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Venezuela's opposition: cracking under pressure or ditching the deadweight?

Hugo Chávez's health status is unknown but all indications suggest that he is dying. If Chávez dies, Venezuela's opposition would face a presidential election -- the second in less than a year, this time against Chávez's vice president. Will they confront this new challenge united? Or will old divisions among the wildly diverse group surface once more?

The answer is a little bit of both.

On the heels of two successive defeats at the hands of Chávez and his party, the opposition has not found the time to catch its breath and recoup. Typically, the losing sides in pivotal contests go back to the drawing board to evaluate mistakes and reassess alliances. Venezuela's umbrella opposition group, the MUD, has had no such space.

After losing the presidential contest on October 7, the opposition immediately had to reorganize to face gubernatorial elections on December 16. After losing several key positions in that contest, now would be the time for its remaining leadership to refocus its plans. Instead, they find themselves in a tangle and pressured from both the government, and its own supporters.

This was evident on January 23, the 55th anniversary of the overthrow of Venezuela's last unelected dictatorship. The MUD had called for a large rally in Caracas to protest against the government and, more significantly, to appease its restless radical base which is desperate for action.

When the government promptly announced a counter-rally of its own, the MUD suspended its own and held a smaller meeting in a local stadium. They cited the need to avoid a confrontation between the two groups, but the real reason was likely that they did not want their rally to look smaller than the government's.

This is but a small sample of the pressure the opposition faces. Their main financial backers are having increasing difficulty providing funding. Many main figureheads -- state governors -- lost their jobs in the latest election, and with it, their access to Venezuelans given Chávez's near-monopoly over the media. Shut out from the airwaves and any real ability to influence the legislative agenda, there is an extremely limited opportunity for oppositionists to obtain power.

The MUD's more radical wing is not sympathetic to these difficulties. The head of this group is Diego Arria, a former governor, past president of the U.N. Security Council as Venezuela's permanent representative, and losing candidate in last year's presidential primary whose ranch was expropriated in 2010 by the government -- in an apparent act of political retaliation.

Arria has taken to Twitter to denounce the MUD, and its leader Henrique Capriles, for appeasing the government. He claims that the MUD should move to bring back democracy by denouncing the current government as illegitimate and unconstitutional since Chávez has yet to be sworn in. It's hard to make out how they plan to go about doing this. Arria's supporters suggest marching, abstaining from elections, and going to international bodies, but neither of these things have worked in the past. More importantly, convincing the majority of Venezuelans that a reelected government is illegitimate because of a technicality is going to prove very difficult.

Capriles is having none of it. In an interview with a pro-Chávez newspaper, he denounced "old-style" politicians such as Arria for sitting on his computer tweeting all day. Capriles invited him to venture out and visit poor Venezuelan barrios to listen to people's needs. Arria was incensed, and he and his followers have basically ditched the MUD and set up camp separately.

It would be easy to conclude the opposition unity is cracking. That, however, is an exaggeration. Arria only got 39 thousand votes in the primary; Capriles got close to two million, and more than six million in the presidential election.

More importantly, Arria represents a wing of the opposition linked to former corrupt governments that inspired popular disgust and thus helped to catapult Chávez into power. Capriles, by escalating the fight with Arria, may be looking to nudge him out of the opposition, thus setting himself off from the older generation's toxic brand of politics.

It is now clear that the MUD will select Capriles as its candidate in any upcoming election. In breaking with the past so openly, Capriles is potentially improving his chances. It may be too soon for a prediction, and I could be wrong, but I believe Capriles will come closer in the next election than he did in the last one. Ditching the old-style politicians from his coalition probably helps him achieve that goal.    

Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

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