Easier to win than to govern in Venezuela

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 15, 2015


The overwhelming victory by the opposition in Venezuela’s election last week has raised doubts about President Nicolás Maduro’s prospects to complete his six-year term in 2019. As the government’s popularity has sunk, the opposition stands a good chance of forcing Maduro out in a recall referendum which can be convened after April, 2016. However, it will be far easier for the opposition to remove Maduro from the presidency than to put Venezuela back on the path of economic growth and democratic consolidation. The opposition needs to go from unity based on what it stands against to designing a road map which can earn the hearts and minds of Venezuelans who are looking for someone else to take charge.


Contrary to what many observers feared, the Maduro administration conceded the defeat on December 6. The opposition victory has placed Maduro in a tough spot. Although the Venezuelan constitution gives the president more powers than the National Assembly, the commanding opposition majority in the latter will constitute an effective counterpower to limit what the Maduro administration can do. In addition to passing a veto-proof amnesty law to free political prisoners, the opposition-controlled Assembly can also initiate the process for a recall referendum against Maduro. It is widely expected that Maduro will lose a recall referendum if the opposition chooses to go down that path.


The new power they have amassed is sufficient for the opposition to effectively put an end to the Maduro presidency three years ahead of the next presidential election. However, that newly acquired power might be more of a challenge than a blessing for the opposition. To a large extent, the opposition was able to secure such an impressive victory simply based on the unpopularity of the Maduro administration. People voted against Maduro, not for the opposition.


In part, that is because the opposition represents many different things to different people. For some, it is simply attractive because it groups those who are not Maduro. For others, it constitutes an opportunity for moderate reform which will keep in place many of the social programme initiatives implemented by the Hugo Chávez administration since it first came into office in 1999 but with some much-needed adjustments in fiscal policy and institution-building. For quite a few hard-line opponents, the opposition represents an outright rejection of everything the Chávez administration stood for. The big challenge ahead for the opposition leaders is to build a common platform of what it will do in case the democratic process deliver it the opportunity to take charge in the highly polarized oil-producing country.


There is no place where the tension within the opposition is more apparent than in the leadership of the two most relevant opposition figures. Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, the leader of Primero Justicia, is the best-known leader. Having ran a close race against Hugo Chávez in the 2012 presidential election and an even closer race against Maduro in 2013 (after the death of Chávez), Capriles represents a moderate wing in the Democratic Unity Round-table (MUD) opposition. As the governor of the state of Miranda, re-elected in 2012, Capriles has been very critical of the Maduro administration (having accused the government of committing electoral fraud in the 2013 election), but he has also been forced to negotiate and bargain with the government over funding issues, given his position as elected state governor. Capriles attracts people who still sympathize with Chávez but realize that Venezuela must change.


On the other extreme stands the most radical opposition, headed by Leopoldo López, the imprisoned leader of Voluntad Popular, a centre-right movement which also belongs to the MUD opposition coalition. As the former mayor of the wealthy district of Chacao, López has been a far more outspoken critic of the Chávez and Maduro administrations. Having supported the 2002 coup against Chávez, López has been accused of subverting democratic principles to advance his political interests. The Maduro administration secured López’s arrest and sentence using trumped-up charges. His almost two years in prison have led many human rights organizations to denounce the Maduro administration for human rights violations. Since López is expected to be set free by the new National Assembly, he will emerge as a powerful contender for the presidency. In 2012, Capriles defeated López and others in the opposition primaries to select the presidential candidate to run against Chávez. A new confrontation between the two leaders will likely happen again when the opposition chooses its next presidential candidate. López attracts hard-liners more than Capriles but he also scares many moderates away from the MUD opposition.


Defeating the Maduro administration in the legislative election was an undeniable big win for the MUD. However, the challenge ahead for the democratic opposition in Venezuela looms even larger. The opposition needs to go from personifying the rejection of the Maduro administration to offering an attractive roadmap for a country in the midst of a deep social, economic and political crisis.