Ever since Venezuela’s opposition won a landslide legislative election in December 2015 and assumed control of the country’s single-chamber National Assembly, expectations about what they would do with this power have run high. So far, the opposition has disappointed.
Already in the throes of a deep economic recession, Venezuela is teetering on the edge of a humanitarian disaster. With one of the highest murder rates in the world, scarcity of everything from medicine to cars to electricity to toilet paper, and a political crisis fanned by a deeply unpopular president, Venezuelans are desperate for a way out.
When the opposition took control of the Assembly this past January, it promised swift action. But, instead of trying to fix the economy or working to end the presidency of the hapless Nicolás Maduro, they have failed. The reason: they have half-heartedly tried to do both and accomplished neither.
As the legislature struggles to remain relevant, it is worth asking: is Venezuela’s opposition any good?
Turns out they aren’t. They are neither effective nor coherent as a policymaking body or political opposition. Regardless, they are still vitally important.
On the economic front, the opposition has skirted around the edges of the issues—and may actually be making things worse.
They tried to reform the law governing the Central Bank, only to have their modest attempt at reform shot down by the courts. They are also in the process of passing laws fostering national production, giving elderly pensioners food vouchers, and giving the beneficiaries of public housing the ownership of their apartments. All of these are deeply rooted in the populism that chavismo, the governing coalition headed by President Maduro, created. None of these measures do much to tackle Venezuela’s enormous budget deficit—estimated at 20% of GDP. In fact, they make it even larger.
In terms of politics, the opposition-led Assembly has not been any more successful.
This week their major push to pass amnesty for the country’s 75 political prisoners, including Leopoldo López, was shot down by the country’s Supreme Tribunal. Attempts to recall Maduro are stalling, with the country’s elections board putting up roadblocks to the process. Other initiatives such as convening a Constitutional Assembly or passing a constitutional amendment to shorten Maduro’s term are struggling for momentum.
Clearly, not all of this is the opposition’s fault. Most of the country’s institutions, including the courts and the elections board, are unabashedly aligned with Maduro, and their strategy is clear: do whatever it takes to render the opposition-controlled legislature useless. They’re succeeding.
Still, the amount of political capital the opposition has lost in a few short months is nothing short of astonishing. How did it all go wrong?
In the early days of January, after the elections board had certified a two-thirds majority for the opposition, the Supreme Tribunal ordered the incoming Assembly not to swear in the four deputies elected from the southern state of Amazonas. The reason was a lawsuit alleging irregularities such as vote-buying.
To cite this specific case after the endorsement of the election board was arbitrary. The Venezuelan Constitution clearly states that once a legislator is certified by the elections board, they have immunity and can only be removed by an impeachment process approved by the Assembly. Yet instead of ignoring the court’s unfounded order, the leadership caved.
Currently, the four Amazonas legislators are still in legal limbo, leaving their state with no representation in the national legislature. Crucially, the opposition also lost the two-thirds majority it won at the ballot box that it needs to name new Supreme Court justices and amend the constitution.
By accepting the court’s order, the opposition sent the message that they were not going to confront established powers. But rather than paving the way to some sort of “coexistence,” their surrender opened the door for institutional railroading by the chavistas. Ever since,the courts have taken away a large portion of the legislature’s powers.
Part of the opposition’s problem is lack of leadership. The grouping is largely a collection of leader-wannabes and each comes with his or her own agenda. They see the National Assembly as a vehicle for self-promotion rather than a way of solving Venezuela’s nearly untenable condition.
Yet as mediocre as Venezuela’s opposition is, it is also more necessary than ever.
Opposition leaders have suffered enormous blows. Leopoldo López is still languishing in jail for made-up crimes. Henrique Capriles is insulted practically every night on TV. Maria Corina Machado faces government goons everywhere she goes. They all have crosshairs on their back.
But putting solidarity aside, the opposition must be supported because only it can ensure democracy in Venezuela.
Whichever failures these leaders or their supporters in the legislature have, they are Venezuela’s only hope for progress and democracy, a needed counter to chavismo’s attempt to create a one-party state. In Venezuela’s current political landscape, there is simply no viable avenue for a third option to emerge that is not linked to either the ruling clique or the flawed opposition.
The country is caught between a government that does not act, and an opposition that acts too little and achieves even less. As noted Venezuelan political scientist Michael Penfold wrote recently, the country waits for a solution to its many crises in the same way that it waits for the rains that will put an end to electricity rationing plaguing the nation.
The status quo, however, favors a government willing to wait out the clock and hold on to power. By not grabbing hold of the political agenda, the opposition is conceding the game to the otherwise inept Maduro.
This is a shame. Venezuela’s opposition still represents the majority of the country’s voters. Their political capital, though, is borrowed at best, and based on widespread frustration with Maduro’s ineptness and the country’s spreading humanitarian disaster.
Venezuela’s opposition may be the pits but they’re indispensable—and they need help.