The End of Hegemony: What Next for Venezuela?
Latin America Briefing N°34
21 Dec 2015
CRISIS GROUP/Sofía Martínez
The full briefing is also available in: español
Venezuela’s opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition obtained a crushing victory in the 6 December parliamentary elections, putting an end to fifteen years of domination of the legislature by parties associated with former President Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro and opening up the possibility of a peaceful, negotiated solution to the crisis afflicting the country. The MUD overcame extremely adverse campaign conditions and surpassed its own most optimistic forecasts, winning 112 of the 167 seats in the National Assembly (AN). This gives it a two-thirds majority in parliament, and with it the opportunity to exercise control not only over the legislative agenda but also, to some degree, over the government. Despite this development, the two sides will need all their creativity and imagination, as well as political will, to agree solutions to the country’s urgent problems. The international community should support these efforts.
President Maduro – who had threatened to achieve victory “by whatever means necessary” and to take to the streets with his supporters if he lost – recognised the opposition victory. He attributed it, in a speech broadcast moments after the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced the first results, to an “economic war”, waged by the private sector and its national and international allies, which the government blames for the record inflation and scarcity levels the country is experiencing. The post-electoral violence many had feared did not materialise. In the succeeding days, however, both Maduro and the outgoing chairman of the AN, Diosdado Cabello, made clear how difficult it was for them to accept the new political reality.
Maduro has said he will not sign an amnesty law for up to 80 political prisoners, which the MUD has promised will be its first legislative act. He has also threatened retaliation against those who voted against the government, saying, for example, that he is not inclined to build more houses for ungrateful voters. The government has stripped the assembly of control over its television channel and radio station by transferring ownership to their workers. Cabello has insisted on proceeding with the appointment of thirteen new Supreme Court justices, so as not to leave the decision in the hands of the opposition majority due to be sworn in on 5 January. Furthermore, on 15 December he oversaw the inauguration of a “Communal Parliament”, of uncertain legal basis, which would seek to balance the power of the assembly.
Despite this reluctance, there is reason to think that the new political reality will, sooner or later, make itself felt and that there will have to be negotiations over the most urgent issues, whether political, social or economic. Venezuela is in the throes of an extremely grave economic crisis which threatens to provoke a humanitarian disaster. If the two sides engage in a strategy of confrontation, ignoring the will of the electorate, the crisis will rapidly worsen and could sweep aside not only the government, but opposition leaders as well.
Among the reasons for optimism is the stance of the Bolivarian National Armed Force (FANB), whose institutional behaviour during (and especially after) the election process indicates that it will not go along with any attempt to overturn the constitutional order. This suggests that Maduro has abandoned the option that the government might hold onto power by force of arms, as he had explicitly suggested prior to the election.
Nonetheless, negotiations will be difficult to establish and it will take both sides some time to accustom themselves to a political situation that demands agreements rather than confrontation. The government is unaccustomed to finding itself in a minority and its recent announcements seem to indicate that it will seek to use the streets for further confrontation. Some factions within the regime will exert pressure to resist decisions taken by the AN and even engage in a war of attrition. But the MUD also has its internal divisions. It is a hotchpotch of parties which, taken individually, have little popular support. Certain topics may aggravate tensions among them and strain traditionally fragile relationships.
In any event the new political map offers the opportunity to establish a pact between two equally legitimate branches of state and thereby improve the chances of avoiding an even greater deterioration of social and economic conditions during the remaining three years of Maduro’s term. If this is not done, then deadlock between a legislature whose laws are vetoed and an executive submitted to censure and feeling under threat could lead Venezuela down the road to a severe crisis of governance from which it would be difficult to escape without the help of third parties to facilitate or mediate dialogue.
With the aim of guaranteeing a stable political process, free from violence and in accordance with the constitution, the government, the MUD and the future members of the new National Assembly should:
- facilitate a peaceful route to the swearing-in of the new National Assembly on 5 January 2016, within the framework established by the 1999 constitution;
- draw up a shared legislative agenda designed to resolve the urgent issues facing the economy and society and including the adoption of agreed mechanisms for restoring civil liberties; and
- devise and agree a speedy means of freeing those people jailed as a result of the events that occurred between February and May 2014 and any others held as the result of similar events. Consider the possibility of granting immediate release by means of an amnesty that respects the rights of victims to truth, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition. Alternatively, establish an extraordinary judicial review of sentences, based on the opinion of a special commission mandated to study each case on an expedited basis.
The government should:
- comply with and ensure compliance with the decisions taken by the National Assembly, without prejudice to the constitutional attributes of the executive. Abstain from inciting its supporters to confront the assembly in the streets or through means other than those provided for in the constitution;
- resume the publication of objective and reliable macro-economic statistics, as well as those relating to communicable diseases and crime; and
- restore the rule of law throughout the national territory, including lifting the states of emergency in force in municipalities bordering Colombia.
The international community, in particular the UN, the European Union, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) should:
- reiterate their calls to the government and all political actors to comply and enforce the constitution and international treaties, as well as to refrain from incitement to violence;
- support national efforts to create political mechanisms for dialogue and conciliation, including possibly strengthening the presence of international organisations; serve as guarantors and mediators; and finance projects designed to improve the quality of Venezuelan democracy; and
- give strong support to humanitarian actions, especially those relating to the containment and eradication of communicable diseases and improvements in systems for distributing medicine and food, beginning with rural areas and deprived districts of towns and cities.
Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels, 21 December 2015