Venezuelans go to the polls on December 6 to elect their entire 167-seat National Assembly. For the first time since Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, forces opposed to the governing chavista movement appear likely to win a national election.
An opposition victory and majority control of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s unicameral legislative body, do not entail a global shift in power. They could, however, put in motion a transition toward what Venezuelans hope will be greater national consensus and well-being for all citizens.
The regime created by Chávez and inherited by current president Nicolás Maduro is coming apart at the seams. Venezuela faces a projected 10 percent downturn in GDP this year, with inflation of over 150 percent, and the value of the currency and international reserves sinking fast. Venezuela’s sovereign credit rating is the lowest in Latin America and large debt payments loom in 2016. Plunging oil prices played a big part in creating this grim picture, but government mismanagement has taken an even greater toll.
No country in Latin America received a larger revenue windfall from the commodity boom of the 2000s, yet Venezuela’s per capita GDP growth was the lowest.
Added to economic malaise, sky-high crime rates and perceptions of government corruption have driven down President Maduro’s popularity to under 25 percent. Recent polls show the opposition coalition (MUD — Democratic Unity Roundtable) with an advantage of 25 points or more on the eve of the elections.
In theory, this should guarantee a resounding victory for the opposition, but other factors work against the MUD, including gerrymandered electoral districts, a large government advantage in electoral spending, and intimidation tactics by the government, including the banning and jailing of opposition leaders.
A simple majority for the opposition in the National Assembly, does not translate into broad political power. The executive dominates other branches of government and the Maduro administration could take further steps to isolate the National Assembly or obtain from its current super majority in the lame duck legislature a law granting special decree powers for the president.
On the other hand, victory by the opposition could unleash a powerful new dynamic, underscoring the political vulnerability of the government and providing a platform for higher profile debate on key issues of public policy and for new leadership to emerge.
Venezuelan politics is highly polarized and confrontational. What must be avoided is a further deepening of conflict between an entrenched but weakened executive and an emboldened opposition.
Polls show that a large majority of Venezuelans seek change and consensus. The opposition must embrace this reality if it is to become a coherent force capable of bridging the rifts in society and attracting support from sectors that have hitherto backed the government. To do so, it must give priority attention to Venezuela’s urban and rural poor, who fear losing benefits they accrued under Chávez.
While Venezuela’s future is in the hands of Venezuelans, the international community can play a part. Other Latin American nations should assert themselves in support of democracy, dialogue and the rule of law in Venezuela. They can no longer turn a blind eye to the undermining of democratic institutions in the region. The Inter-American Democratic Charter, approved by all OAS members, including Venezuela, is an excellent point of reference.
The United States should vigorously encourage efforts to promote a stable and democratic Venezuela, while keeping a low profile. In doing so, it should act in conjunction with other nations and with civil society, avoiding counterproductive unilateral initiatives.
Although the present morass into which Venezuela has sunk is the handiwork of chavista rule, Venezuela suffered from poor quality policy-making for decades before Chávez came to power. The country needs a fresh start, something akin to a government of national unity. To prosper, Venezuela must become a nation not of chavistas and anti-chavistas but of citizens.
Peter DeShazo is visiting professor of government and of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean studies at Dartmouth College. He was formerly deputy assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.