This year, there will finally be a real contest for power in Caracas. With opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez having just announced that he is ending his presidential campaign and throwing his support to Henrique Capriles Radonski — the charismatic governor whom many expect to be Chávez’s main competition — the opposition is gradually consolidating power and becoming a more serious challenge to the regime.
[The] formerly impotent opposition has made several advances in the past few years. In the last legislative elections, held in 2010, for example, the plethora of opposition parties banded together under the Unified Democratic Platform (MUD). By doing so, they managed to win the popular vote by a slim margin. (Sudden changes in the electoral system — engineered by the Chávez-controlled National Assembly — meant that they were unable to transform the votes into a proportional number of seats.) But their victory signaled a new political force nonetheless. Anti-Chávez factions currently hold the governorship of the most populous urban states, which in turn hold the largest share of the country’s votes.
Capriles Radonski and the opposition today are building on what has been a painful learning process. After Chávez first took power, opposition parties were generally unable to win popular backing because voters considered them to be little more than throwbacks to Venezuela’s failed past. As in many South American countries, decades of corruption and malfeasance discredited traditional parties, and simply put, after so much graft, mismanagement, and scandal, the people were fed up. So the early 2000s became a kind of lost political decade in Venezuela. In 2002, business groups, labor unions, NGOs, and traditional parties attempted an unsuccessful coup against Chávez. In 2003, these same groups held a relatively impotent oil strike. Then, in 2005, all anti-Chávez parties boycotted legislative elections, which battered their international credibility and image still further.
By 2006, an array of parties decided to rebuild themselves. First, they came together under the leadership of the emerging First Justice and A New Time Movement (UNT). Adding the support of some withering traditional parties, including Democratic Action, the opposition finally created MUD in 2010. In preparation for this year’s election, MUD even agreed to hold a primary that included four televised debates. With Lopez now out, Capriles Radonski, from First Justice, is expected to win the primary against Pablo Pérez (UNT), take charge of MUD, and lead a nine-month crusade against Chávez.
If Chávez wins in October, a vast majority of the opposition’s political capital will be dashed; in many ways, it will be back to square one. Should Chávez lose, however, Venezuela will be on the cusp of a long political transition. Loyalists would still control the Venezuelan National Assembly and Supreme Court. MUD would have to hold its radicals and moderates together as it also confronts Chávez’s long-entrenched political machine. Chief among those stacked institutions: Venezuela’s military, which would require delicate handling in the event of an opposition victory.