Perspectives on Geopolitics, History, and Political Economy

Boycott, conflict and change: Can Venezuela’s president be unseated peacefully?

This article first appeared on openDemocracy

By Daniel Fermín

Venezuelans want to resolve the ‘dangerous’ crisis in their country in a peaceful, democratic, constitutional and electoral manner. Will President Maduro’s regime continue to boycott that possibility?

On December 6, 2015, the Venezuelan opposition won control of the National Assembly (AN) for the first time since chavismo rose to power, 17 years ago. In a landslide victory, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) achieved 112 of the 167 seats in Parliament. It was truly an unprecedented event that goes beyond the normal implications of a political power shift.

To understand the magnitude of this occurrence, we must refer to the political structure in revolutionary Venezuela. In 1998, Hugo Chávez won the presidency promoting his Bolivarian Revolution, which in 2006 he labeled as Socialist. A new constitution was drafted, that saw the classical three-branch model of government extended to five. Thus, Venezuela is now divided in the Executive, Legislative, Judicial, Moral and Electoral branches.

Can a weakened chavismo govern without a docile congress?

In practical terms, however, these distinctions mattered little. Chávez’s power, cemented on charisma and oil prices over $100 per barrel, extended to his control over all five branches of government. More so, revolutionary officials began referring to the democratic principle of separation of power as counterproductive to the consolidation of the revolutionary system. Such was the case of Luisa Estela Morales, former Chief Justice of Venezuela, who in 2009 declared that separation of powers weakened the state.

For 17 years, the Venezuelan parliament was perfectly aligned with the executive, and the case could be made that it was subservient to it. That is the key to understanding why the MUD’s triumph was so significant in changing the political landscape in Venezuela. Can a weakened chavismo govern without a docile congress?

The aftermath of December 6 has been characterized by a systematic attack on the National Assembly by the socialist regime and its institutions. The Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) has been the go-to institution to neutralize the constitutional powers of the assembly. Popular support is at an all-time low, but chavismo had planned for this ahead of time. Two months before the legislative elections, and violating several constitutional provisions, the then government-controlled National Assembly led a speedy and irregular process to appoint new, party loyal, justices to the TSJ.

The actions of the Supreme Tribunal have constituted a true boycott of the National Assembly in favor of the executive power.  In six months the tribunal has:

– stopped three congressmen from the indigenous Amazonas state from swearing in, preventing the opposition from exercising its supermajority
– declared numerous bills passed by the new AN as unconstitutional, including an amnesty law intended to free political prisoners and a law to give homes to beneficiaries of government housing programs
– approved special powers for the president, over the AN’s negative decisions
– limited the assembly’s constitutional task of controlling the government, by excluding the other branches and the Armed Forces from being subject to interpellation from the assembly

The opposition had run its campaign on two main issues: the economic crisis and political change, specifically change of government. 

The strategy seems to aim in two directions: The first one, to render the assembly useless, both in practical terms as well as in the eyes of the Venezuelan citizens. This has been a recurrent practice of the regime. In 2013, when the opposition won the Metropolitan Mayoralty of Caracas, the executive drastically reduced its competences, awarding them to a new, non-elected office, created for the occasion, known as the Head of Government of Caracas, directly appointed by the president. When government forces failed to oust former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles as Governor of Miranda state, a new ‘protectorship’ of the state, named Corpomiranda, was granted to the losing candidate, with a higher budget than the elected — and constitutional — office of Governor.

The second direction is to make the opposition-controlled National Assembly seem co-responsible for the severe crisis in Venezuela. In the months after the election, government campaigns have often cited the fact that, despite its electoral promises, the opposition hasn’t been able to turn the situation around, even though they are now ‘in power’. This is, of course, misleading, as the National Assembly does not have the competences to dictate changes in government policies and the bills passed in that direction have been boycotted by the TSJ.

Chávez’s death coincided with the end of the latest oil price boom, and Mr. Maduro was left with a bill he couldn’t pay.

The opposition had run its campaign on two main issues: the economic crisis and political change, specifically change of government. With its legislative initiatives repeatedly shut down by the TSJ, the assembly focused on constitutional alternatives to remove President Nicolás Maduro from power. After pondering different mechanisms, such as a constitutional amendment to shorten Maduro’s term, and the president’s resignation, the opposition settled on a Recall Referendum. This has been met by, again, many obstacles, coming from the TSJ and now, also, from the National Electoral Council (CNE), controlled by the regime. The process to activate the referendum has been severely stalled by new, discretionary steps and regulations, in an effort to avoid an election that Maduro would surely lose, according to the polls.

How did we get here? The nature of the Venezuelan crisis

But how did chavismo, an electoral powerhouse that easily won the vast majority of all elections in the last 17 years, end up in this situation, evading a new vote at all costs? The answer lies in the collapse of the economic model promoted by the regime and the severe crisis it generated. The Venezuelan socialist economy relied exclusively on oil exports and sustained high oil prices. In 17 years, chavismo failed to diversify the economy, and instead saw thousands of industries and businesses close as the state increased its hold on the economic sector, relying on imports instead of national production. Chávez’s death coincided with the end of the latest oil price boom, and Mr. Maduro was left with a bill he couldn’t pay.

