Beyond Chávez: Is Venezuelan Democracy Here to Stay?

Venezuela's reformers prepare to take power.

Desperate Venezuelans earlier this year took to tossing mangoes at their president, Nicolás Maduro, scrawling on them messages begging for help with housing and other pressing needs as the country sank further into a hyperinflationary depression.

With the official word Tuesday night that the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), won 112 seats in Venezuela’s National Assembly, Maduro will become the target of far sharper attacks in the months ahead than rotten mangoes. The opposition’s sweep to power in the December 6 parliamentary elections was as remarkable as the government’s swift acceptance of its defeat (an acceptance spurred by Venezuela’s military, which seems to have had its fill of Bolivarian socialist revolution). The results give the opposition coalition a two-thirds supermajority, enabling it to take broad steps to reverse course after sixteen years of chavista rule. The new National Assembly majority will, among other things, be in a position to free political prisoners, remove judges from Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) and pass “organic” legislation that falls somewhere between normal legislation and constitutional amendments. It will be vital for the new National Assembly to use all of these tools aggressively.

But most importantly, the two-thirds majority entitles the National Assembly to call a referendum to remove the president from power. No one believes that Maduro would win such an election today and, if anything, he is personally more unpopular than chavismo as an abstract movement. Therefore, in one fell swoop, the MUD could finish early next year what the “6D” elections began, giving Venezuela a clear transition to a post-chavista future and allowing the MUD a free hand at fixing the country’s basket-case economy.

Opposition leaders, mindful of past failures when chavismo’s opponents went too far, are not yet fully committed to seeking a recall referendum. In light of the opposition-backed 2002 coup, a bumbling attempt that removed Chávez for around forty-eight hours, and the clumsy 2004 failure to recall Chávez in a democratic referendum, the MUD’s hesitation is understandable. Moreover, now that the MUD has achieved power through the National Assembly, a coalition that brings together a disparate group of political parties will find itself increasingly split over both political strategy and policy substance.

Nevertheless, removing Maduro from power must be a priority when the new National Assembly sits in January. Francisco Toro, writing at the inestimable Caracas Chronicles, makes the point that the opposition is as much in danger of underreach as overreach:

We could end up very much in the position of a Caribbean Morgan Tsvangirai, the Zimbabwean opposition leader who “negotiated,” joined the government as prime minister, brought some measure of economic stability... and extended the Mugabe dictatorship’s lease on power by at least a decade.

Venezuela, which is expected to contract by 10 percent this year alone, is nevertheless one of Latin America’s most important economies, a leading global exporter of crude oil and home to the world’s deepest reservoir of proven reserves. Perhaps more importantly, Venezuela has been an anchor in the Caribbean regional economy at a time of increasing fiscal distress. For better or worse, Chávez also showed that Venezuela can punch above its weight on the international stage as well.

In a “normal” democracy, it would not be atypical for a divided government to emerge, in the same way that Republicans today control the legislative branch and Democrats control the executive branch in the United States. It’s true, gridlock might come to dominate Venezuelan governance. But Maduro, who lacks a powerful presidential veto, would be forced to accept the MUD coalition’s policy prescriptions to get the economy back on track, however painful the compromises for both sides.