Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Will Venezuelan opposition and government politicians learn to work together? (Dec. 9, 2015)

Venezuelan electoral authorities have confirmed that the opposition Democratic Unity coalition (MUD) has won a key two thirds majority, which will allow it to challenge President Nicolás Maduro's power, reports the BBC.

It is the worst result for the Socialist (PSUV) party since it's founder, Hugo Chávez, won presidential elections in 1998. Voter participation was high, over 74 percent, suggesting an important proportion of the population backed change, according to the BBC.

The opposition said it would work to release jailed opposition leaders and address the country's economic crisis. But it now could also possibly call for a referendum on Maduro's leadership. This could take place only when his presidency reaches its halfway point in April next year.

But that will not necessarily be the first course of action for the opposition. "If Maduro doesn't change we'll have to change the government. But the opposition's response to the economic crisis right now can't be more politics," said Henrique Capriles - who lost to Maduro in the 2013 presidential elections. "Everything should be aimed at finding a solution to the crisis and toward actions that allow Venezuela to recover economically," he said.

Maduro has announced a cabinet reshuffle but vowed to veto any amnesty law for jailed politicians. He said his Socialist Party would hold an "extraordinary congress" to find out what went wrong at the election.

The likelihood of economic change hinges on whether a chastened Maduro decides to cooperate with his rivals and reform the economy, or instead bunkers down to deepen controls, reports Reuters.

There are only limited steps the legislature can take on its own on economic matters, such as laws to create incentives for economic production, to give pensions to older Venezuelans who are not included in the current pension system, and to recover money stolen through corruption, reports the New York Times.

Other measures, such as revising the three-tier exchange rate system would require executive branch cooperation, while raising the price of gasoline and eliminating or loosening price controls, may be too politically sensitive for the Assembly to want to take on by itself.

Now, after years of sniping from the sidelines, members have to get down to the difficult task of delivering on promises to fix the country’s many ills reports the New York Times. The possibility of a referendum looms over both sides' political maneuverings. And a divided government could be costly and lead to a constitutional crisis.

Some of the biggest looming questions are whether the opposition will push for a recall referendum of Maduro, how the government might try to work around the opposition, and if both sides can come together to address the country’s biggest issues, explains WOLA Senior Fellow David Smilde

Perhaps the question that remains now is how the disparate coalition that makes up MUD, held together only by a burning desire to unseat "Chavismo," will maintain unity moving forward, according to Reuters. Discord could emerge as anxious politicians finally get their long-coveted political platform and feel the heat from constituents.

Nor is there a clear mandate: voters were motivated in large part by anger at the current economic state of affairs and skyrocketing insecurity -- but the problem with "voto castigo" is that it's not a decision in favor of a course of action, but rather a rejection of another course of action.

Washington Post editorial calls on the Chavista government to cooperate with the new opposition led National Assembly, but glumly concludes that further political polarization -- which could lead to a referendum next year -- is more likely.

Slate says that Maduro's recognition of the loss notwithstanding, the PSUV will likely "try to undermine its practical significance later. Expect the courts to issue rulings circumscribing the powers of the legislature. Expect new edicts and orders concentrating even more power into the executive. Look for government budgets and competencies to shift. Watch out for allegations of corruption and criminal offenses against key members of the opposition."

Bloomberg on the other hand recommends the opposition take a "calibrated" approach to implementing change. "The opposition should use its legislative platform to renew Venezuelan democracy, holding ministers and justices to account and unmuzzling the press. It should hold budgetary debates that reveal the true condition of Venezuela's economy, publishing basic data that have been suppressed and laying bare the off-budget expenditures that have turned the state-owned oil company into one of the world's deepest slush funds."

Foreign Policy characterizes the government as "electoral authoritarian," as defined in The Politics of Uncertainty  by Andreas Schedler: "countries where the government allows elections but uses its dominance of key institutions to tilt the balance heavily in its favor — face permanent uncertainty. Because these elections are not accurate gauges of public opinion and because dissent is discouraged through various legal and illegal methods, such regimes can never be sure about their true levels of public support. Unlike traditional autocracies, they don’t respond to this uncertainty with outright repression, which could trigger a backlash (not to mention international condemnation). Instead, they opt for more subtle manipulation of institutions and media censorship. Schedler shows that this response makes it increasingly hard to defeat them at the polls."

At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Geoff Ramsey covers some reactions from around the region.

Seen by many as the final nail in the coffin of Latin America's leftist "pink tide" leaders, it could even be a call for reflection for the left around the region, said FMLN leaders in El Salvador, reports ContraPunto.

