Venezuela is on the edge. In a stunning defeat of the country’s ruling party—the greatest setback in over ten years for the movement created by the late Hugo Chávez—voters overwhelmingly supported the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. In the early hours of December 7, the election authority (CNE) said the MUD had won 99 of 167 seats, with 22 still to be determined. The MUD, however, claimed 112, which would just be enough to give it two-thirds “super-majority” needed, for example, to convene a constituent assembly.
The outcome, which exceeded the opposition’s most optimistic forecasts, gives the MUD sufficient control of parliament to precipitate a standoff with President Nicolás Maduro and his Chavista supporters. With the country already in economic crisis, this could set off serious political unrest; or it could force both sides into a negotiated transition. Given the ruling party’s tenacious hold on power and extensive efforts to shape the election, how did this remarkable result come about and what does it portend?
For anyone trying to understand the election, a good place to start is the government-run chain of Bicentenario supermarkets that can be found in Caracas and other cities. Take the one in Las Mercedes, a middle-class district of the capital: every day, by 7 in the morning, a line stretches around the block of people simply hoping to pick up some staples—rice, corn flour, cooking oil, and detergent—at government-controlled prices. The lines, which have been lengthening for the past eighteen months wherever price-controlled goods are on offer, are the most visible sign of the economic and social crisis that has spread across the country since Maduro took over as Chávez’s hand-picked successor in 2013.
As people headed to the polls on Sunday, some were still uncertain how to vote, especially public employees who had been told they would lose their jobs if they displayed “ingratitude” or “disloyalty” by voting the wrong way. Azucena, a twenty-four-year-old public-sector bank employee, asked her mother what she thought she should do. “Just vote the way your conscience dictates,” said her Colombian-born mother. “I’m not going to vote for the government,” the daughter replied. “We can’t keep living like this, there’s nothing to buy, something has to change.”
Even for a country that has gone through major upheavals in the recent past, the current situation is daunting. Although the government has stopped issuing statistics, GDP is expected to decline by 7 percent or more this year, having already dropped sharply in 2014. Driven by collapsing domestic production and rising demand as the government increased the money supply, prices are going up at an annual rate of nearly 200 percent (and food prices are rising even faster). Scarcity of basic goods is at record levels, with food, medicine, and other essentials even harder to find in the interior than in the big cities. The homicide rate is among the highest in the world. The situation is described as “bad” or “very bad” by nine out of ten Venezuelans. “In forty years of polling I’ve never seen a 90 percent negative evaluation,” says one leading pollster.
Nor does the government seem to have any idea how to tackle these challenges. Maduro, a one-time far-left labor union activist, was unexpectedly thrust into the top job in 2013, after his predecessor and mentor Chávez died of cancer. Since Maduro’s narrow—and bitterly disputed—election win in April that year, economic and social policies have floundered, thanks to factional differences that came to the surface in the absence of the former leader’s unrivalled authority. Meanwhile, accusations that the government is immensely corrupt and has ties to organized crime have acquired new substance with the revelation that two close relatives of the first lady have been jailed in New York for alleged drug-trafficking.
Still, the scale of the MUD’s victory comes as a surprise, since the regime—the revolution, as it is known to its dwindling band of supporters—has devoted much of its energy to refining the system perfected by Chávez over the past sixteen years in which, while the votes cast are accurately counted, every other aspect of the process is monumentally stacked against its opponents. To begin with, it takes several times as many votes to elect an MP in the big cities—where the opposition vote is concentrated—as in the rural heartland that has long been the core constituency of Chávez’s and Maduro’s party.
Even with a heavily tilted playing field, however, the Maduro government long feared a major opposition victory and resorted to more aggressive tactics to manipulate the outcome. Already in mid-October Maduro spoke of the need to win the election “como sea,” which roughly translates as, “by whatever means necessary.” He warned the MUD’s secretary-general, Jesús Chuo Torrealba, that there was a “nice, modern prison” waiting for him if he questioned the results. This was not an idle threat. There are around seventy opposition figures currently in jail, and many more who have been driven into exile over the past dozen years. Already, the MUD’s most charismatic leader, Leopoldo López of the Voluntad Popular (VP or Popular Will) party, is beginning a fourteen-year jail sentence for inspiring the anti-government protests last year; while the opposition mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, is under house arrest for allegedly seeking to overthrow the government.
Ahead of the elections, several opposition leaders were also banned from standing for office on transparently trumped-up grounds, including for allegedly failing to mention food vouchers when declaring their income and assets. And López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, who in the weeks before the election toured the country to campaign for human rights and support opposition candidates, was the victim of a number of violent attacks at her campaign events on behalf of the MUD, culminating on November 25 with the murder of an opposition activist, hit by two bullets just feet from where she was standing. (Three people have been arrested for the murder, which the government insists was a settling of accounts between criminal gangs.)
The government also ensured that the MUD’s “Unidad” (Unity) ticket on the voting screen was surrounded by pro-government tickets using the same word and similar colors, in a clear bid to induce opposition supporters to vote for the wrong candidates. One prominent MUD candidate even faced a fake “Unidad” candidate with exactly the same name. Meanwhile, the government refused to invite qualified election observers from bodies like the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union to the election.
