CARACAS—After nearly two decades of increasingly consolidated rule, Venezuela’s socialist revolution suffered a serious setback on Sunday when it lost control of the country’s legislative branch to a coalition of underfunded but determined opposition parties known as MUD.
(video by Mariana Atencio, Lindsay Garfield, Randy Sommers, Evelyn Baker)
The congressional election was—in many ways—a referendum on Venezuela’s spiraling crime rates and crippling economic problems, a one-two punch that seems to have weakened support for the Bolivarian revolution started by the late President Hugo Chávez.
“The first time I ever voted I voted for Chávez,” said Carlos Solano, a musician from downtown Caracas who turned up at the MUD’s post-election celebration in the wee hours of Monday. “But back then we didn’t have the product scarcities or the insecurity that we have now.”
The election turned out to be a landslide for the opposition, with electoral officials announcing after midnight that MUD had clinched at least 99 of 167 seats in the legislative National Assembly. The ballots for 22 seats are still being counted, which could widen the opposition’s majority victory in the days ahead.
This congressional victory gives the opposition the rare chance to gain a foothold and start to increase its leverage over public policy in a country where the ruling socialist party controls all the branches of federal government and much of the media. With the exception of a failed 2007 referendum attempt that would have given Chávez’s indefinite reelection, the ruling party has won every major election in Venezuela for the past two decades.
Sunday’s win for the opposition could also be good news for dozens of jailed activists who participated in anti-government protests last year. One of MUD’s main campaign promises was to push for a congressional amnesty for political prisoners.
“Change has arrived,” Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, told reporters at a packed press conference. “Today Venezuelans voted in large numbers and liberated themselves with their vote”
Election Day was mostly peaceful, except for one incident where a man threatened voters with a grenade outside a polling station in Caracas, before accidentally blowing himself up.
As the sun set, however, opposition poll watchers complained the ruling party was trying to manipulate the results by keeping voting centers open past the scheduled closing time in a desperate last-ditch effort to get more government loyalists to the ballot boxes.
Government supporters denied the accusations, arguing that Venezuelan law allows for centers to remain open as long as voters are still in line. As a result, there were several hours of tension last night as the opposition wondered when the polls would close and when the ballot counting would be complete.
But shortly after 1 a.m. the head of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council appeared on TV to announce the first round of election results, giving the opposition 99 seats to the government’s paltry 46.
The announcement sparked an impromptu street party in front of MUD’s headquarters in Caracas, with cars honking and people dancing to folk music in the street. Activists hugged and cried while some MUD supporters celebrated by drinking a glass or two of rum, despite the temporary election day alcohol ban.
“This [win] feels like a breath of fresh air,” said Andreina Azpuria, a relieved mother of two, who mingled with strangers dancing Afro-Venezuelan music. “This election is a little light that keeps us alive and gives us strength to keep on fighting.”
Although MUD is enjoying a moment of unbridled optimism, analysts caution about how much the opposition can actually do in congress to tackle the country’s day-to-day problems, particularly its economic meltdown.
Part of the problem, according to David Smilde, a Venezuela scholar at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), is that the judicial branch and the presidency can still veto legislation that comes from congress. Smilde also warns that if the new class of opposition lawmakers focuses too much on political issues, such as trying to push for a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro, it will only heighten the country’s polarization.
“We’re going to see a lot of power plays from both sides, and the ones who lose could end up being the Venezuelan people,” the WOLA analyst said.
In a best case scenario MUD’s victory could open a space for negotiations between the government and opposition over pressing issues related to the economy such as Venezuela’s spiraling inflation rate and stifling foreign exchange controls. But there’s still no guarantee that the opposition’s victory will give them a louder voice on those issues, even though the poll results show that the government’s brand of socialism is no longer popular with most Venezuelan people.
“Chavismo has a history of ignoring setbacks,” said Juan Nagel, a blogger for the opposition leaning website Caracas Chronicles.
President Maduro accepted defeat, despite pre-election threats that he would ask his supporters to “take to the streets” if the opposition won. But Maduro is not showing any signs that he’s willing to work with the opposition. He blamed Sunday’s massive defeat on business elites who are allegedly hiding food from the Venezuelan people and waging an “economic war” against his government.
“There is no opposition in Venezuela,” Maduro thundered. “What he have here is a counterrevolution.”
In that case, score one for la contra-revolution