Elitism and Disillusion Taint Venezuela’s Opposition Primaries

TeleSur English journalist Ryan Mallett-Outtrim argues that Venezuela's opposition coalition, the Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD) has "shot itself in the foot" by failing to organise primary elections that inspire trust in its own rank and file.


TeleSur English journalist Ryan Mallett-Outtrim argues that Venezuela’s opposition coalition, the Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD) has “shot itself in the foot” by failing to organise primary elections that inspire trust in its own rank and file.

On Sunday the country’s opposition coalition, the MUD, selected candidates for legislative elections slated for the end of the year. While the MUD’s leadership has, as usual, hailed the election as a vote on President Nicolas Maduro, the coalition is facing a silent crisis: distrust.

Ordinary opposition voters are disaffected and alienated from the MUD’s leadership, explained political analyst and journalist Lucas Koerner, from the independent news collective Venezuelanalysis.com.

“After last year’s violent street (barricades) and a thwarted coup attempt this past February, the bases of the opposition appear largely demobilized and demoralized,” Koerner told teleSUR.

The MUD has already disappointed many of its own voters by effectively excluding them from the selection process for well over half its own candidates. As Koerner put it, in the lead up to the primaries, the opposition’s base was “marginalized” from a process that has “so far has seen the MUD leadership handpick first round candidates, to the dissatisfaction of many hoping for more grassroots inclusion.”

The first round of candidate selection took place back in March, when the MUD held a meeting primarily for senior party figures. During the meeting, the MUD leadership agreed on a series of unpopular measures. Along with refusing to adopt gender or youth quotas, called for by the Venezuelan Women’s Congress and youth movements respectively, the MUD also imposed a 150,000-bolivar fee for candidates. The fee is mandatory for anyone hoping to stand for the MUD in the legislative elections, and is equal to various year’s salary for a minimum wage worker.

On top of this, MUD candidates for roughly half the electoral districts were selected in opaque horse trading between MUD leaders – meaning ordinary MUD voters had no direct say in many of the candidates that were supposed to represent them. Some of the pre-selected candidates were prominent, establishment opposition figures, but others were controversial.

Among the most divisive candidates hand picked by senior apparatchiks was Maria Corina Machado, who supported a short lived 2002 coup and was barred from the National Assembly in 2014 for an eyebrow-raising appearance at a regional summit dubbed illegal by Venezuelan legislators. Although Machado is fiercely supported by a small-but-influential extreme right-wing of the MUD, some sectors of the opposition view her as an embarrassment.

The MUD has also struggled to formulate a coherent, consistent set of policies. While the PSUV’s support base is united by a shared vision of Socialism of the 21st Century, the MUD drifts between extreme right-wing neoliberalism and (at least in rhetoric) notions of traditional liberalism and social democracy. Infighting between political cliques and divisive personalities, like Machado and her ilk, certainty don’t help. All in all, unlike the PSUV, the MUD lacks a consistent united front, and a clear vision for the future of the country.

As a final insult to opposition voters, just days before the primaries, the number of electoral districts where candidates were to be voted on by rank and file members was suddenly reduced to just 33 – meaning MUD primaries would take place in well under half the districts.Most opposition voters were only informed of the change when the right-wing press began reporting on it on Monday morning – long after the decision had already been locked in by the MUD elite.

Yet even with the last minute changes, these internal elections are still significantly more open than past MUD primaries. In 2010, party elites left just 22 seats open for members to vote on – the rest were subjected to first round, closed door wrangling. Then in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential elections, the MUD camp found itself mired in scandal. When faced with allegations of electoral irregularities during the coalition’s presidential primaries, the MUD’s leaders responded by hurriedly burning ballots. MUD leaders claimed it torched its own electoral records to protect the anonymity of their supporters from an official investigation; yet for many opposition voters the surprise bonfire was a serious blow to the coalition’s credibility.

Today, the MUD boasts that it has left its speckled history in the past, but it’s still far behind the openness of the ruling socialist party, the PSUV. Like the MUD, the PSUV has two rounds of selection processes. However, while the MUD’s first round invited just a handful of unaccountable power brokers, the PSUV’s first round involved tens of thousands of grassroots members.

In April, 13,600 popular assemblies were held all over Venezuela. Each assembly was tasked with electing four candidates. Overall, around 8,000 hopefuls were selected. These candidates will now proceed to a second round of voting on June 28, where a final list of candidates for the A.N. elections will be selected by popular vote.

Moreover, the same gender and youth quotas snubbed by the MUD were adopted by the PSUV, and put into force. In the first round, 60 percent of candidates were women, and each popular assembly had to select at least one youth candidate (between the ages of 21 and 30).

Many opposition voters undoubtedly headed to the MUD primaries on Sunday with optimism that the coalition is gradually improving its track record of poor transparency and unbridled elitism. Yet the slow pace of change is likely to continue to frustrate many MUD supporters throughout the rest of the campaign for the legislative elections. Combine this with a lack of any clear political vision, and the MUD has a recipe for high abstention on voting day at the end of the year, potentially hamstringing its ambition for power.

This piece was adapted from a piece originally published on TeleSur English