The election of a new National Assembly in Venezuela on December 6th must be understood as a first step in a long-term movement for change. The opposing coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) won a clear majority of votes in the election, thus historically defeating Chavismo which had controlled power (including executive, legislative and judicial) almost without any checks for 16 years. The elections brought a new correlation of forces, at least in the legislature, with the MUD now holding holds two-thirds of the seats, a super-majority granting it power to challenge the executive in important ways.
But far from paving a clear path for predictable, peaceful change back to political and economic normalcy, the elections only started a long process that is likely to be complicated and in which a positive outcome is far from guaranteed.
The holiday vacation period since the election and the first weeks back in session are shedding some light on what could be the political and institutional dynamics in Venezuela in 2016. Here are a few quick observations:
- As long as the judiciary is under the control of Chavista appointees, it’s going to do the party’s bidding: During its vacation period in December, the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ, for its Spanish abbreviation) decided to withdraw recognition of the election of three National Assembly members of the MUD from Amazonas state (located in the southeast of the country next to Brazil and Colombia). The suspension–pending a hearing on alleged electoral violations–reduced the opposition’s super-majority.
- The executive is unlikely to honor legislative initiative: President Nicolás Maduro has announced that he will not approve two emblematic laws for the opposition that were essential in their election platform: a law guaranteeing ownership of government-built homes for Venezuelans who received homes from the State in the last few years, and an amnesty law to benefit political prisoners, most from the ranks of the opposition. Pursuant to Venezuelan laws, a conflict between the legislative and executive power over the approval of laws would mean that the decision over the legislation will go to the Chavista-controlled Constitutional Division of the TSJ. The Constitutional Division’s decisions cannot be appealed. [See 1 above.]
- Any efforts to chip into Chavistas’ control over the judicial system will not be allowed: After his party lost the National Assembly in December, Maduro took advantage of the Christmas break to grant early retirement to 13 judges of the Supreme Court of Justice. He then went ahead and appointed their replacements for a seven-year period in record time–not even bothering to get the nominations properly confirmed by the Assembly, as required by the constitution.
- Don’t expect a consensus plan to fix the economy any time soon: International organizations like the International Monetary Fund estimate that Venezuela will have the world’s highest inflation again in 2016 (700 percent) and another sharp drop of its gross domestic product (8 percent). And with the price of oil at the lowest in decades, the petro-dependent country–made more so by the 16 years of Chavismo–faces few options for digging its way out of its budget shortfall and upcoming debt payments.
At the same time, opinion surveys have shown that Venezuelans are expecting solutions to the financial crisis. But the economic models and prescriptions of the executive and legislature are incompatible, and neither side is interested in compromise. The government insists in a state-focused economic model, while the MUD supports more private sector, market-based solutions and dismantling controls over foreign currency exchange and prices.
With these elements on the table, 2016, more than a path forward, looks to be shaping up to be a struggle. The opposition’s victory on December 6th, while demonstrating the support of a large majority of the country, did not grant them a clean slate from which to govern and the Chavistas are throwing up everything they can to prevent them from pursuing their policies. The transition has only just begun.