Monday 23 April 2018

Democratic Unity jubilant at poll win over Chavez heir

Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, celebrates in Caracas, Venezuela, early yesterday.
Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, celebrates in Caracas, Venezuela, early yesterday.

Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas

Ecstatic opposition leaders vowed yesterday to use their new majority in Venezuela's legislature to free jailed opponents of the Socialist government. However they also said they would not move to dismantle popular welfare policies.

The opposition Democratic Unity coalition won more than twice the number of National Assembly seats as the Socialists in elections on Sunday that punished President Nicolas Maduro's government for the country's deep economic and social crisis.

It was the first time in 16 years the Chavismo movement, named for former socialist President Hugo Chavez, lost its majority in the 167-member assembly, and gives the opposition a platform to further erode Maduro's power in the OPEC nation.

The 53-year-old president, who was handpicked by Chavez but lacks his charisma and political guile, quickly accepted defeat in a speech to the nation that calmed fears of violence.

Aware that victory owed more to public discontent with Maduro than love for the opposition, coalition head Jesus Torrealba urged Venezuelans to bury their differences.

"We have been divided for years and the country has won nothing with this historic mistake ... The Democratic Unity is not here to mistreat anyone," said Torrealba in a victory speech yesterday.

Reiterating that an amnesty law will be the opposition's priority when the new assembly begins work on January 5, Torrealba promised to return the rights of "those who have been unjustly persecuted, jailed, blocked from politics or exiled".

Venezuela's best-known jailed politician is Leopoldo Lopez, sentenced to nearly 14 years on charges of promoting political violence in 2014 that killed 43 people. But the opposition has a list of what it says are 70 other political prisoners.

Torrealba also reassured despondent government supporters the coalition would not try to dismantle welfare programs that were wildly popular during Chavez's 1999-2013 rule and which Maduro repeatedly warned they want to end.

With 99 seats to the Socialists' 46 - and results not yet in for the remaining 22 seats - the opposition looks certain to reach a three-fifths majority, meaning it could have ministers fired after a censure vote.

With two-thirds, they could try to shake up institutions such as the courts, widely viewed as pro-government.

"The sheer scale of its victory could potentially give the opposition real teeth as it tries to alter the course of government policy under Mr Maduro," said Fiona Mackie, Latin America analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Even with just a simple majority, the opposition can exercise control over the budget, begin investigations that could embarrass the government, and pass the amnesty law.

Torrealba has also said the assembly will open an investigation into the arrest of two relatives of Maduro, cousins of his wife, caught in a sting in Haiti and indicted in a New York court on charges of cocaine smuggling.

The US, which has had an acrimonious relationship with Venezuela under both Chavez and Maduro, has long accused the Socialists of complicity in the drug trade, as well as human rights abuses.

The government denounces these accusations as lies, and frequently recalls US support for a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez.

Maduro blamed his defeat on an "economic war" waged by business leaders and other opponents out to sabotage the economy and bring him down.

Venezuelans have not in large bought that argument, though, blaming him for the world's highest inflation, shortages from milk to medicines and a devalued currency.

Irish Independent

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