Based on his past behavior, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is likely to try several dirty tricks — including buying off legislators and using the judiciary to curtail legislative powers — to weaken the opposition supermajority in the newly elected National Assembly. But there are three major reasons why he is not likely to succeed.
First, the opposition coalition’s victory was so overwhelming that Maduro would face a social explosion if he failed to recognize the new National Assembly’s powers.
Despite the most undemocratic election rules in Latin America with the exception of Cuba’s, Venezuela’s opposition won a two-thirds majority of 112 seats in the 167-seat National Assembly, which could allow it to call a national referendum that could lead to Maduro’s ouster.
Ironically, the Chavista government fell into its own trap: It had written the election rules in such a way that small traditionally pro-government states elected more legislators than hugely populated anti-government states. Thanks to this lopsided representation system, the Chavista government had been able to win a majority in the National Assembly despite losing the popular vote in 2010.
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But this time, it worked the other way around: The opposition won by a landslide in 20 districts that were traditional government strongholds. That has allowed the opposition to win 67 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, despite winning 56 percent of the popular vote.
In an interview earlier this week, opposition congressman Julio Borges — who is among the most likely to be appointed president of the new National Assembly once it convenes on Jan. 5, told me that the size and scope of the opposition victory make it almost impossible for the government to circumvent the new congress.
“This was a kind of earthquake,” Borges said. “The government won’t be able to ignore it, not only because we won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, but also because of the fact that, by a margin of 2.5 million votes, the population asked for a major change in Venezuela.”
The second reason why Maduro will have a hard time curtailing the National Assembly’s powers is that, this time, he won’t have the automatic support of Latin America’s biggest countries.
In the past, when the late President Hugo Chávez and Maduro routinely abused their executive powers to expel opposition mayors and congressmen from their elected positions, Brazil, Argentina and other countries in the region looked the other way.
But now, Argentina’s incoming President Mauricio Macri has vowed to ask for diplomatic sanctions against Venezuela if Maduro doesn’t abide by regional commitments to respect democratic principles. Amd beleaguered Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff — facing an impeachment process and a severe economic crisis — has begun to soften her previously unconditional support for Maduro. The political winds are changing in the region.
If Maduro stages a slow-motion coup to strip the new National Assembly of its powers, the Organization of American States may invoke its Democratic Clause and ask for diplomatic sanctions against the Maduro government, as it did when former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori dissolved his country’s congress in 1992.
The third, and perhaps most important reason why Maduro will have a hard time suppressing or ignoring the new congressional majority, is that the price of oil — which accounts for 98 percent of Venezuela’s foreign income — has fallen to its lowest level in seven years, and is not likely to recover much anytime soon.
Venezuela’s economy has contracted by 10 percent so far this year, inflation is at 200 percent — the highest in the world — and supermarket shelves are near empty. With Venezuela bankrupt and nearing a humanitarian crisis, the government has no money to launch new social programs and win over disaffected Venezuelans.
My opinion: Venezuela’s “Bolivarian” revolution is against the ropes. For the first time in 17 years, it will no longer be able to abuse its powers through an absolute control of all branches of government. For the first time, it finds itself on the defensive.
Even if the new National Assembly doesn’t move immediately to impeach Maduro, it will be able to control the budget, appoint independent judges and allow independent media. And if Maduro doesn’t recognize its powers to do so, he will be carrying out a de facto congressional coup, which — like in Fujimori’s case — could lead to his ouster.
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