President Nicolás Maduro could not hide his disappointment after Sunday’s legislative elections. In an address on state TV, he spoke slowly, taking long pauses, it seemed, to find the strength to admit a painful truth: His United Socialist Party of Venezuela had suffered a crushing defeat. At first, Mr. Maduro delivered what sounded like a coherent speech that would lead to a message of acceptance and reconciliation among Venezuelans. But after a few minutes he awoke from the temporary spell of common sense and went on to blame an “economic war” waged by the right wing in Venezuela and abroad for the ruling party’s loss.
Mr. Maduro is right to blame the economy for his extreme unpopularity. Triple-digit inflation is eating away at salaries and shortages have Venezuelans waiting in hours long lines just to buy sugar, diapers and other basic goods. But this crisis is of the government’s making, not the result of a “war” by shadowy right-wing forces. And that’s why the opposition was able to endure a tough campaign and break through a rigged electoral system.
It was a historic win: More than 74 percent of Venezuelans voted — up from 66 percent in the last parliamentary election — and 112 of the National Assembly’s 167 seats went to the opposition coalition, giving it the coveted supermajority. But before the opposition celebrates its success, it would do well to look back at the last 17 years since President Hugo Chávez, Mr. Maduro’s predecessor and ideological godfather, took power.
The “Chavistas” have proved again and again that they are democrats when they win a vote and authoritarians when they lose. It would be surprising if things were different this time around. Indeed, the opposition-controlled National Assembly may be powerless before its term even begins if the government decides to try to cripple it.
There are unsettling precedents. In 2007, a referendum on radical constitutional reforms put forward by Mr. Chávez failed by a narrow 51-to-49 margin. Mr. Chávez insulted the opposition’s victory, crudely calling it meaningless, and over the next several years enacted every one of the rejected reforms, including a controversial amendment abolishing term limits on the presidency.
In the 2010 legislative elections, after a tight race in which the opposition and the ruling party scored virtually equal shares of the national popular vote, the opposition ended up with fewer seats than the government’s party thanks to gerrymandering by the national elections agency. Still, the election took away the Chavistas’ supermajority. But Mr. Chávez saw the writing on the wall and took precautions: Just before the election, the exiting National Assembly rushed through a law allowing the president to rule by decree for 18 months, an act that wouldn’t have passed in the new legislature.
The current National Assembly will leave office in January. It would surprise no one if it used its remaining weeks to enact another law that would hand the president legislative powers and disable the newly opposition-dominated body. The incoming National Assembly could try to annul this law, but in that case Mr. Maduro and his party still have other options. The Supreme Tribunal of Justice, Venezuela’s highest court, has vast powers to check the Parliament and may reverse whatever decision the new opposition majority takes.
This kind of legal maneuvering now looks likely. Two months ago, 13 of the Supreme Tribunal’s 32 justices simultaneously requested early retirement. Most of their terms were supposed to end in 2016, leaving the job of appointing their replacements to the new National Assembly. While it’s impossible to know for sure, many suspect that this was done at the suggestion of the ruling party; Venezuela’s highest court has never contradicted the executive branch in nine years. If the exiting National Assembly rushes through the appointment of new justices, the ruling party will have secured 13 new votes on the tribunal for the next 12 years.
Can Mr. Maduro afford to subvert Venezuela’s democracy like this? When Mr. Chávez undertook these sorts of measures, the price of oil was high — as was his popularity. But this year, the president’s approval rating has been hovering in the 20s. Oil prices are at a decade low, putting tremendous pressure on the government’s coffers. There are no official figures on inflation — which itself should be an alarming symptom of the poor state of the Venezuelan economy — but experts say it could be up to 200 percent next year.
Passing a bogus law giving the executive branch legislative powers and rigging the courts to undermine the Parliament would be a dangerous path for Mr. Maduro. He would not only be engaging in constitutional fraud, adding to a growing list of prosecutable offenses, but he would be ignoring the demands of a fed-up electorate that so far has been patient and generally avoided violent protests.
All eyes are on Mr. Maduro, and he is risking whatever support he may have left in the region as well as the survival of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela. But if history is any guide, he is likely to be tempted to nullify the election results and grab as much power as he can.
The new members of the Parliament will be sworn in on Jan. 5, 2016. The weeks before then will be critical for determining whether Mr. Maduro will be willing to work with the National Assembly, prove that rule of law exists in Venezuela and deal with the tanking economy — or if he will insist on fighting fictional wars. If he cares about his country’s future, he’ll sit down with the opposition.
Raúl Stolk is a Venezuelan lawyer and writer. He blogs at caracaschronicles.com.