Three things to know about the Venezuelan election results

The Venezuelan opposition Movement for Democratic Unity (or MUD by its Spanish acronym) won a major victory over pro-government parties in the December 6 legislative elections. Updated official results show 107 seats for the MUD, 55 for the governing party, 3 representing indigenous communities, with 2 still undecided.

This is remarkable considering the extent to which the government manipulated electoral rules and conditions ahead of the elections. There were a number of reported problems on election day, the most serious of which was to keep polling stations open for up to two additional hours so government supporters could scour voter rolls to find eligible voters who had not yet cast ballots and take them to polling stations. The result was a record 74 percent turnout for legislative elections, with 58 percent voting for the opposition and 42 percent for the government—the mirror image of electoral results in almost all elections since former President Hugo Chávez first took office in 1999. 

In the end, electoral dirty tricks were not enough to prevent an opposition landslide, and President Nicolás Maduro was forced to concede defeat shortly after midnight on December 7. Although the final number of opposition-held seats in the legislature is not yet certain, there are three main questions that should focus our attention over the coming weeks and months:

1. What does opposition control of the National Assembly actually mean? 

Venezuela’s legislative election rules are designed to over-represent the majority party and rural areas. This traditionally favored Chavista parties, but in this election, they have given the opposition a boost in the number of seats they won relative to the popular vote. The opposition has already achieved a three-fifths majority, which enables them to pass laws, approve government-proposed budgets, censure and remove government ministers and the executive vice president, and name new appointees to lead the national electoral authority and new magistrates to the Supreme Tribunal. The MUD has already promised to pass an amnesty law for political prisoners aimed at liberating a number of opposition political leaders imprisoned by the Maduro administration. It has also pledged to move legislation designed to promote economic recovery.

The opposition appears to be within striking distance of securing a two-thirds majority (112 seats), which would allow them a much wider array of powers: to remove the existing electoral authorities (with the support of the Supreme Tribunal), submit legislation to approval by popular referendum, and the equivalent of the “nuclear option” for Venezuelan legislators: convene a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution. But with a few remaining seats in play, it appears that the MUD has more work to do to clear this hurdle and then to maintain discipline among legislators to keep a razor-thin two-thirds majority.

Either way, there is a dangerous gap between the euphoric expectations created by the elections and the actual power of the National Assembly. Not only are legislatures in Latin America typically weak, but the legislative branch has not operated independently thus far during the Chavista period. So many of its potential powers have not been exercised in practice. 

2. What might the Maduro administration do next to limit the power of the legislature? 

Before the vote, there was a general consensus among analysts that President Maduro would try to limit the power of the legislature in the event of an electoral loss. The tactic has many precedents, with the governments of Presidents Chávez and Maduro previously gutting the power and budgets of opposition-controlled elected offices at state and local levels.

One possibility is that the outgoing Chavista-dominated National Assembly that leaves office in January 2016 will simply pass an enabling law (Ley Habilitante) that would allow President Maduro to rule by decree for the rest of his term. There are plenty of precedents for this in Venezuela, although an enabling law that lasted for the remainder of the presidential term would be exceptional. But others have suggested that given the overwhelming opposition victory, such an approach may run too blatantly contrary to public opinion and consolidate popular sentiment against the government.

Instead, the government may simply use the Supreme Tribunal to invalidate opposition-initiated legislation. Of the 32 magistrates appointed to the highest court in Venezuela, 13 judges are retiring. Together with 5 empty seats, that will allow the outgoing legislative assembly to approve 18 new judges. These will join 12 magistrates appointed by the Chavista-controlled legislature in December 2014. With the government appointing so many members of the Supreme Tribunal, it will likely be easy for the Maduro administration to block inconvenient legislative proposals. The question for the opposition then becomes whether it can figure out how to use control of the legislature to affect the composition of the court and dilute the power of pro-government magistrates, something that would undoubtedly set off a struggle among the various branches of government.

3. How is the Chavista movement likely to react to this new scenario? 

It seems unlikely that the Chavista movement will simply accept divided government, something unknown to Venezuela since 1999. There are simply too many in the Chavista movement who cannot afford an “accountability moment” due to alleged participation in official corruption; waste, fraud, and abuse; or drug trafficking. Others will be ideologically opposed to allowing so much power to flow to an opposition-dominated national assembly.

The Chavista movement spans from the military to the governing party to armed pro-government militias and gangs (colectivos). Former President Chávez was adept at keeping the movement together. President Maduro is not nearly as skilled, and with this stunning electoral loss, his leadership within the movement (already damaged by poor economic results) is likely to come under further pressure. 

In a normal country, one might imagine some incentives for both sides to negotiate—the legislature and executive could work together to avert the coming economic catastrophe, for one. And the weakening of President Maduro’s leadership may lead to more open disagreement within Chavismo about the way ahead, allowing the possibility that moderates on both sides will find room to work together. But as journalist and long-time Venezuela observer Francisco Toro has argued, Chavismo is a machine for not negotiating; the selection process for top leadership has been designed to winnow out anyone who would consider sitting down to talk with the opposition. And in such a polarized situation, moderates always run the risk of being targeted by radicals from their own side if they negotiate with opponents.

Get the house in order

All Venezuelans should feel proud (and relieved) that these highly significant elections have been carried out peacefully. But a lot of work remains to be done. 

First, the outside study missions and electoral accompaniment missions need to remain focused on the tabulation process to ensure that the few undecided legislative seats are allocated according to electoral rules and the votes cast rather than government fiat. 

Second, Venezuela is entering a period of divided government, one that will potentially be riven by conflict among the branches of government. The outside actors that have thus far played a positive role—such as regional multilateral institutions, civil society, legislators across the hemisphere, and governments interested in supporting democracy—will need to continue to pay attention to and support favorable outcomes in Venezuela even when the country is out of the international headlines. 

And third, Venezuela’s economy is in very serious trouble now that oil has fallen as low as $35 a barrel. Further economic contraction, poverty rates not seen since before Hugo Chávez took office, and inflation in excess of 200 percent are all expected in 2016. If the government (both Chavistas and opponents) come to their senses and agree to a negotiated plan on how to address the economy, they will need the support of both traditional multilateral financial institutions and non-traditional sources of financing (such as China). 

As the opposition celebrates this major electoral win, it will undoubtedly dwell on the political implications of its victory over Chavismo. But it should not lose sight of the mandate it has now been given to make needed policy changes as well.

Update: As of December 9, 2015, media are reporting that the opposition party has won at least 112 seats, achieving a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.