The teetering structure of Venezuelan democracy survived its greatest test in living memory when the federal electoral commission tallied a historic loss for the United Socialist Party (Chavistas).
As the prospect of a supermajority legislative victory for the opposition United Democratic Roundtable (MUD) became likely, hardline elements in the Chavista leadership called for the Venezuelan military to squash the voter euphoria. The generals resisted, preferring to let the election runs its true course.
Late on Tuesday, the electoral commission officially announced that MUD had won 112 of the 167 seats in the National Assembly, changing the direction of Venezuela’s troubling political path.
Rarely do political events matter as much as Venezuela’s legislative election. With a supermajority, the country’s unique constitution grants the opposition impressive powers, including i) the power to remove the Vice-President from office; ii) the power to recall President Nicolas Maduro’s 2013 election victory; iii) the power to remove judges from the Chavista-loaded Supreme Tribunal of Justice; iv) the power to put any legislation to a referendum; v) the power to amend the constitution; vi) the power to appoint the equivalent of a national ombudsman, attorney-general and comptroller-general as well as members of the National Election Council.
It is a stunning defeat for the Chavistas, who controlled all levers of power in Venezuela: the executive, the judiciary, the military, the media and, for a little while longer, the single-chamber legislative body. Mr. Maduro’s acceptance of his party’s defeat demonstrates the limits of power, even in Venezuela’s feeble democracy. The collapse of oil prices has brought relentless pressure on the legitimacy of the Chavistas from within and outside the country.
The opposition, to its credit, has ignored its own divisions and stuck to a non-violent path of resistance and protest, relying on Venezuela’s venerated constitution as its guide. The country’s diaspora in the United States and Spain has raised awareness and money, maintaining blogs to keep the Internet-connected class back home informed in a nation of weakening media independence.
The U.S. government has shown enormous restraint, with only subtle criticism of the Maduro administration on the global stage, choosing to let the President embarrass himself with frequent outbursts of outdated rhetoric. As Venezuela lost the ability to bankroll the oil imports of neighbouring countries under the Petrocaribe program, loyalties were tested and generally lost, with the exception of Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador.
Mauricio Macri’s election as President of Argentina two weeks ago replaces a huge Maduro supporter (Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner) with an outspoken critic of the Chavistas who wants Venezuela thrown out of the Mercosur trade bloc. The weightiest external support of Venezuela, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, is fighting possible impeachment at home and has become an unreliable pillar to Caracas.
The newly empowered opposition in Venezuela has much to do, but it will probably tread carefully and lightly in order to keep the wounded hard-liners in the Chavista camp from lashing out and abusing the considerable power they still possess.
There are constitutionally dubious tactics that the Chavistas can employ during the four-week lame-duck period ahead of the change in the legislative body in January. Mr. Maduro could pass a law to grant himself legislative powers, even disable the opposition-controlled chamber. In power for 16 years, the Chavistas will not retreat without a fight.
The opposition is an unlikely alliance of multiple factions, led by presidential aspirants who do not see eye to eye. But the Chavistas are also divided. Political unity and the ability to co-opt the powers-to-be inside and out of the country will be the keys to winning the battle that still lies ahead.
The tug-of-war within Venezuela has repercussions across the region. Over the past 20 years, democratic transitions of power in Latin America have been tested several times and almost universally succeeded.
Venezuela cannot be allowed to fail as a democracy, for it would set a precarious precedent for other countries plagued by poor institutions. It is vital for countries such as Canada to continue to call to task the political players in the country and encourage them to follow the protocols of their own constitution. No greater gift could be given to the millions of Venezuelans who have worked hard to preserve civility in the face of extreme economic hardship.
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Note: This piece was originally published in The Globe and Mail in December 2015.