dominated the presidency since 1989. As in Venezuela, the opposition in both Chilean cases had to overcome years of fractures and infighting while out of power to win the election. The efforts 0f the Chilean opposition to unify may be illustrative to the Venezuelan opposition, with one difference: the two Chilean cases ended presidencies, while in Venezuela the legislative election may only give the opposition a majority in the National Assembly and demonstrate that the Maduro’s presidency is on the rocks.
There are three broad lessons to consider.
First, agree on a coalition leader. The opposition will find winning considerably harder with competing leadership. For Chile, the two leaders the opposition united behind were Patricio Aylwin, for the 1989 election and Sebastián Piñera, for the 2009-2010 election. They were both experienced politically and widely viewed as moderate (e.g. not a member of the far left or far right parties of their coalitions). They both openly rejected the excesses of the past: Aylwin acknowledged the mistakes he made by not defending Chilean democracy in 1973 and Piñera highlighted that he supported trials for human rights abusers from the regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet. In other words, a moderate, consensus leader who could appeal to different currents was essential.
In Venezuela, Leopoldo López and Henrique Capriles co-exist uneasily but cannot come to agreement on tactics or single standard bearer. Without one conceding to the other (or to a third) they will face continued division. In legislative elections, this will result in splitting votes, opening the door for more government victories.
Second, explain why the coalition excludes extremism. In Chile and today in Venezuela, the opposition must convince voters it has shed more radical aspects of its past and deserves to govern. That brings in the centrist votes required to win. In Venezuela these are called “ninis,” meaning they are neither pro-government nor pro-opposition.
During the Allende years, the Chilean Socialist Party was more radical than the Communist Party. After the 1973 coup, the party leadership underwent considerable soul searching and gradually moved toward the center. By the 1980s the party was ready to join a broad center-left coalition (which became known as the Concertación), with Aylwin—a Christian Democrat—as its standard bearer. That meant rejecting violence as a legitimate means of opposing the government and shifting from socialism to social democracy.
With regard to the 2009 election and 2010 runoff, during the 2000s (and especially after Pinochet’s death in 2006) members of the far-right Democratic Independent Union (UDI) party softened their unquestioning support for the dictatorship. The center-right National Renovation (RN) party rebranded itself even more, speaking out against human rights abuses and trying to focus more on personal and economic liberty in its platform.
The Venezuelan opposition is too often associated with elitism, corruption, support for the 2002 coup that briefly overthrew Hugo Chávez, and even the ouster of Nicolás Maduro, since many took the opposition’s #lasalida (“the exit”) protest slogan as a veiled threat. These are all controversial issues and have been associations that have limited the opposition’s popular appeal, especially to the wide swath of voters who once supported Chávez and Maduro but are now disgruntled with the government’s economic failings (though often still support the social ambitions).
Third, avoid personal attacks. This was particularly relevant for running against the Chilean dictatorship. The campaign to unseat Pinochet focused on the promise of a more positive future and incorporated criticism of human rights abuses into that theme. The tone of the campaign was mature, measured and optimistic. That stood in contrast to the dictatorship’s insistence that a “No” vote was the same as voting for communism.
Personal insults have become the norm in Venezuelan politics. The government emits a nonstop barrage of conspiracy theories, while the opposition labels the government as a dictatorship and endlessly mocks Maduro and others. Critical swing voters have little appetite for such mudslinging. Taking the high road will involve swallowing a lot of indignation, but will increase votes.
None of these lessons guarantees victory, but after so many losses the Venezuelan opposition clearly needs a new strategy.
What also remains to be seen is how fair the elections will be. In the 1988 Chilean case, there were scores of international observers from multiple countries, and the dictatorship was forced to concede defeat. By contrast, the Venezuelan government announced that there will be no international observers. Instead, there will only be UNASUR officials to “accompany” the government’s electoral body. A unified opposition, though, could be in a far better position to demand more from the international community. Can they do it?
Gregory Weeks is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at UNC Charlotte. His research focuses on Latin American Politics, U.S.-Latin American Relations, and Latino immigration. His is the author of Understanding Latin American Politics (Pearson, 2014) and the forthcoming 2nd edition of U.S. and Latin American Relations (Wiley, 2015).