Venezuela: Opposition wins landmark legislative elections signaling political shift in Venezuela
December 7, 2015
Venezuela headed to the polls on 6 December in what were considered the most unpredictable and closely-fought elections in well over a decade. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV), founded by the late Hugo Chavez and led by current President Nicolas Maduro, has ruled the country uninterruptedly since 1999. The 6 December elections were decisive as they were the first elections in which the political opposition was able to make significant gains in the Legislative Assembly and erode the ruling party’s grip on power. Voters took to the ballot boxes on Sunday amidst the worst economic crisis in Venezuela’s recent history, characterized by skyrocketing inflation, chronic shortages of consumer goods and rampant violence and insecurity. Polls published before the elections indicated that the opposition coalition, represented by the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD), was poised to garner a majority in the Legislative Assembly for the first time in 16 years. Voter frustration and MUD’s improved electoral strategy gave them a comfortable lead of nearly 30% over the PSUV just weeks before the election.
The electoral campaign that started in mid-November was characterized by several episodes of political violence, intimidation and allegations of potential irregularities in the elections. Luis Manuel Diaz, secretary general of the Democratic Action party (Accion Democratica, AD), was shot during a public meeting that prominent MUD candidates, including Lilian Tintori, wife of imprisoned politician Leopoldo Lopez attended. Tintori accused the government of orchestrating the attack and saw herself as the potential target. The government quickly dismissed the accusation and denied any wrongdoing in at least five other incidents involving opposition candidates. Furthermore, MUD heavily criticized Maduro’s government for refusing to allow independent international observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union (EU) to monitor the election. President Maduro did permit some international observers to monitor the elections, but this didn’t quell the opposition’s concerns that the government could still manipulate results or cause irregularities. The National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE) has also been in the spotlight due its lack of transparency and independence.
In the end, the elections took place without any major incidents. It was reported, however, that some polling stations remained opened for longer than scheduled and the CNE was criticized for delaying the release of the first results for a few hours. Preliminary figures released by the CNE revealed that voter turnout reached 74.25% of the electorate, which is likely to be the highest voter turnout for a legislative election. With 96.03% of the votes counted, the results point to a landmark victory for the MUD in a clear sign that the electorate rebuked Maduro’s government and his Chavez-inspired economic policies.
The composition of the Legislative Assembly shifted drastically as MUD won 99 seats, representing an important gain over the 65 seats they won in the 2010 legislative elections. In fact, MUD beat all expectations and comfortably crossed the 84-seat threshold needed for a simple majority. The PSUV suffered their biggest electoral blow in history and won just 46 seats, losing 53 seats in this election. 22 seats in the 167-seat Assembly have yet to be confirmed. The power the MUD will have in the Legislative Assembly depends heavily on whether they are able to obtain 101 seats for a three-fifths majority or obtain a two-thirds majority of 112 seats.
The simple majority of 84 seats allows MUD to approve laws and block presidential vetoes. With a three-fifths majority, the party could block the government from appointing ministers and ruling by Executive decree, and MUD could remove cabinet members. A supermajority of 112 legislators could trigger significant changes in the Venezuelan political landscape. The opposition would be capable of appointing members to the Supreme Court and the CNE, and pushing forward referendums and constitutional reforms. However, implementing change wouldn’t be easy. President Maduro reiterated on numerous occasions that he was willing to fight the opposition if the PSUV were to suffer an unfavorable electoral result and that he would support his party in continuing the revolutionary struggle on the streets. It has yet to be seen if the political and social environment will become more polarized or rather if the Legislative Assembly will enter into a political deadlock.
Regardless of the outcome of the elections, FocusEconomics panelists are pessimistic about the country’s outlook. Recession, skyrocketing inflation and low oil prices are expected to push the economy into the worst contraction in over a decade this year. The economic analysts we surveyed this month foresee GDP falling 8.0% in 2015, which is down 0.6 percentage points from last month’s forecast. For 2016, the panel of analysts expects the economy to contract 4.5%, which is down 0.4 percentage points from last month’s forecast.