External Affairs

Deciphering the Venezuelan Landslide

Jesús Torrealba. credit: Carlos Diaz/Flickr

Jesús Torrealba. credit: Carlos Diaz/Flickr

The Venezuelan general election, held on December 6, produced a catastrophic defeat for President Nicolás Maduro’s United Socialist Party (PSUV), an assemblage of left parties which the late president Hugo Chávez had founded in 2007 and which had held a parliamentary majority from 2008 onwards. The result went far beyond anything the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) and its parliamentary leader Jesús Torrealba hoped for. With 113 out of 167 seats on a 74.2% turnout in a version of the additional member electoral system, they now have a supermajority which enables them to rewrite Chávez’s 1999 constitution and to hold a referendum aimed at recalling Maduro before his term ends in 2019. The president, however, will retain authority over the executive branch of government, and broad authority over the judiciary, including the supreme court.

The winners have been predictably exultant and triumphalist, with Torrealba telling the president, who had described the winners as a United States-backed elite, to ‘stop crying and start working’, and it is very likely that the new parliament will demand investigations into corruption – a long-standing issue in Venezuela – and inflation, now said to be at 50% but possibly running into three figures over some commodities. They have already demanded the release of the US-educated former leader of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) Party, Leopoldo López, who has been in prison since September, following a trial which was widely criticised by international human rights groups; Amnesty International says López is a prisoner of conscience. One of MUD’s first acts, furthermore, is likely to be an amnesty for all individuals whom, it believes, Maduro has jailed for political reasons.

Beyond that, however, what the election result means is anything but clear. To start with, corruption and widespread violent crime or other forms of violence – including Maduro’s use of organised goons as his term has continued – are nothing new in Venezuela, and the MUD leaders seem to have said little about how they will put an end to either phenomenon. Some of their own supporters have engaged in violent protests against the current dispensation in the past few years. Secondly, the new representatives will have to start getting ordinary supplies, including flour, cooking oil, and other everyday necessities back into the shops, and quickly. Shortages were a major cause of the voters’ resentment against Maduro, but if the MUD alliance is to make a significant difference, they will have to address national problems of chaotic systems and poor infrastructure.

In addition, the fall in the global oil price from a high of $140 a barrel in 2007 – when Chávez looked invincible – to its current level of under $40, with oil-exporting countries unable to reach agreement on cutting production, means that Venezuela will struggle to regain the Chávez-era revenues it enjoyed from its greatest economic asset. That in turn raises both practical and ideological issues of how the enormously popular Chávista policies of national-scale public housing, education, and health care are to be maintained. Major Chávista policy successes include the halving of poverty and a reduction of 70% in serious poverty. The new parliamentary winners’ ideological preference for liberal and neoliberal policies makes sweeping cuts in the relevant programmes the likely response, but those who implement such cuts are likely to find themselves reviled by the very public who elected them in the first place. Maduro’s pre-election warnings that the opposition would attack public services and other forms of public provision could turn out to be all too accurate – and could revive public support for the PSUV, which with its creation of workers’ cooperatives allied to its support for grassroots participatory democracy bears little resemblance to the top-down apparatchik-driven caricature its opponents often depict it as being.

In addition, the winners are divided among themselves. While their silence on an economic strategy has been very noticeable, moderates among them differ sharply with others over the nature and pace of change or reform. Henrique Capriles, who lost the 2013 presidential election to Maduro by a mere 1.5%, wants the new parliament to give the incumbent a chance to alter the current policies; that could be based on a recognition that some of Maduro’s recent measures, such as some relaxation of currency controls, have helped aggregate growth to continue. Capriles is also nervous about the likelihood that squabbles among MUD leaders will make challenging Maduro harder. Significantly, gaining the release of López, much more of a hardliner, from prison could complicate matters even further for the Venezuelan right wing, as he was bitterly disappointed when he lost the right’s nomination for the 2013 presidential contest to Capriles.

The picture that is emerging seems then to show that the MUD alliance had and has little to offer beyond resistance or opposition to Maduro, with the added aim of removing him from office at the earliest opportunity. Addressing Venezuela’s very serious problems of corruption, violence, and chaotic administration, however, will amount to an altogether different set of tasks, and failure to make clear progress in those directions will expose the MUD to the electorate’s wrath for precisely the same reasons the voters have effectively neutralised the PSUV presence in parliament – namely economic incompetence. There is little or no evidence that the voters have rejected the ideological commitments of the PSUV or its leader to a very recognisable form of social democracy.

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan is a Visiting Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Madras.