By Juan Andres Misle
By the end of December 8th, 2015, two days after the first round of results for Venezuela’s parliamentary election were announced, the final count was in: The opposition coalition comprised of 29 political parties, known for its acronym MUD, had won a total of 112 seats in Venezuela’s 167-seat national assembly, including all three seats specially reserved for indigenous representation. The government’s PSUV party by contrast, gathered a mere 51 seats. Participation at the ballot box hovered at 75% of the population, a record for parliamentary elections.
This was a historic win for the opposition coalition as much as it was a blow for the PSUV who for over a decade had a complete control over Venezuela’s legislative branch’s uses and abuses. The MUD’s victory went far beyond the 84 deputies simple majority needed to designate parliamentary authorities, and a dozen surplus needed for a ‘qualified majority’ of 100 deputies in order to issue a vote of no confidence to the Vice President and cabinet ministers, which may pave the way for impeachment. With a total 112 deputies, the Democratic Unity Roundtable – MUD – has an exact two-thirds majority necessary to institute profound institutional changes from the country’s budget priorities to calling for a constitutional assembly. The new parliament will also now be able to constitutionally remove Supreme Court Magistrates and issue calls for national referendums.
85% of the electorate express discontent with the direction of the country. Some of these dissatisfactions are the direct result of social and economic policy that have resulted in:
- Increase in poverty: After the government failed to publish the latest figures on poverty and inflation, a study produced by the country’s top public and private universities concluded that based on incomes, 73% of households are currently in conditions of poverty, the highest levels since 1975.
- Economic projections by the International Monetary Fund indicate GDP will shrink by 10%, the most severe contraction in the world after Syria.
- Widespread corruption: Venezuelan government institutions, from the military to the courts are widely viewed negatively inside the country. Jorge Giordani, the country’s economic guru who served as Hugo Chavez’s Planning Minister until last year, revealed last year in an open letter that as much as $25 Billion had been lost through one of the country’s exchange rate regimes.
- Crime: A 2014 report by the United Nations found Venezuela to have the second-highest murder rate in the world.
What caused this debacle for the status quo within Caracas? Maduro points to what he calls an ‘economic war’ waged by a coalition of counterrevolutionary forces, included (and not limited to): The U.S. State Department, business groups, the opposition, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Colombian paramilitaries and smugglers infiltrated within the country; an international right wing conspiracy he dubs the Madrid-Bogota-Miami axis.
The problem? After more than a decade of usual suspects, and near-monopolization over the country’s massive resources and institutions, surveys overwhelmingly suggest this narrative is no longer working. A recent Pew Research Center study revealed Venezuelans disapproving of President Maduro’s handling of virtually every key issue, including rising prices, crime, corruption, unemployment, and even relations with both the U.S. and Cuba. The study concluded that 46% blames the government for the country’s economic problems, 43% blame low oil prices, and only 6% point economic woes to the United States.
Less emphasized during the campaign were the actual proposals by the MUD coalition to alleviate mounting social ills. Given MUD’s internal ideological and strategic diversity, governing as an alternative has always been subject of internal disputes between the 29 parties inside the coalition to arrive to an agreement on policy prescriptions. Nonetheless, the campaign was not content-free. The in-coming National Assembly has expressed a commitment to prioritize solving economic problems by boosting national production and measures to institutionalize social projects. Debate can be expected for some of the following proposals:
- Amnesty Law: The main non-economic proposal where there is broad consensus across the opposition is an amnesty proposal similar to the one Hugo Chavez benefited from in 1994 after his failed military coup attempt two years earlier. It seeks to free more than 80 political prisoners, including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, recently sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison for his role in last year’s protests. The case’s main prosecutor recently fled to the United States and called the trial a ‘sham.’ President Maduro has vowed to block the measure.
- Property titles to public housing beneficiaries: A proposed law with the backing of all major opposition parties seeks to give property titles to those who have benefitted from the government’s ‘Gran Mision Vivienda’ subsidized housing project. Supporters of the initiative assert that granting titles to people who are already living within these households is a source of economic empowerment that bolsters a much needed social cohesion: it opens the doors to resources of financial inclusion for tenants, and protects beneficiaries from having future governments arbitrarily deciding the fate of ‘GMV’ recipients.