Despite all this, Venezuelans woke up on December 7 to a commanding opposition majority in parliament—and a new political reality. So what will that look like? The MUD is a mishmash of over two dozen parties, most of them too small to register on the Richter scale. Even the biggest represent just a tiny fraction of the electorate. López’s VP, for instance, has 2.5 percent of voter allegiance according to a recent poll by Datanálisis; Primero Justicia (Justice First, or PJ), the party of two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, little more. Both occupy the political center but are often at loggerheads over tactics. The one-time hegemon of Venezuelan politics, Acción Democrática (Democratic Action, AD) and its offshoot Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Time, UNT) are social-democrat. Neither can claim as much as 3 percent support.
Indeed, though the opposition drew about two-thirds of the vote on December 6, only around 10 percent of the electorate identifies with the MUD as a whole, according to pre-election polling. The opposition, in other words, is much bigger than the MUD. That carries with it the danger that neither a disintegrating government nor an until-now fractured and unconvincing MUD will be able to handle the wave of popular discontent that threatens to overwhelm Venezuela’s fragile and compromised institutions.
For the moment, broader unrest seems to have been avoided, at least in part, by the prospect of an electoral solution to the country’s misery. But one possible consequence of the election is gridlock, with an opposition-dominated legislature stymied by the government’s control of all other branches of state—including, crucially, the Supreme Court. The MUD, for its part, could find itself once again divided between confrontationalists, led by the jailed López and his allies, who favor moving rapidly against Maduro, perhaps by organizing a mid-term recall referendum, and moderates like Henrique Capriles, who favor a negotiated transition. If the new MUD majority in parliament prioritizes the political struggle over social issues it could rapidly lose the support of the electorate. As opinion polls have clearly shown, voters are concerned above all with practical issues like food and public services and want peace and tranquility rather than conflict on the streets—such as the months-long demonstrations in 2014 that left over forty dead.
For its part, the executive could also try to precipitate open conflict with parliament. Before the election, Maduro had threatened to “take to the streets” in the event of an opposition victory and to govern, “with the people and the civilian-military union.” The nature of the revolution, he declared, would change if the opposition were to control parliament—a hint that the government would seek to press ahead with the creation of a so-called “communal state,” for which legislation already exists: this would replace “bourgeois democracy” with popular assemblies dominated by the ruling party. But there is considerable doubt that a president who has just suffered such a blow to his prestige and political authority can really carry out the threat, despite the fact that millions of people (especially among the urban and rural poor) still support the revolution. To “radicalize the revolution” against the wishes of the majority might well require the use of armed force, and there is no guarantee that the military could be counted on if asked to fire on demonstrators.
In televised comments Monday morning, Maduro accepted the results and appeared subdued. But he also alleged that an “economic war” waged by the opposition and its foreign allies was to blame; and he has the ability to obstruct parliament in serious ways if he chooses. As president, Maduro can veto any law coming from the National Assembly. Should that veto be over-ridden, his Supreme Court can declare any of parliament’s actions unconstitutional, while the president’s control of the state oil corporation, PDVSA, the source of 96 percent of the country’s foreign earnings, means he may lose little sleep over the prospect of the MUD vetoing his budget—even with oil at just a third of its average 2014 price. Erick Malpica Flores, a nephew of Cilia Flores, the first lady (“first combatant” in revolutionary jargon), is treasurer of PDVSA and national treasurer to boot. But Maduro’s hold on power may not be so firm in reality as it is on paper.
The biggest challenge could come from within the ranks of the revolution itself. Not only has Maduro squandered the enormous political capital he inherited from his charismatic mentor and plunged Venezuela into its worst economic crisis in modern times, his own immediate family is under suspicion of involvement in drug trafficking. Two other nephews—one reportedly brought up in the Maduro household—are in a New York jail charged with conspiring to import 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. Neither Maduro nor Flores have commented, and the government has tried to keep the matter under wraps. But the scandal, which is a hot topic on social media, although newspapers, radio and television barely mention it, is sapping the enthusiasm of even hard-core supporters. The large volume of evidence reportedly accumulated by US authorities relating to links between senior regime figures and organized crime complicates prospects for a peaceful transition, since some important members of the ruling party may have too much to lose by ceding power.
It is not just the opposition that wants Maduro out; rumors suggest that many within the government itself would like to see him go. Their problem is that there is no obvious successor—at least, not one that could win a presidential election. If Maduro can hang on at until late 2016, the constitution mandates his replacement by the vice-president (an appointed figure who can be replaced at any time) for the remainder of his term. That might prove a more palatable option for critics within his own party.
Meanwhile, with a shrinking economy, reserves running out, and multi-billion-dollar debt repayments pending, the prospect of a chaotic default cannot be ruled out. Pressures at home and abroad will mount. Until now, for example, though it is unpopular in the US and elsewhere, the Maduro government could count on the support of a majority of countries in the region, thanks not only to political ties but to the distribution of cheap oil. But this may be changing. Argentina’s presidential election, for example, has brought to power a politician, Mauricio Macri, who had called for Venezuela’s suspension from regional organizations on human rights grounds (though he withdrew the threat following Maduro’s election concession). For Maduro, it seems likely that hanging on to power “como sea” is likely to become much harder.
Phil Gunson is a writer and consultant on Latin America who has lived in Venezuela since 1999. As a freelance reporter he was correspondent for The Economist for most of that period and is now Senior Analyst (Andes Program) for the International Crisis Group.