February 07, 2016

Venezuela: Setback for the Government

Yohannan Chemarapally

IT was always going to be an uphill fight for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in the parliamentary polls that were held on December 6. With oil prices hitting historical lows in recent years, the oil dependent economy of the country has not been in a healthy state. Oil accounts for 96 percent of the country's export earnings. With the price of oil sliding from $108 a barrel in June 2014 to under $30 a barrel now, Venezuela's oil income has more than halved in the last two years. Under the leadership of President Chavez, the State had introduced ambitious welfare schemes. When the price of oil was high, the socialist agenda of the PSUV, which included free health care and education for the poor, was easily implementable. But with government revenues drying up, there were shortages of essential items. Venezuela imports 70 percent of essential food items. Inflation has also been running very high and was in triple digits. The private sector, never friendly to the government, has resorted to mass layoffs and had a role in the manipulation of currency controls. The government accused the business sector of waging an “economic warfare”, including the manipulation of prices of basic necessities. The “economic war” has also resulted in the enrichment of the tiny elite while sending more Venezuelans below the poverty line. In the first quarter of 2015, profits of private sector banks in the country soared by 72 percent. The private sector in Venezuela continues to occupy the commanding heights of economy. The media controlled by big business has also been playing a key role in vilifying the government. The Venezuelan electorate evidently chose to vote on local issues that affected their daily lives. Certain missteps by the government had also contributed to the worsening of the economy. An opinion poll taken in June revealed that 52 percent of Venezuelans believed that the opposition has “no plan for the nation” but interestingly 67 percent said “that the opposition has votes because of the discontent in the country but it does not have the popular backing”. The feeling among many grass root supporters of the PSUV was that the government was not effective in tackling basic problems, like the shortages in essential commodities. As the results have shown, the PSUV lost in many of its strongholds, populated by the poor and the working class. The ruling party fared badly even in Barinas, the home state of Hugo Chavez. The opposition Democratic Unity Front (MUD) won 56 percent of the vote. This translated into a two thirds majority in the country's parliament. This is the first time since 1998 that the opposition has won a major electoral victory. In the last seventeen years, Venezuela has held twenty elections. The opposition only once before narrowly won a referendum on the Constitution in 2007. The MUD will now occupy 112 seats in parliament, giving it a “super majority” to block new spending on social programmes, grant amnesty to high profile prisoners and overrule other important government decisions. The PSUV will only have 55 seats in the new parliament. The opposition has already started flexing its muscles, threatening to curb government decision making and organise a referendum to recall the sitting president. A two-thirds majority also gives the legislature the power to remove the vice president and cabinet ministers. A section of the opposition leaders have said that one of their first moves in parliament would be to force the government to release the opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez. He was sentenced to a 14 year prison term for his key role in fomenting the violent anti-government protests that rocked the country in the beginning of 2014. Another goal of the opposition leaders is not to allow the democratically elected president to complete his full term in office. There are already signs of open friction among the opposition leaders on the tactics to be adopted after their victory. Very few of them expected that they would get such a big majority of seats in parliament in the first place. The opposition broadly comprises of two factions. An extreme right faction is led by the imprisoned Leopoldo Lopez, Antonio Ledezma and Maria Corina Machado. A slightly more moderate wing is led by Henrique Capriles, who had narrowly lost to Maduro in the last presidential elections. The extreme right wing's priority is the ouster of Maduro and the rewriting of the socialist constitution. The group led by Capriles would prefer the changes to be made gradually through the electoral process. The current Constitution however allows the president to rule by decree for 18 months. This will allow him to temporarily disregard decisions made by the new assembly dominated by the right wing. The stage is now set for a new and decisive confrontation between the forces representing the Left and Right in Venezuela. The legacy of Commandante Hugo Chavez could be at stake if the Left in Venezuela does not get its act together in an expeditious manner. Sections of the Right are already demanding the repeal of key progressive labour and land laws enacted during the time of Chavez. President Maduro was quick to acknowledge defeat saying that the result was a “triumph for democracy and the Constitution”. In his acceptance speech, Maduro said that it was not the opposition that had won. “For now, a counter-revolution that is at our doorstep has won”, the Venezuelan president stated. He blamed the “economic warfare” waged domestically and from abroad for the scale of the defeat but said that “this was not the time to cry but to fight”. Maduro said that there was a year-long campaign by influential sections of the opposition and vested interests in the US to destabilise the Venezuelan economy. He acknowledged that times were hard for the average Venezuelan but said that even getting 42 percent of vote in the prevailing circumstances was an achievement. “We have lost a battle today but now is when the war for socialism begins”, Maduro said in his speech. In the 2010 elections, when Chavez was in command, the ruling party could only get 51 percent of the vote. But when he ran for president two years later he got seven percent more votes. If the “Chavistas” who either abstained or voted for the opposition, return to the ruling party, political fortunes can once again change for Maduro and the PSUV. As a Venezuelan commentator noted, even Chavez would have found it difficult to win the elections that were held in December, given the adverse economic situation that has gripped the country in the last two and a half years since the price of oil started plummeting. Before the December 6 elections, the opposition was loudly proclaiming that the government would not accept results going against it. Venezuela's National Election Commission has been recommended internationally for its efficiency and fair play. The former American president, Jimmy Carter is among those who have praised Venezuela's conduct of elections. He called the election process in the country as “the best in the world”. Fair and free elections however had not prevented the opposition in the past from taking to the streets on previous occasions. When Maduro was elected to the presidency following the death of Chavez, the opposition had staged violent protests claiming that the elections were rigged, leading to the deaths of many innocent people. Reports in the American media before the December elections were suggesting that the Venezuelan government would never accept an electoral verdict against it. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party front runner for the presidency, claimed that President Maduro was preparing to “rig” the elections. After the election results were announced, President Maduro asked for the resignation of his cabinet and outlined new steps to be taken “for the renovation of the revolution”. This will include approval of new legislation to defend social gains. Legislation will be introduced to strengthen the control of workers over key institutions. Maduro said that he would push for a “labour stabilisation” law that would prevent employers from firing their workers till 2018. The television station that was run under the auspices of the National Assembly is proposed to be handed over to the control of its employees. “I want to continue the Grand Missions”, Maduro said, referring to the free education, housing and health programmes, that have been successfully implemented by the government since the coming of Chavez to power. “But will we be able to continue them with the national assembly in the hands of the right”, Maduro asked. Addressing a big crowd of supporters in the second week of December, Maduro called for a “critical and self-critical debate” to assess the reasons for the serious political setback in the December 6 parliamentary polls. “We will get out of this quagmire where the economic war and our own errors have landed us – where bureaucracy and corruption have enveloped the revolutionary process”, said Maduro, acknowledging that the government shared some of the responsibility for the electoral drubbing. A few disillusioned members of the ruling party, who had once occupied senior positions, were openly critical of the president. But the ruling Party remains united with only a few dissident members breaking ranks. President Raul Castro has hailed Maduro's “extraordinary battle” saying that he was sure “that there will be more victories for the Bolivarian Chavista movement” under his leadership. Other Left wing leaders in the region were quick in showing their solidarity with the politically beleaguered Venezuelan leader.