The regime’s support has eroded, even among chavistas.

The Venezuelan crisis is the worst in the country’s history. According to a recent poll carried out by the Center for Political Studies at Andrés Bello Catholic University, 86% of Venezuelans perceive the situation as being negative. 62% think it will only get worse in the next twelve months. The main concerns are food and medicine scarcity and rising crime rates. Venezuelans have grown accustomed to long queues in order to access the most basic needs, the majority of which they can’t find, even after spending hours in line. Over 60% of the population blames the government and the president directly for the crisis, and while 51% say they trust the National Assembly, only 26% claim to have any in the president.

The regime’s support has eroded, even among chavistas, with over half of them claiming to be followers of the late Chávez, but not of Maduro. According to a study by Venebarómetro, 68% of Venezuelans want elections to remove Maduro from power and 61% think he should resign. In regards to a Recall Referendum, this poll shows that Maduro would lose 60% to 28%. As for the actions of the Supreme Tribunal, 40% believe its actions constitute a direct boycott of the National Assembly, and an additional 22% expressly indicate that the TSJ acts on behalf of the president.

Poverty has risen to 48%, according to official data. Comparatively, it stood at 45% in pre-Chávez 1998. According to other estimates, calculated by the three most renowned Venezuelan universities, poverty has shot up to 70% of the population. The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict registers 21 street protests a day, most of them having to do with food scarcity, social matters and the collapse of public services such as electricity and water, both controlled by the state. International reserves stand barely at $12 million and inflation has been calculated to be at anywhere from 300% to 1000% by the end of 2016. Jobs, infrastructure, quality of life have all deteriorated.

Where we’re at and what lies ahead

2016 has been a year of crisis and conflict in Venezuela. Institutionally, we bear witness to a clash between branches of government. One, the National Assembly, aspiring to control the government and push for political change. The other four, along with the ever-present Armed Forces, dead-set on defending the status quo and weathering the storm.

The regime is finding it more and more difficult to outright stop a Recall Referendum by the opposition, as the MUD has overcome every obstacle thrown its way and complied with all the steps required to activate this constitutional mechanism. Therefore, the Bolivarian government has its sights set on deferring the referendum to 2017. The reason being that Venezuelan laws indicate if Maduro were to be recalled before 2017, elections would have to be held within 30 days to choose a new president. However, if the referendum were to take place after January 10, 2017, then no new elections would take place, and the vice-president would assume office for the remainder of the term, until 2019. This would keep chavismo in power regardless of the electoral results. Former assembly president and government party strongman, Diosdado Cabello, has already explained a formula to bring Maduro back to power, should he lose the referendum: The recall would take place in 2017, and whoever is vice-president would then assume the presidency, appoint Maduro vice-president, and resign, resulting in Maduro being, once again, president. This is blatantly undemocratic and constitutes a mockery out of the spirit of the constitution, but it’s also the logic and framework chavismo is working with.

Meanwhile, the crisis deepens. Scarcity is everywhere, and not even the black market can supply Venezuelans with basic products and services. Crime is up; looting of food and supplies is up, with over 254 cases in the first five months of 2016. Violent backlash by police and military forces against peaceful demonstrations is increasing, with several wounded and at least three deaths in separate incidents in the last week. The institutional conflict between the National Assembly and the regime-controlled branches of power is also reaching dangerous levels, with opposition members of Congress being violently attacked on several occasions not only by military and police forces, but also by paramilitary armed groups that support the government, called colectivos, as the president threatens to indict the members of the assembly for treason for asking for the right to speak at the Organization of American States.

Many ask if Venezuela is going through a transition. One would have to question where to. At this time, it is unclear if Venezuela is transitioning from a hybrid regime to a more autocratic one, or if this is a slow and difficult transition to democracy.

Many challenges lie ahead, for the National Assembly and for Venezuelan democracy in general. The first and most important one is resolving the economic crisis and, especially, finding ways to do so without shock measures that would greatly affect the majority of Venezuelans who live in poverty. The rebuilding of effective and responsive democratic institutions, guided by clear rules and law, is another major challenge, as is the reconstruction of the political community in a country where government and opposition parties have no relations at all and refuse to sit down with one another.

Venezuela is in turmoil, and Venezuelans want change. Over 98% of Venezuelans, according to UCAB’s study, value elections as the preferred means to achieve that change. Venezuelans want to resolve the crisis in a peaceful, democratic, constitutional and electoral manner. Will the regime continue to boycott that possibility? If so, what can we expect in a country where social tensions rise every day as the government seems incapable of satisfying its citizen’s demands? What role will the National Assembly have in this process, and will it finally find a way to exert its clear majority? In all, it is a very dangerous scenario, in which, today, we have more questions than answers.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.

About the author

Daniel Fermín (Twitter: @danielfermin) is a researcher at the Center for Political Studies, Andrés Bello Catholic University (UBAC) in Caracas, Venezuela.

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