- Expand pensions: Dubbed ‘Ley de Pensiones Universales No Contributivas’, this law would include into the current social security system older Venezuelans who were excluded from receiving pensions due to the nature of their work or any other circumstance. The MUD calls this an act of ‘social justice’ in the face of an inflationary economy.
- Recovering Capital lost to corruption: Another proposed measure with broad support establishes mechanisms alongside international cooperation to investigate and bring back public patrimony by repatriating money lost to corruption and foreign banks.
- ‘The Law of love’: Less predominant during the campaign, yet potentially historic, is a measure known as the ‘law of love’ that would establish marriage equality in Venezuela. With the historic election of Tamara Adrian, the region’s first transgender member of Congress – see our August 2015 post – it is expected that expanding LGBT rights will be debated in the new National Assembly. Voluntad Popular – Leopoldo Lopez’s party, which Adrian is a member of – are the main proponents of this law.
Keep an eye for
Henry Ramos Allup/Julio Borges: The main political insiders within MUD, one of these two will most likely be the next president of the new National Assembly. Ramos Allup, a political veteran, is a controversial figure both within the opposition and its detractors. Arguably the most important figure from the old ruling elite still relevant today, he is known for his talent at political maneuvering and is widely viewed as the one most likely to strike backroom deals with the government. Borges, whose party Primero Justicia – where opposition leader Henrique Capriles hails – won more parliamentary seats (33) than any other opposition party in the coalition, isn’t the most charismatic or politically savvy of the bunch, but the rise of his party in recent years might just catapult him to the Legislative branch’s top position.
Miguel Pizarro: At 27 years old, Pizarro is the opposition’s most visible rising star. The son of leftist human rights and labor militants, Pizarro won an overwhelmingly victory in Petare, Latin America’s second largest slum and a bastion of Chavismo, where he was born. A former student leader, he helped lead the 2007 student movement that handed Hugo Chavez’s attempt at indefinite reelection, Chavismo’s first electoral defeat. The young member of Primero Justicia – until last year, a member of moderate leftist parties opposed to Chavez – Pizarro’s leadership as a substitute deputy for the National Assembly has been remarkable: he has promoted legislation aimed at ending violence in sporting events, protecting and promoting the rights of people with HIV/AIDS, and has even put forward reforms to integrate Venezuelan education policy with its Mercosur partners. Now a main deputy in congress, all eyes will be fixed on his ascending leadership.
Delsa Solórzano: Vice President of the social democratic party Un Nuevo Tiempo, Solorzano is a human rights lawyer serving as MUD’s National Coordinator for its Human Rights Commission. An academic, activist, and an elected member of the Latin American Parliament, Solórzano will likely be one of the opposition’s important new faces in the incoming National Assembly.
José Guerra: One of the country’s leading economists, Guerra is a former Central Bank economist and academic with no previous political experience. Despite this, he was able to defeat Chavismo heavyweight (and fellow economist) Jesús Faría in a highly contested district historically favorable to the ruling party. One of the leading proponents of expanding pensions and granting property titles to public housing beneficiaries, he has openly backed Capriles’ economic proposals outlined last July, including a 50 percent increase in the minimum wage for public and private sector employees.
Freddy Guevara: Like Pizarro, Guevara, 29, was also a leader in the 2007 student movement opposing the closing of RCTV network and Chavez’s constitutional reform referendum abolishing presidential term limits. After Leopoldo Lopez’s imprisonment, he has become the new face of Lopez’s Voluntad Popular party, and is one of the most passionate and youthful leaders in Venezuela today.
Intense infighting between the new national Assembly and other branches of government are to be expected. Chavismo still holds the presidency, stacked courts, partisan institutions, most mayors, and all but three governorships. Any attempt at instituting any proposed law may ultimately result in being struck down by the Supreme Court and Maduro himself. However, as said earlier, the opposition will now have a big enough parliamentary majority needed to constitutionally remove Supreme Court magistrates.
‘If this government does not change, it will be changed’ says Henrique Capriles. The suggestion opens the door to a possible national referendum to remove President Maduro from office, a constitutional measure permitted by next year.