Monday, December 7, 2015

Opposition landslide in Venezuelan parliamentary elections (Dec. 7)

The Venezuelan opposition won National Assembly elections by a landslide yesterday, earning a majority against the governing Socialist party for the first time in 16 years. 

They have gained "a long-sought platform to challenge President Nicolas Maduro's rule of the OPEC nation," reports Reuters. And it's a major political shift in a country that has sought to implement 21st Century Socialism, in the words of late President Hugo Chávez, reports The Guardian.

The opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition won 99 seats to the PSUV 46 in the 167-national National Assembly, the election board said, with some districts still to be counted. The opposition's gains were bigger than expected, and a landmark victory for the country’s frustrated opposition, reports the Wall Street Journal

The government has controlled all branches of government for the past 15 years, explains the Miami Herald

It's a turning point for Venezuela, celebrates the Washington Post, which says the opposition victory sets the stage for further confrontation with the ruling PSUV and could energize a movement aiming to drive Maduro from power before the end of his term in 2019. (See Nov. 25th's briefs for the Post's anti-Chávez editorial and a thoughtful reply from WOLA analyst David Smilde.)

President Nicolás Maduro admitted defeat as government supporters dismantled victory parties last night. "We are here, with morals and ethics, to recognize these adverse results," he said in a speech to the nation. He blamed his defeat on a campaign by business leaders and other opponents to sabotage the economy. "The economic war has triumphed today," Maduro said.
Yesterday marked the 17-year anniversary of the late President Hugo Chávez's electoral victory in 1998. 

Though Maduro had said recently that government supporters would take to the streets to  Chavez's legacy if the party lost the elections. But on last night he instead urged his supporters to calmly regroup from the loss.

The Associated Press reported a "dour" mood in a "nearly deserted downtown Caracas plaza" last night where "a few dozen" government supporters had gathered to await results.

But fireworks celebrated victory in opposition districts of Caracas as election officials announced partial results of the vote, according to The Guardian. In the plaza in wealthy eastern Caracas that was the epicenter of last year's bloody anti-government protests, a small group of opponents, some of them sipping champagne, burned red shirts that are the obligatory revolutionary attire, reports the Associated Press.

The day was largely peaceful, though the government maintained the polls open for an extra hour and was attempting to mobilize voters throughout the day to boost its voters, according to El País. Fears of unrest prompted some Venezuelans to line up before dawn so they could cast their ballots and go home to wait for results, reports the AP.

There were reports of some irregularities, according to the Washington Post, including malfunctioning machines and government supporters campaigning near voting places.

Voter turnout was 74 percent, the highest for a parliamentary vote since compulsory voting ended in the 1990s, according to the AP. Detailed election results had not yet been released yesterday, but opposition congressmen tweeted that they had won traditional pro-government strongholds, including the Catia slums just outside Caracas, the eastern oil city of Maturin and Chavez’s home state of Barinas, reports the WSJ.

"Venezuelan families are tired of living the consequences of the failure," Jesus Torrealba, head of the Democratic Unity opposition coalition, told supporters at campaign headquarters. "The country wants change and that change is beginning today."

Videos circulating online seemed to show five prominent socialist politicians - including Chávez's brother Adan - being booed at voting centers on Sunday, with crowds yelling "the government will fall!" or "thief," reports Reuters.
El País reports that one of the first measures the opposition leaders had promised is an amnesty law for political prisoners like opposition leader Leopoldo López, who has been jailed for nearly two years and was convicted to nearly 13 years on charges of inciting violence. 

But less popular measures will be needed to pull the economy out of its "death spiral," according to the WSJ. It will require a series of painful adjustments to roll back more than a decade of populist and statist policies. Including raising the price of gas, overhauling a byzantine foreign-exchange system, and cutting back on generous social programs.

That is precisely what government supporters fear, explain most of the pieces who cite voters who worry how they will get by without government support programs that have helped millions of Venezuela's poor.

Potential shakeup ahead: Opposition sources predicted to Reuters the final results will give them as many as 113 seats -- a crucial two-thirds majority which would permit them to impact other institutions such as courts and the election board. The decisive victory could also lead to a recall election against Maduro in 2016 if opponents can gather the nearly 4 million signatures needed for such a move.

In a separate piece, El País analyzes the various options from simple majority (84 seats), which would permit the opposition to pass laws and begin impeachment proceedings against Maduro, to a two-thirds majority (112 seats) which would permit them to name judges, election board members as well as pass constitutional reforms, call a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, and call referendums.

But it's not clear how much pressure an opposition victory would apply to Maduro’s government, which might be able to largely ignore what has been a rather inactive legislature, notes the Washington Post.

Already yesterday's vote was considered a plebiscite on Maduro's handling of the country, which despite having the world’s largest oil reserves, faces chronic shortages of basic foods, inflation in the triple digits and a wave of violent crime, notes The Guardian.

"The economic war has won, for now, circumstantially," Maduro said.
The Associated Press predicts a period of intense political fights. Nonetheless, both sides will have to work together, says the WSJ. The government still controls more than 20 governorships, hundreds of mayors, the judiciary, much of the press and all auditing agencies -- and economic policies will remain in Maduro's hands.

Lack of opposition platform: The question might be, what will happen with the MUD coalition now. Legislators are notoriously fickle with their allegiances, according to El País, which says that it's the first time all of the opposition parties successfully united under a common umbrella, that has included everything from center-left parties to the conservative right.

According to several pieces the opposition victory is largely due to public disgust at Venezuela's deep economic recession. Other pieces also note Venezuela's rising crime and that it has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

But the opposition also successfully overcame an uneven playing field. Denied access to television stations, it relied heavily on social media to spread its message and formed a YouTube channel, reports the WPost.

"I feel as if we won the World Cup while playing with our two legs tied," prominent opposition deputy Julio Borges said in an interview with the WSJ. "This has been the most abusive campaign ever, but the important thing is that we were able to use democracy to beat a system that is deeply undemocratic."

For those readers of the international press who had understood that Venezuela's anti-democratic government was unlikely to permit transfer of power, it's worth checking out the "crash course" on the elections at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights for nuanced explanations. In the latest post there, David Smilde and Michael McCarthy analyze the extensive involvement of political parties in monitoring the system

The Guardian, Reuters and the AP all add this to the evidence that "the pink tide" is turning. (SeeNov. 6th's post.)

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