Venezuela’s Opposition Wins Big, But Maduro’s Still There

Midterm elections gave the anti-Chavista coalition party a simple majority—but the struggle to end economic hardships has just begun.

12.07.15 11:32 AM ET

CÚCUTA, Colombia — Venezuela’s Socialist President Nicholas Maduro appeared on state-run TV early Monday morning to concede his Chavista party’s defeat in Sunday’s crucial mid-term elections. Dressed in a red track suit and speaking in sober but measured tones, Maduro told the gathered media that Venezuela’s “electoral system” had worked “perfectly.”

He went on to cite the impressive voter turnout of 74.25 percent, and called the election “a triumph of the constitution and democracy.”

Indeed, after weeks of speculation that the election might devolve into street battles if one side or the other failed to recognize the results, the vote went off almost without a hitch.

A handful of artisanal bombs were detonated by unknown persons in Táchira state, on the border with Colombia, but no injuries were reported. In all, seven people were arrested throughout Venezuela for “electoral infractions”—a far cry from the politically driven clashes in the street in 2014, in which at least 43 protesters, bystanders, and security forces were killed.

But in the same speech in which Maduro publicly conceded defeat at the polls, the handpicked successor to Hugo Chavez also declared that victory for the conservative Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) party was by no means the end of the road for the Chavistas.

“We lost the battle, but the revolution will continue,” Maduro told his followers, pausing to run his thumb across his handlebar mustache.

“This is not the time to cry,” Maduro said. “It’s the time to fight.”

Unfortunately, for many poor and middle-class Venezuelans, the “fight” has been going on for a long time. A triple-digit inflation rate, chronic shortages of consumer goods, and a rampant crime wave—combined with the cratering price of oil, which is the nation’s only major export—have brought the onetime economic powerhouse to its knees.

And observers say those factors aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, despite Sunday’s watershed victory for the opposition coalition party.

“Even if the opposition had [control of] the entire government—they’d still have to deal with these problems,” said Mark Weisbrot, director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), in an interview with The Daily Beast.

According to Weisbrot, criticizing the failures of the Maduro regime, and actually doing something to solve the grave problems facing one of the world’s top oil producers, are two very different things:

“Currency devaluation is very unpopular in Venezuela,” Weisbrot said. “The opposition has blamed the government and attacked the government, but they haven’t put forward a program to solve anything—they don’t really have a unified program.”

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One of the major issues, according to Weisbrot, is that the coalition itself is made up of a hodgepodge of conservative groups—ranging from the political equivalent of moderate U.S. Republicans, to more far-right extremist elements.

The very breadth of the opposition movement, which was instrumental in securing Sunday’s big win, also makes for deep philosophical divisions within the MUD.

“Some of the hardliners don’t really care about governing—they just want to get rid of the Chavistas,” explained Weisbrot. But dethroning Maduro won’t be an easy task. As of Sunday, the opposition now controls a simple majority in the National Assembly, having won 99 out of 167 seats—yet a two-thirds majority would be required to force a recall referendum on the president under the Venezuelan constitution.

Even worse, extreme anti-Chavista sentiments among some newly elected representatives could put far-right delegates at odds with more moderate opposition forces in the Assembly, who “have more of a stake in the political system,” as Weisbrot puts it.

At the same time, differences within the opposition pale in comparison to the bitter animosity that exists between the coalition as a whole, and the far-left Chavistas—who had enjoyed a majority in the Assembly for more than a decade.

“There’s no more status quo after the vote,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), in a cellphone interview with The Daily Beast. “Whatever happens now is a turning point.”

Smilde worries that the deep divide between rival political factions could actually lead the country in “a new authoritarian direction.”

One such scenario could occur if the outgoing assembly voted to grant the president sweeping powers before they left office, allowing him to rule the country by decree. Earlier this year, a similar decree allowed Maduro, a former bus driver, to suspend civil liberties in several Venezuelan states here along the Colombian border, allegedly in an attempt to curb smuggling.

The military crackdown that followed led to grave human-rights abuses and an estimated 20,000 refugees fleeing across the border into Colombia around Cúcuta, according to the UN.

At the very least, said Weisbrot, the tension between the newly conservative parliament, and the Chavista-ruled executive and judicial branches, could make for “a lot of gridlock.”

“Even if the government wants to make economic reforms, congress might not go along,” Weisbrot warns, likening the situation to the schism that developed between President Obama and the Tea Party coalition.

At the heart of Venezuela’s troubles is a fundamental lack of trust between the two sides.

“The opposition doesn’t consider the Chavistas a legitimate government,” said Weisbrot, who co-founded CEPR in 1999.

At the same time, an attempted right-wing coup against Maduro’s predecessor Chavez, in 2002, has led many left-leaning Venezuelan politicos to fear their opponents might pursue “an actual strategy of military overthrow, of toppling the government by whatever means necessary,” Weisbrot said.

For the majority of Venezuelans, however, such concerns are dwarfed by far more tangible threats to individual peace and prosperity.

“We can only go to shop once a week, and you have to stand in line half the day to do it,” said Elcy Patiño, 22, who opted not to cast her vote for either party in Sunday’s election.

“Then, when you finally do get inside the store—there’s not enough of anything to go around. No rice, no sugar, no flour—nothing,” Patiño said.

“I’m afraid the day is coming when we won’t be able to find anything at all.”