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Venezuela: Is the Legislative Election a Turning Point?

Venezuela: Is the Legislative Election a Turning Point?
Stephen J. Randall FRSC | January 2016

The December 6 elections to the Venezuelan National Assembly returned a two thirds majority to a coalition of opposition parties under the umbrella Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). The twenty-seven parties which comprise the coalition gained 112 seats to the 55 seats gained by the governing Socialist Party and its supporters. There is little question that the victory by the opposition coalition represents a potentially significant shift in the balance of political power in Venezuela, although the Chavistas continue to control the executive branch, the courts, and the national assembly until the new legislature takes office in January 2016.

Some commentators have suggested that this victory marks the weakening if not demise of the left in Venezuela, and possibly more broadly in Latin America, noting as well the defeat of the Peronists in Argentina, the waning influence of Cuba in the hemisphere, and the regional irrelevance of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. The Economist presented the election result as an ideological victory over 21st Century Socialism. It is premature to reach such a conclusion on the basis of one election. The Venezuelan election was less about ideology than about the basic political and economic conditions that prevail in the country and the inability of Nicolas Maduro to sustain the levels of personal popularity that characterized the Chávez years in power. MUD has no clear ideological philosophy, nor frankly a clearly developed economic platform. Given the size of its electoral victory, Maduro has support from the poor, the working class and the middle class, in spite of the Chavista claims that MUD represented a right wing counter-revolution, bolstered by fraud, lies, class hatred and support from the United States. The opposition coalition was and is united primarily on one issue: defeating the Chavistas. But then what? Politically the country remains divided. Various configurations of the centreright coalition have been attempting to unseat the Chavistas for the past decade. In both presidential and legislative elections the Socialist Party, before and after the death of Hugo Chávez, has shown remarkaLilian Tintori celebrates the control of Venezuela’s National Assembly. Photo: www.ticotimes.net A Latin American Research Centre publication ble strength. In the 2006 presidential election, having decisively won in the 2004 recall referendum, Chávez gained a massive victory, carrying 62.8% of the popular vote against opposition candidate Manuel Rosales. In the 2010 legislative elections the PSUV gained 48.2% to MUD’s 47.2; in the 2012 presidential elections, when Hugo Chávez was still the leader, the PSUV gained 55.1% to MUD’s 44.3% for Henrique Capriles. With Chávez’s death and the assumption to power of the less popular Nicolas Maduro, Capriles came very close to unseating the PSUV with 49.1% of the popular vote. With more than 74% of eligible voters casting ballots in 2015, the popular vote for MUD soared to 56.2% against 40.9% for the SPUV, with MUD candidates carrying even the hillside slum where Chávez is buried.

The victory of the opposition reflects the high level of disillusionment with Chavista policies, disgust with the open corruption, high crime rates in the cities, massive inflation expected to exceed 200% in the coming year, and shortages of basic foodstuffs and other basic consumer goods. The country faces the prospect of defaulting on its foreign debt in 2016. Continued low global oil prices, on which the government continues to rely to fund basic operations and the expensive social security schemes that the Chávez government introduced, will make it unlikely that the current government will be able to meet its obligations. The forecast is for the economy to contract by 10%.

The challenge for a new MUD-controlled National Assembly will be to reverse the economic and political policies of the Chávez government. In spite of the fact that Maduro immediately recognized the legitimacy of the opposition victory and called on supporters to do so as well, there is every indication that the Chavistas will fight back. The legislature continues to be SPUV controlled until the newly elected members take their seats in January, and SPUV leaders have indicated that they will appoint up to a dozen new Supreme Court justices before they leave office. The Court has the capacity to overturn legislation that it may find incompatible with the Maduro administration. Although technically the new legislature can remove them and appoint replacements, this can only be done if an appointee can be found guilty of a grave offence. The new legislature can seek to rewrite the 1999 constitution. It can also initiate a recall referendum in an effort to unseat Maduro before the end of his current term in 2018. The new legislature must address the economic situation, but to be effective it will have to receive cooperation from the executive branch. MUD is also committed to the passage of an amnesty law to address the plight of those identified as political prisoners, most prominent among them opposition leader Leopoldo López, who was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for allegedly inciting violence during the 2014 political protests. Again, the Chavistas have voiced their clear opposition to any amnesty legislation. To accomplish their goals the MUD coalition will have to act in a united and coordinated way, since the coalition, like the Chavistas, does not always speak with one voice. The battle lines appear to have been drawn toward the end of 2015. One can only hope that 2016 will see changes in Venezuela that improve the lives of the average Venezuelan regardless of ideology or political affiliation.

Dr. Stephen J. Randall, a Fellow and past Director of the Latin American Research Centre, served as an election monitor with the OAS Unit for the Promotion of Democracy in the 1993 presidential election and with the Carter Presidential Center for the 2004 recall referendum. He also served as Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences (1994-2006) a the University of Calgary and then served as the director of the Institute for United States Policy Research in the School of Public Policy (2006-2009). Dr. Randall holds the Grand Cross, Oder of Merit from the Presidency of Colombia for his research work on United States foreign policy and Latin American relations.