How Venezuela’s Primero Justicia Has Blown Its Greatest Opportunity

After initially maintaining that they would participate on Sunday, PJ have now decided to withdraw. This is a deeply regrettable move. Had they stayed in the contest, they could have demonstrated that they are a legitimate, mature and democratic organisation that plays by the rules of the game and which is willing to challenge the government from 'within' the system.

By Julia Buxton
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Of all the key opposition figures, Julio Borges, leader of the Primero Justicia party, had perhaps the best chance of offering a credible alternative to Hugo Chavez in the 2006 presidential election. Although his platform of economic liberalisation does not have resonance among the majority of the Venezuelan electorate, which resisted the country's only previous attempt to move toward a neoliberal model in 1989, Borges does have the capacity to connect with ordinary people. Over the last few months, the PJ leader has toured the country, meeting with ordinary Venezuelans and performing a task central to the relegitimisation of the Venezuelan opposition - listening to the people. Borges is also young and cognisant of the most pressing issues facing Venezuelans, specifically problems of personal security and lack of access to the justice system. His greatest advantage is that he is not associated with AD and COPEI, the two traditionally dominant parties that controlled the Venezuelan political system and state institutions for forty years until their entrenched control was swept away after Chavez's landslide election victory of 1998. While it is widely expected that Chavez will triumph in 2006, there is always the possibility that an economic downturn, intra-Chavista rifts or a shift in popular evaluations of the government will create a small space for a political alternative to develop over the year. Borges was positioned to fill this space.

In the election of 1998, AD and COPEI carried out a cynical, last minute election manoeuvre that aimed to prevent Chavez from winning the presidency. A matter of weeks before the election contest, they unceremoniously jettisoned their own candidates, Luis Alfaro Ucero and Irene Saez and in an unprecedented display of unity, allied to support the campaign of Henrique Salas Romer. Like Chavez, Salas Romer was a political outsider and riding high in the polls. However endorsement by the discredited AD and COPEI parties chronically undermined his campaign, just as the presidential bid of Irene Saez was damaged after she had accepted the initial support of COPEI. With Salas Romer compromised by association with the old elite, Chavez romped to victory.

Seven years on and AD and COPEI continue to view elections as a mechanism to be abused and manipulated in order to secure narrow partisan interests. The decision to withdraw from the 2005 legislative elections days before the contest is scheduled to be held and despite an agreement to participate and significant concessions from the national election administration is grossly irresponsible. The national interest and political stability would best be served by the opposition parties participating in the contest and then reporting concerns or evidence of fraud or maladministration to the election council and international election observers after the election process has been completed. Sections of the opposition maintain that international election observers have failed them before and consequently they have no confidence in these organisations to guarantee a clean and transparent contest. Between 2000 and 2004 the Carter Centre, the Organisation of American States and the European Union passed as free and fair elections and referenda held in Venezuela and refuted opposition allegations of fraud. The opposition subsequently shunned the expertise, knowledge and experience of observer missions.

The great irony is that neither AD nor COPEI has widespread popular support. Opinion poll surveys show that less than 10 per cent of the electorate backs the two parties and they were unlikely to perform strongly in Sunday's election. By not participating, they aim to undermine the credibility of the election and the legitimacy of the incoming national assembly. In sum, they have more chance of gaining influence and publicity through disrupting the elections than through contesting them. They are setting a destabilising precedent by not respecting the rules of the game or the role of elections in determining power and representation. By withdrawing at this stage, they have eliminated the possibility of dialogue or negotiation with the government and they have set Venezuela once again on the road to polarisation and conflict.

After initially maintaining that they would participate on Sunday, PJ have now decided to withdraw. This is a deeply regrettable move. Had they stayed in the contest, they could have demonstrated that they are a legitimate, mature and democratic organisation that plays by the rules of the game and which is willing to challenge the government from 'within' the system. Secondly, they would have provided Venezuelan voters with an anti-government electoral alternative. By pulling out, they have signalled that the government should be opposed from outside of the political system and formal institutions, a dangerous and destabilising strategy that failed when pursued by the opposition during the period 2001 to 2004. Whatever motivations lie behind PJs rapid about turn over recent days, the party has done a tremendous disservice to those Venezuelans looking for peace, stability and a viable electoral alternative to Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution. Borges, Geraldo Blyde and other key PJ figures have squandered an opportunity to present themselves as nation builders, reconcilers and democrats. More significantly, they have thrown away the chance to distance themselves from the deeply unpopular AD and COPEI parties, extremist elements and strategies in the anti-government movement and the Machiavellian manipulations of the US. The only hope is that candidates of the PJ party will demonstrate more maturity, wisdom and democratic conviction than their party leaders, run for office and pursue any complaints of malpractice when the contest is finished.