The Venezuelan opposition faced a difficult question in February, as the country prepared to vote in a national referendum on abolishing term limits. Would participating in the vote mean conceding an institutional victory to the government of President Hugo Chávez? After all, jumping once more into the electoral arena would mean granting at least a modicum of legitimacy to the National Electoral Council, a branch of government established by the 1999 Bolivarian constitution and much maligned ever since by the opposition as corrupt. This was a burning question for the fractious Venezuelan right, whose past anti-electoral tactics—a coup in 2002, an oil strike in 2002–03, a boycott of parliamentary elections in 2005—have only backfired.
It was both a philosophical and a technical problem, fraught with urgency on the eve of a referendum that many on the right said could throw open the door to dictatorship. The week of the referendum, the magazine Zeta published an article featuring Alfredo Weil, a former government voting engineer and member of ESDATA, an opposition electoral-analysis group. Weil warned that voter fraud in Venezuela “is easy” and that anyone inside the electoral council could electronically add votes or delete them, undetected (although he stopped short of calling for a boycott). This argument was quickly rebutted in the pages of the Caracas daily El Universal and in the Venezuelan blogosphere—not by Chavistas, but by a group of opposition technicians. They endorsed the electoral system, citing their own studies of the government voting machines, and called on the opposition to mobilize voters.
Despite the intra-right controversy, more than 5 million Venezuelans showing up to the polls February 15 to vote No, and numerous opposition volunteers participated as witnesses in the voting rooms. Thus did the right—building on its strong participation in November’s regional elections—seem to signal a renewed commitment to playing the electoral game (even if the referendum ultimately represented its latest defeat). But now that Chávez is poised to run for reelection in 2012, how will the opposition build its electoral counter-attack?
A clue is to be found in the New Democrat rhetoric of Leopoldo López—a former mayor of the east Caracas municipality of Chicao, popular member of the opposition party A New Era, and Barack Obama supporter. “Good things happening in Washington,” he said by way of introduction as we met in a Chacao café the day before the referendum. A young-looking 38, López said he was sick of the old political alignments. “Chávez, king of the poor, versus the rich opposition: This is an old story to me,” he said. Law and order, infrastructure development, and respect for human rights—these are the main planks of the new opposition (which he prefers to call an “alternative”). Most tellingly, he added that this alternative must be “social”; that is, it must address the country’s rampant poverty and inequality.
Which is to say, if the Venezuelan right remains committed to electoral politics, it must confront a new reality after a decade under Chávez: Thousands of nonprivileged Venezuelans, enfranchised and energized, now constitute a voting bloc too significant to ignore. So we will probably see more of these “social” gestures from the opposition, as it devises its counter-revolutionary strategy for the electoral arena. Success remains unlikely, but given the right’s few remaining political options, it has little choice but to try.
Pablo Morales is editor of the NACLA Report. In February he served as an electoral accompanier in Caracas during Venezuela’s term-limits referendum.