In Venezuela, Maduro’s Fate Hangs in the Balance

As opposition scores big electoral victory, President will face challenges from his own party, says Atlantic Council’s Jason Marczak

The opposition’s historic victory in legislative elections on Dec. 6 has created a two-front challenge for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro — one from an opposition that could try to have him recalled, and the other from within his own United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to which he is “dispensable,” said Jason Marczak, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

On Dec. 7, Venezuela’s electoral body announced that the opposition coalition had won at least ninety-nine of the 167 seats in the National Assembly putting it thirteen seats short of winning a supermajority that would give it the power to launch a recall referendum. That possibility remains alive as the results of another twenty-two seats have yet to be declared.

Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, won a recall referendum in 2004. Maduro, however, is not as popular as Chávez.

Following the opposition’s victory, Maduro faces a National Assembly that will no longer be an administration rubberstamp.

“The opposition will feel a need to show that they can be effective, but they will also seek to challenge President Maduro on a variety of fronts,” said Marczak.

In an address at the Atlantic Council on Nov. 30, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Maduro administration must respect the outcome of the vote.

Jason Marczak discussed the significance of developments in Venezuela in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from the interview.

Q: Given the fact that the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) controls the state what are the practical as well as policy implications of the opposition’s victory in Venezuela?

Marczak: At this point we know that the opposition has won at least a simple majority — ninety-nine seats — that gives them the power to approve budgets and choose the leadership of the National Assembly. Diosdado Cabello, the Speaker of the National Assembly, is loathed by the opposition and will be replaced.

If, in the end, the opposition is able to secure two more seats it will have a three-fifths or qualified majority. That is very important because in that position it can revoke presidential decrees. So if President Maduro goes ahead and manufactures a crisis as justification for an emergency decree in the next few weeks, the opposition has the constitutional right to revoke that decree.

The Holy Grail is a supermajority, which is 112 seats. If the opposition gets that it can modify and amend organic laws, including the constitution. It can even launch a recall vote against the President.

Q: How likely is such a recall referendum if the opposition were to attain a supermajority?

Marczak: The opposition victory is the second-biggest defeat for chavismo; the first is when Hugo Chávez passed away two years ago. The economy in Venezuela has gone from bad to worse to horrific. People are fed up with chronic shortages, high inflation, the lack of security, and a government that can no longer deliver for the people.

When Chávez was President he had an uncanny ability to blame problems on others. But when he was President things weren’t as bad. Oil prices have more than halved in just the last year—a severe challenge for a government overwhelmingly dependent on high prices.

The key is for the opposition to stay united in Congress and show that when in power they can actually govern. That has long been the question in Venezuela. The opposition will feel a need to show that they can be effective, but they will also seek to challenge President Maduro on a variety of fronts. This means putting forward more moderate as well as ambitious policies.

Maduro, at the same time, faces an increasingly difficult challenge to keep the PSUV together. He is the face of the party, but he is not the one pulling the strings. If the opposition gains further popularity, there will be internal shuffling within the PSUV to reassert its authority and perhaps diminish the public persona of President Maduro.

I wouldn’t take a recall referendum off the table for 2016. This election showed that there could be victory at the ballot box. The opposition has long been divided about whether the ballot box is the way to bring about change. Clearly the ballot box has worked, although we will see how much power the opposition actually has based on how many more seats it gets when more results are announced.

Q: Does Maduro face a greater threat from the opposition or from within his own PSUV?

Marczak: The challenge for Maduro is both. There are a whole host of members of the PSUV, including members of the military, who have become incredibly rich while in power. These people fear that if the opposition comes to power they are going to have to flee the country and if they stay in the country they will be brought before courts for corruption, charges of narcotics trafficking, and human rights abuses. So there is a whole cadre of elites within Venezuela who are incredibly fearful for their own personal interests. Those people are going to be working behind the scenes to do whatever they can to maintain authority. Nicolás Maduro, in the end, is dispensable. The overall idea is how do we keep chavismo in power?

Maduro is also going to face challenges from the opposition. But rather than make Maduro the target of their policies, the opposition is going to have to show that it can govern. It will have to show that it is not just a force to provoke change within the government, but that it also can be trusted with the reins of power.

Historically, the opposition has not been united. The last thing that it can have happen is for the various factions to have their disagreements become public. That would distract from their overall goal of trying to bring about change within the country.

Q: As it faces pressure from Argentina, Brazil, and the OAS [the Organization of American States], is this an inflection point for Venezuela?

Marczak: Part of the reason the opposition won were the changing circumstances domestically as well as regionally.

Venezuela has gone from becoming the shining light for many countries across the region to being increasingly isolated. The inauguration of [Argentina’s] President-elect Mauricio Macri on Dec. 10 is a case in point of the changing regional tide. Venezuela can no longer count on Argentina being a steadfast ally. Macri has said that if people like Leopoldo López and other political prisoners remain in jail he will seek to invoke the democracy clause of Mercosur, which could ultimately lead to Venezuela being kicked out of the regional bloc.

At the same time as Venezuela has lost an ally in Argentina, many other countries have become more vocal in their condemnation of what is happening in Venezuela. The Brazilians are reportedly working behind the scenes to push the Venezuelans to respect the basic tenets of human rights.

Venezuela’s influence across the region has diminished not just because of the change of leadership in countries like Argentina, but because the price of oil is less than half of what it was two years ago. Oil money is what bought Venezuela friends in the past.

Q: Is this the end of Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution”?

Marczak: First, this never was a Bolivarian Revolution. The basic supposed tenets of the Bolivarian Revolution included more equitable revenue distribution and an end to corruption, with the goals of helping to lift the Venezuelan people. Instead, what has happened over the last few years is anything but giving greater opportunities to the Venezuelan people.

What happened were short-term gains in poverty reduction in the late 2000s that are now being reversed. These gains were made on quick money that was coming in through oil and not based on any type of long-term structural changes. Corruption is a cancer that has spread across the government.

Inflation is approaching 200 percent; the economy is expected to contract 10 percent this year; and in the black market, the minimum Venezuelan salary is about $10 a month. The idea of the revolution when Hugo Chávez first came to power in the late 1990s is already gone. It is just a mater of whether the PSUV can hold on to power.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen and Jason Marczak

Image: Lilian Tintori (center left), wife of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, celebrates with candidates of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD) in Caracas on Dec. 7. Venezuela’s opposition won control of the legislature from the ruling United Socialist Party (PSVUV) for the first time in sixteen years giving them a long-sought platform to challenge President Nicolás Maduro. (Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)