Venezuela’s opposition has won a large majority of the country’s congress, or National Assembly for the first time in 16 years. Many observers in Washington see this as a tipping point not only for Venezuela, but for the region, where about half of the people are currently living under left governments.
What are we to make of this development? This first thing that should be recognized is that the endless stream of news articles, newspaper editorials, proclamations, e.g.,from the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), denouncing the Venezuelan electoral process and insisting on “credible” election monitors — by which they meant OAS monitors beholden to Washington — were wrong. Quoting out-of-context remarks from Venezuelan President Maduro and adding other misleading statements, inaccuracies about “gerrymandering,” and more, they created a fear that the government would not accept the results if they lost.
But less than seven hours after the polls closed, the results were announced, and the president accepted them without qualification or hesitation, and with a certain pride — which many Venezuelans share — that their highly secure, multiply-safeguarded system worked. President Maduro had also signed a pledge prior to the election to respect the results, and requested — unsuccessfully — for the opposition to do the same, as had often happened in the past.
The turnout was very high for a non-presidential election in any country — nearly 75 percent — and voting is not mandatory as it is in many other Latin American countries. From a preliminary look at the results, it seems that opposition voters turned out very strongly, at about the level of the 2013 presidential elections, while many Chavistas (government supporters) stayed home, leading to a two-million vote drop from the 2013 elections. So it is difficult to argue, as most pundits did before the election, that the government had some huge unfair advantage over the opposition. The government’s voters correspond pretty much to their base, people whose lives — despite the hardships of the past two years — have changed substantially for the better, and do not want to go back to the pre-Chávez era. You can’t really convince these people to vote against the government.
So the opposition got their message out, and their voters to the polls, which is not surprising, given the state of the economy and the resources of the opposition. They still have most of the wealth and income of the country; they get millions of dollars from the U.S. government, and they receive a lot of media coverage, too. Data from the Carter Center for the 2013 presidential election, for example, show that the opposition candidate got more TV coverage than the government candidate, and more of that coverage was favorable. They also have a huge advantage in social media. It is difficult to argue it both ways: that Venezuela does not have free or fair elections, voters are intimidated, etc., and then explain a landslide opposition victory like this one.
So the Venezuelan political system, with all its flaws, is much more democratic than the conventional wisdom has maintained. Now, what about the future? Since the opposition got a two-thirds majority of seats, it will have important powers [PDF], such as the ability to remove Supreme Court judges, censure the vice president, and call an assembly to propose changes to the constitution.
However, the opposition has more than 20 political parties and many divisions. It is possible that the government will be able to get some opposition legislators to vote with it in the Assembly, so that it can continue governing until the next presidential election in 2018.
If that is the case, the election will not have changed that much from the government’s standpoint. The key issue for its continued political survival will still be the economy. There is triple-digit inflation, widespread shortages of consumer goods, a recession, low oil prices, non-working price controls, and a dysfunctional exchange rate system that is at the heart of the country’s economic mess. This is obviously why they lost the Assembly. So, as before the election, if the government does not fix this mess, the Chavistas will lose power; if they do fix it, they will probably do OK.
Opposition leaders will still face the same choice they have faced for the past 16 years: Do they want to participate in the political system, or simply vanquish their enemies (the Chavistas)? From 1999-2003 they had what opposition leader Teodoro Petkoff called a “strategy of military takeover,” including the 2002 U.S.-backed military coup and the 2002-2003 oil strike. But in the past decade, they have repeatedly gone back and forth between insurrectionary and electoral strategies. In 2004 they went the electoral route with a presidential recall referendum, but then refused to accept the results of the 2004 referendum (which was a landslide margin and monitored and approved by the OAS and Carter Center), claiming “fraud.” In 2005, they boycotted the National Assembly elections on that basis, but then participated in the 2006 presidential elections. In 2013, they lost the presidential elections and refused the accept the results, taking to the streets with violent demonstrations; and last year, a part of the opposition led by Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado also opted for violent street demonstrations aimed at “La Salida” – or “the exit” – of the government.
The opposition’s electoral victory could give the more moderate elements a leg up on their extremist partners to move the country toward a more normal, less polarized political process. The government now clearly has a new incentive to do the same. That would certainly be the best for the country, which faces serious challenges ahead in fixing the economy.
This article was published by The Hill on December 9, 2015.