For the past 16 years, Venezuela’s embattled opposition has tried to gain a foothold in a country that has proved repeatedly that it is under the thrall of the Bolivarian Revolution.
On Sunday, however, a coalition of opposition forces finally broke the socialist spell — winning congress in a landslide that many here are calling historic. The upset is raising questions on both sides: Is the once unassailable United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) willing to share power with a confrontational congress? Can longtime opposition underdogs embrace their new role as power players?
On Monday, Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state and two-time presidential candidate, cautioned his opposition colleagues against alienating their longtime foes.
In a news conference along with Voluntad Popular deputies, Capriles said the new majority had to govern for all Venezuelans, including government loyalists.
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“This is not the congress of revenge but the congress of justice,” he said.
The National Electoral Council says the opposition coalition won 99 seats versus the ruling party’s 46 — and that an additional 22 remain too close to call.
On Monday, however, opposition leaders said their advantage had expanded and they had won a critical two-thirds majority needed to invoke special powers in congress. By their calculations, they had secured 112 seats versus the ruling party’s 51, with an additional four slots in play.
If the information proves correct, President Nicolás Maduro could be facing a powerful legislature with the ability to fire ministers and the vice president, name Supreme Court justices, and, crucially, launch presidential recall referendums.
Even as he acknowledged the powers the body might have, Capriles tried to reassure government loyalists that the social benefits — a hallmark of late President Hugo Chávez and now Maduro — would remain intact.
On the contrary, he said one of the first initiatives will be a law to make sure that the 900,000 families who have recently been given free homes under government programs have legal title to their properties.
In addition, he said congress should stop Venezuela’s giveaway of subsidized gasoline to political allies, such as Cuba and Nicaragua. He said those savings were needed at home.
The MUD opposition coalition said their deputies would meet on Thursday to begin planning their legislative push.
Even before the final results were released, Venezuelans were trying to figure out how the fight had turned into a rout.
Jesús Seguías, a political analyst and author, said the election had less to do with congressional politics and more to do with a population trapped between violence and a flailing economy.
“The opposition shouldn’t feel like the heroes of this story,” he said. “Most of the people who voted [Sunday] weren’t there to pick legislators. They were there to send a message directed at the presidential palace and express their profound rage over economic and security policies.”
Falling crude prices in a nation addicted to oil exports have ravaged the economy: Food and product shortage are commonplace, inflation is thought to be the highest in the world and the economy is contracting.
Complicating matters, the country is awash in crime. Venezuela has the second highest murder rate in the world after Honduras, according to U.N. statistics.
In a sense, the issues are so pressing they might be a catalyst for cooperation, Seguías said.
“Those problems are so severe that you can’t fix them with confrontation, rather they need consensus,” he said. “The opposition can’t fix them without the chavistas and the chavistas can’t fix them without the by-in from the opposition and the private sector.”
Whether the long-time and bitter rivals can learn to work together, however, remains unclear.
Nixon Lara, a 41-year-old mechanic, said he’d voted for the opposition in hopes of solving pocketbook issues.
“I want prices to go down and I want to be able to find things at the store,” he said.
And although he was pleased with Sunday’s results, he didn’t expect much.
“I know that the new congress can’t change everything from one day to the next,” he said. “But I do hope they can at least start changing some things...And if they don’t, then we’ll throw them out during the next election.”
Legislative races are usually low-wattage affairs, but Sunday’s election had caught regional and global attention. Coming in the wake of Argentina’s November presidential race, which saw Mauricio Macri overturn more than a decade of kirchnerismo, many were looking to Venezuela for further evidence that the tide is turning on Latin America’s leftists.
The election also rippled across Cuba, one of Venezuela’s closest allies. Ted Piccone, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, said the results could encourage Cuba’s rapprochement with the United States.
“An opposition victory in Venezuela, combined with Macri’s win in Argentina and Brazil’s preoccupation with its internal crisis, put pressure on Havana to move ahead with its economic reform strategy,” he said. “This means sustaining and expanding its outreach to Washington.”
In many ways, that global view may be too broad, said Nicmer Evans, a political analyst with pro-government sympathies.
“People were not deciding on getting rid of Maduro or changing the government,” he said. “They decided to create a counter-weight to the administration.”
In that sense, the opposition has a very limited mandate, he said.
But the upset does set the stage for some epic battles next year. In particular, an opposition super-majority is likely to revive a push for a presidential recall. On Monday, Capriles suggested the threat was real, saying that if Maduro didn’t learn how to work with the new congress, the assembly might consider the option.
Jorge Rodriguez, a mayor of greater Caracas and the coordinator for the ruling party’s campaign, suggested any such attempt would not be viewed kindly.
“If there is an aggression against our president, we will take the streets,” he said.
Another potential showdown will be over what the opposition considers political prisoners, including former presidential candidates Leopoldo López and Manuel Rosales, and Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma.
On Monday, Capriles said the the government should release them and others as “gesture.” Otherwise, the new assembly, which will be inaugurated Jan. 5, will push for their freedom.
Even a chastened PSUV remains formidable. The ruling party still controls all other branches of government, including the powerful supreme and constitutional courts. And it still controls congress — at least through the end of the year.
Some speculated the body might use its waning days to stack the courts or give Maduro executive powers.
Questioned about those scenarios, Capriles said it was time for the president to recognize that the times have changed.
“Whatever craziness might happen in the next three weeks,” Capriles said. “We’ll have a majority in congress [next year] to undo it.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the event was that it was so uneventful. Tensions were running so high during the campaign and there was speculation that vote might not take place at all.
“We have to acknowledge the sober attitude of Maduro who quickly acknowledged the results, contrary to what many people expected,” Seguías said. “Thanks to that, Venezuela woke up in peace and harmony — and that will undoubtedly help in the weeks and months to come.”
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this report