The Associated Press reports on Venezuela's poor, who fear an economic reform that would lift price and currency controls that have wrought havoc on Venezuela's economy could force them to face the full brunt of the country's triple digit inflation. Some slum dwellers worry that the opposition will ignore the economy and focus on tearing down the socialist administration.

Chavista supporters on the ground interpret the results as an opportunity to double down on the revolution, which they interpret as working harder with communities to gain back their support, reports TeleSur.

Given the amount of negative press ahead of the elections -- with a lot of hypothesizing that negative results would not be recognized by the government -- it's worth noting the positive response from the government.

As David Smilde notes, the president's statement on Sunday (see Monday's post) "should give pause to those who, over the past year, have confidently asserted that the elections wouldn’t happen, or that the government wouldn’t recognize the results." He writes that "the Venezuelan people, the Maduro government and Chavismo deserve some applause. The Venezuelan people went massively to the polls despite a growing distrust of the CNE and despite not trusting that their vote is secret. The government and Chavismo deserve credit for courageously heading into an election they knew they were likely to lose (they read the same polls everyone else does)."

"Democracy has prevailed. Let's say the result had been the other way - what would people have said? That's the irony," Venezuela's top diplomat in Washington, Maximilien Arvelaiz told Reuters. "It's a double standard. Democracy prevails when the right wins. When it's us, (they say) 'Maduro controls everything.'"

Which is perhaps a more succinct and coherent way of expressing what left wing leaders from around the region tried (poorly) when it comes to explaining the obstacles they face when implementing game-changing policies, especially, when it comes to criticism from Washington and the mainstream international press. And that is a loss in general when it comes to understanding the importance and nuances of the political paradigm shift that has accompanied the leftist pink tide governments in Latin America.

Outraged voters rejected the model at the ballot boxes on Sunday, but others have been voting with their feet for years, reports NPR, in a piece that focuses on the emigration of college professors overseas.

News Briefs

  • Check out Keane Bhatt's comparison of the international media's coverage of the Haitian and Venezuelan elections for Jacobin.
  • Outgoing Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and incoming president-elect Mauricio Macri are fighting over how to actually organize the inaugural ceremony in which she formally hands power over to her successor. She also appears to be attempting to make entrance difficult for her successor with last-minute decrees that will force the government to give considerable funds to provinces. Her resistance is also widely viewed as a maneuver to build an image as an unyielding opposition leader, especially as she prepares for a power struggle within her political movement, reports the New York Times. But the move seems to be backfiring, as the two sides escalate their rhetoric and actions. As of today, the Kirchner is not expected to participate in tomorrow's inaugural ceremony, reports La Nación. The president of the Supreme Court will instead hand Macri the symbols of the presidential mandate: a sash and a sort of scepter.
  • Macri is chomping at the bit to start swinging Argentine policies to the right. Already he has installed a cabinet of bankers and managers and plans to return the country to a free market economy after 12 years of isolation, reports DW. But the short-term pain that orthodox economists always say is necessary for long-term gain has many on the ground scared about what the economic impact next year will be, I write in a piece for Zócalo Public Square. I also look at some of the odder strategies employed by Argentines to evade currency controls and lessen the impact of inflation.
  • At The Nation, Greg Gandin writes on the state of the Latin American left and whether the recent right-wing victories in the region means " a new era of a restored right, one which uses the now widely accepted language of social democracy to undermine social democracy."
  • Over at NACLA, Ernesto Semán writes that: "Change likely lies ahead for much of South America. In the case of Macri and Argentina, the lesson for the region is how a conservative businessman, mayor, and former president of one of Argentina’s most popular soccer clubs, made use of a period of political and economic stagnation to radically revamp right-wing politics. His election gave new and powerful steam to the idea of a "democratic right," even if the two concepts remain, for many, in uncomfortable tension."
  • Nearly two months after Haitians went to the polls to pick their next president, the results remain disputed, reports the Miami Herald.  Widespread mistrust and perceived partisan conduct of the nine-member election council is cementing voter apathy in a nation where increasingly less and less people believe democracy works. The risk, says some Haitian analysts, is continued instability with a weak president who is unable to consolidate parliament or create jobs because he lacks legitimacy.
  • Cuba is near a deal with 15 rich creditor nations of the Paris Club to restructure $16 billion in debt stemming from a 1986 default, with creditors expected to forgive most of the amount owed, reports Reuters.

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