The opposition’s landslide victory in Venezuela’s legislative elections has overturned nearly two decades of socialist control of the National Assembly and set the stage for a potential challenge to President Nicolas Maduro.
The landmark elections Sunday put the troubled South American country on a course for significant change for the first time since the late President Hugo Chavez’s socialist revolution, which has rapidly been unraveling in the face of mounting economic turmoil.
Still unclear Monday was whether the opposition’s Democratic Unity Roundtable will attain the supermajority needed to push Maduro to resign or force him to implement significant economic reforms.
A recall campaign against Maduro similar to the one that failed against Chavez in 2004 is one possibility, opposition leaders say.
Maduro, a 53-year-old former bus driver handpicked by Chavez to succeed him, could also resign or be forced from office by fellow socialists in a bid to save the tattered remnants of the so-called Bolivarian revolution that his mentor created.
Another scenario: Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela could make peace with the opposition and jettison the socialist policies that have brought misery in the form of scarcities and hyperinflation to much of the country.
Much will depend on how many of the remaining 22 assembly seats are won by opposition lawmakers. A supermajority of 112 seats or more would give them extensive power to challenge socialist government officials and policies.
The loss of congressional control will break the socialists’ hold on all main branches of power — and reduce Maduro’s foreign policy maneuvering in Latin America. The congress might challenge his oil giveaways to Cuba and a dozen other Caribbean and Central American nations.
The loss of the assembly majority follows two years of declining economic output, accentuated by the 50% decline since 2013 in the price of oil, revenue from which the government depends on for 90% of its budget. To make up for the loss of cash, Maduro is printing more money, generating inflation that could top 200% this year. The poverty rate is back where it was before Chavez took power in 1999, according to economists.
Economists warned last week that Venezuela is in danger of becoming a failed state unless radical policy changes are implemented soon, including substantial cuts in government spending, tighter regulation of currency exchange, and an end to price controls and billions of dollars in food and fuel subsidies.
Even if Maduro elects to take those extensive measures, his government may have to seek billions in financial aid from multinational lenders or other countries in 2016, economist Jose Manuel Puente said, since the government has only about $2 billion remaining in liquid foreign reserves.
David Smilde, a Tulane University professor who has studied Venezuela, said Monday that the election results create a complicated situation in part because the socialist government has controlled all levers of power — executive, legislative and judicial — since shortly after Chavez took office in 1999. The situation is further complicated by divisions within the opposition, which has no clear designated leader to make policy or strategy decisions.
The most popular opposition politician, former mayor of the Caracas borough Chacao, Leopoldo Lopez,has been in jail since February 2014 on what he claims are bogus charges of incitement to violence.
“Whatever happens, we are at a turning point,” Smilde said. “It’s now clear this is a very unpopular government with limited room for its initiatives.”
Partial election results released Sunday night gave opposition candidates 99 out of 167 seats, with the United Socialist Party of Venezuela winning 46.
The Democratic Unity Roundtable’s executive secretary, Jesus Torrealba, said Monday that his party alliance may have won up to 16 more seats, which would give it a super majority of 115.
Winning at least 112 seats or two-thirds of the assembly total would give the alliance the power under Venezuela’s Constitution to name supreme court judges, electoral council members and conduct investigations of ministers and the vice president, said Luis Salamanca, a professor at Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.
Although such a majority wouldn’t give it the automatic right to force a recall vote, it would be seen by many as a public demand for the start of such a process, Salamanca said.
“That kind of a result would be read as a mandate to end the debacle” of Maduro’s presidency with a recall vote, Salamanca said. On Sunday, “people didn’t vote for certain deputies, or equilibrium. They voted for change,” he said.
Recall backers would need to collect signatures equaling 20% of registered voters, or nearly 4 million. For the recall to be successful, nearly 7.6 million voters would have to vote in favor, or one vote more than the 7,587,579 votes Maduro garnered in his election victory in April 2013.
Some observers say Maduro and the opposition will have to have a meeting of the minds to score any kind of bailout. But dialogue is taking place.
Jeffrey Davidow, former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, warned that there will be no quick fixes for the country’s problems whatever course of action is taken by Maduro and the opposition-controlled assembly.
“The world has to realize that Venezuela is broken in so many places, economically and institutionally, that the task ahead of repairing it is enormous,” Davidow said.
Sunday’s vote could be part of an ongoing shift to the right in Latin American politics. The socialist economic model installed by Chavez in 1999 and duplicated in varying degrees in other countries has shown signs of fraying.
Last month, Argentine voters rejected a leftist presidential candidate supported by populist incumbent Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in favor of Mauricio Macri, a right-of-center candidate.
Mogollon is a special correspondent.