In the last few weeks, significant cracks have emerged in Venezuela's ruling government coalition. The ouster of the late Hugo Chávez's long-serving economic Svengali has prompted high-ranking members of the government's ideological left wing to denounce both soaring corruption and an apparent lack of leadership on the part of President Nicolás Maduro. When one factors in the current painful economic crisis, it is not surprising that the public also perceives the government as weak.
This would be the opposition's time to pounce, to make serious political headway. Yet instead of seizing the moment, it is mired in deep, swirling divisions within its own ranks. Internal differences are so stark that oppositionists can no longer make the case that they offer a viable alternative to chavismo.
The cracks in the opposition coalition began to show in the aftermath of last December's regional elections. Some commentators portrayed those elections as a referendum on Maduro, but the government won the popular vote, dealing a serious blow to its opponents. One group, led by losing presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, felt that the opposition needed to lick its wounds, regroup, and plan for future battles.
But another faction, led by the now-jailed dissident Leopoldo López and the since-defrocked assemblywoman Maria Corina Machado, promoted "an exit" to the Maduro government: they called for massive street protests and the convening of a Constitutional Assembly. By law and by precedent, the Constitutional Assembly would have the power to remove all public servants - including the justices in the Supreme Tribunal, the elections referees, the military high command, and even Maduro himself.
There are numerous problems with this proposal. One is that it would not assure victory, given that chavismo will surely gerrymander any election or referendum in its favor. More importantly, López seems to have forgotten that he needed to convince his own side first; most of his colleagues in the opposition, including Capriles himself, have come out against the idea.
This has not quieted the debate. Instead, disagreements have intensified, spilling into the few remaining news outlets that cover the opposition. It has also left many in the opposition rank-and-file wondering about their leaders' true motives.
Several weeks ago, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson said that members of the opposition had lobbied the U.S. government to drop the idea of targeted sanctions for chavistas involved in human rights violations. (She later retracted the claim.) Opposition leaders denied everything, but a segment of the base interpreted Jacobson's statement as proof that part of the MUD coalition, the name of the opposition umbrella group, was in cahoots with the government.
In parallel, the government was busy cracking down on protestors and driving a wedge between opposition leaders. The authorities are keeping López in solitary confinement until trial, have stripped Machado of her parliamentary post, have taken away her passport, and have charged her with "incitement to commit acts of violence." But a few days ago, a high-ranking MUD politician stated that López had brought jail on himself, and that therefore the opposition felt no responsibility to do anything to get him out. (The politician in question has also recanted).
The debate between the two factions continues to rage, and instead of talking to each other, they are taking to the media to trash one another. The fighting has bred deep suspicion and disappointment in opposition public opinion.
The most important issue dividing them is strategy -- namely the most effective way to confront a government that has permeated practically all aspects of Venezuela's public sphere. Opposition leaders differ in approach and style, the consequence of a lack of formal rules regarding leadership.
When Capriles handily won the primaries to contest the presidential election against Hugo Chávez, everyone in the opposition rallied around him. More than two years have passed since then, however, and new leaders have emerged. López, who ran Capriles' first presidential campaign, has shown a particularly independent streak, and many in civil society -- particularly the student leaders behind the recent wave of protests -- view Capriles with suspicion. As López sits in his jail cell, Capriles is seen by his followers as not doing enough to get him out.
The situation inside the opposition is not hopeless, but patching things up is going to require much work. It would also help if outside pressure groups -- people in business, or even foreign observers -- could nudge certain leaders to compromise, and punish those who are all too eager to fan the flames.
With both the government and the opposition in such a state of disarray, one has to wonder: can anyone govern Venezuela? The country's economy is currently in chaos, and its politicians are less worried about solving the issues than about scoring cheap political points.
It was frequently said that Hugo Chávez was the unifying factor within his forces, the leader who could do away with uncomfortable conflicts with a single decision. But as the opposition moves dangerously close to imploding, it may turn out that Chávez was also the only thing keeping a disparate opposition coalition together.
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images