Venezuela’s opposition elects seasoned veteran as next congressional president

Jesús Torrealba, the head of the opposition coalition, at a press conference on Saturday.
Jesús Torrealba, the head of the opposition coalition, at a press conference on Saturday.

Venezuela’s opposition on Sunday picked Henry Ramos Allup, an outspoken old-guard politician, to be the new president of the National Assembly — setting the stage for a showdown with the ruling socialist administration, which hasn’t faced a combative congress in more than 15 years.

In a brief acceptance speech, the 72-year-old Ramos called for an end to the nation’s polarization, a peaceful congressional transition, and said the opposition would “celebrate by getting to work...celebrate by keeping our word.”

Incoming opposition legislators, who won seats during the Dec. 6 race, chose the new leadership in a secret vote Sunday night. Ramos, who has been a deputy on three different occasions and is the head of the Acción Democrática party, won 62 out of 111 votes. The runner-up was Julio Borges, with Primero Justicia, with 49 votes.

The new National Assembly will be sworn in for the 2016-21 session on Tuesday.

Ramos will undoubtedly become a lightning rod for President Nicolás Maduro and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which is still reeling after its legislative landslide defeat. The PSUV won 33 percent of the vote, or 55 positions in the 167-seat congress, while the opposition won 112 seats.

The results give the long-embattled opposition a two-thirds super-majority with the power to remove cabinet members, appoint Supreme Court judges and call referendums. But the administration seems intent on chipping away at that advantage.

Last week, a newly packed Supreme Court challenged the electoral results from Amazon State, putting the fate of three opposition and one PSUV deputies in doubt. If it does successfully sideline them, the opposition would lose its two-thirds advantage.

The secretary general of the opposition coalition, Jesús Torrealba, says his group will defy court orders and seat all its deputies. He’s calling for a rally on Tuesday to escort the opposition delegation from downtown Caracas to the congressional building.

“The people elected 112 [deputies] and 112 will be sworn in,” Torrealba said in a statement. “Attempts by the government to…diminish the impact of their defeat are irrelevant. The fact is the government has lost its social majority.”

The administration is also calling for demonstrations Tuesday to “defend the revolution,” sparking fears of clashes between the two sides.

Ramos asked the nation for calm and said that calls for confrontation had “no resonance” with the people.

“We’re also going to be deputies for those who didn’t vote for us,” he said.