For the first time since 1999, Venezuela’s revolutionary socialist regime faces an opposition parliament. But rather than seeking some form of “cohabitation” with its political adversaries, the government has chosen the path of outright confrontation, raising once again the prospect of serious political violence in this nation of 30 million people. By Phil Gunson for the INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP.
First published by the International Crisis Group.
Following its landslide election victory on 6 December, when it won 112 of the 167 seats in the single-chamber National Assembly, the Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition, a multiparty alliance of mainly centrist and centre-left parties formed in 2008, took control of the legislature on 5 January.
Despite threats from President Nicolás Maduro and other leaders of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) to “take to the streets” in resistance, the hand-over was peaceful, barring some minor violence and moments of tension during the opening session. Thousands of demonstrators from both sides were kept apart by strong contingents of riot police and National Guard troops.
The outgoing parliamentary majority, led by the country’s second most powerful figure, Diosdado Cabello, did not withdraw gracefully. The assembly’s own TV channel, ANTV, was dismantled and its equipment removed. But even if it will no longer have its own television station, at least the assembly will now be open to all journalists, after years in which ANTV’s government propagandists were the only ones allowed in the chamber.
With the swearing-in out of the way, however, a much bigger problem remains to be resolved. While Maduro accepted his defeat within hours of the polls closing, he has so far given no sign of understanding its significance. Rather than seeking to work with the new legislature to resolve the grave economic and social crisis afflicting the country, he has sought to circle the wagons in a bid to resist the change the electorate is clearly seeking.
A long-awaited cabinet reshuffle, announced on 6 January, reconfirmed what the president had been saying: the answer to the crisis is more revolution. As head of the economic team Maduro appointed an ultra-radical, Luis Salas, whose proposals seem guaranteed to tip the country into hyper-inflation and accelerate the collapse of the economy.
In its dying weeks the government-dominated legislature had rushed through a number of laws and other measures designed to block the MUD’s reform program. It took away parliament’s power to appoint members of the Central Bank (BCV) board, for example, and enshrined in law the BCV’s suppression of economic statistics.
But the most ominous move – and one that has already had a major impact – was the hurried replacement of more than a third of the 32-member Supreme Court (TSJ). The thirteen new judges are all government loyalists. Some of them were actually PSUV members of parliament who voted for their own appointments, including the chairman of the selection committee. Many did not meet the legal requirements for the post and the appointments procedure itself was not respected.
The government’s evident aim was to prevent the incoming parliament replacing Supreme Court members due to retire this year. Maduro has made it clear that he will seek to use the court (and in particular its constitutional branch) to block any legislative measures not to the government’s liking. Even before the new parliament was sworn in, the electoral branch of the court took the unusual step of opening during the year-end holidays to admit legal challenges to the election of a dozen MPs, all but one of them opposition members.
The court also approved an injunction to suspend the swearing-in of the four MPs elected for Amazonas state, including three from the opposition, because of alleged vote-buying. The MUD merely delayed their swearing-in for a day. The suspension of the three seats held by opposition Amazonas lawmakers is a vital issue for the MUD, as they give the opposition a “super-majority” that would allow them, among other things, to appoint or dismiss senior officials and even (subject to referendum) rewrite the constitution.
But the PSUV has asked the Supreme Court to declare the parliamentary leadership in contempt. Cabello insists that while they continue to defy the injunction any decision taken by the assembly is null and void. He has called for its funding to be suspended.
Much, if not all, of the opposition’s legislative agenda, which is particularly focused on economic and social measures, is not to the government’s liking. It has also sworn to block the MUD’s promise of an amnesty for political prisoners and exiles. One manoeuvre in particular stands out: within days of the election the government installed an unelected “National Communal Parliament” in the old Senate chamber, through which it claims “the people” will legislate directly.
One possible answer to the judicial blockade is for parliament to reform the law governing the Supreme Court, expanding the number of members to dilute government control. But ultimately, if Maduro holds firm, the only way the opposition can win this political chess game in the medium term is to oust him through constitutional means. Henry Ramos, the new chairman of the National Assembly, has said the MUD will devise a way to do that within six months, unless the government has a change of heart. One possibility is a recall referendum, which under the constitution can be triggered within a few months.
Venezuela’s closest international partner, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), has so far remained silent on the Government’s manoeuvers to retain power, although the governments of Argentina, Costa Rica and the U.S. and the Secretary General of the Organization of American States Luis Almagro have raised their voices against the government’s misuse of the judiciary. The Brazilian foreign ministry, in a statement, warned that there was “no place, in 21st-century South America, for political solutions outside the institutional framework and the most absolute respect for democracy and the rule of law”.
The situation is clear: if the assembly is held to be in contempt, and its decisions null and void, the government will for all practical purposes have closed down the elected parliament and abandoned constitutional rule.
The priority for UNASUR and the rest of the international community should be to stop Venezuela’s slide into outright dictatorship by holding the government to account under the Inter-American Democratic Charter and other treaties.
A failure to act on the part of Venezuela’s international partners would contribute to further political escalation and the potential destabilisation of the Andean region. A social explosion threatens too. The price of oil, which fuelled the success of the late President Hugo Chávez, continues to hit new lows. Food, medicines and other basic goods are becoming scarcer by the month, and inflation is running at an annualised rate of 500 per cent.
The fact that the opposition was able to achieve a peaceful, democratic change of leadership in the Venezuelan parliament may suggest there is light at the end of the country’s tunnel. But for now no one can be sure it is not the headlight of an oncoming train. DM
Photo: Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a meeting with ministers in Caracas, in this handout picture provided by Miraflores Palace on January 9, 2016. REUTERS/Miraflores Palace/Handout via Reuters