Monday 19 March 2018

Venezuelan opposition hopes for supermajority

Opposition supporters celebrate in Caracas, Venezuela (AP)
Opposition supporters celebrate in Caracas, Venezuela (AP)

Venezuela's opposition rejoiced after its shock triumph in legislative elections but waited anxiously to see if it secured a two-thirds supermajority that could wrest power from President Nicolas Maduro.

The Democratic Unity opposition alliance declared on Monday that it won the minimum number of seats needed to initiate a process to remove Mr Maduro after 17 years of socialist rule.

But the National Electoral Council has been slow to publish results despite the efficiency and transparency promised by the country's electronic voting system, and more than a full day after polls closed two races remained undecided.

The opposition won at least 110 seats in the incoming 167-seat legislature, including three representatives of Venezuela's indigenous community who plan to vote with the coalition, electoral authorities announced on Monday night in their most-recent bulletin. The ruling Socialist party and its allies won 55 seats.

If the two undecided races break the opposition coalition's way it will give it the supermajority needed to sack Supreme Court justices, initiate a referendum to revoke Mr Maduro's mandate and even convoke an assembly to rewrite Hugo Chavez's 1999 constitution.

Even if the opposition falls short, the landslide could unleash intense political battles. Since the late Mr Chavez swept into power, the opposition has never held a branch of government.

Both sides are more accustomed to hurling insults than negotiating across the country's vast political divide, and a protracted power struggle could rip apart an economic and social fabric already in tatters.

Mr Maduro urged his supporters to accept Sunday's results, even as he recalled the long history of US-supported coups in Latin America and blamed the "circumstantial" loss on a right-wing "counter-revolution" trying to sabotage Venezuela's oil-dependent economy and destabilise the government.

"I can say today that the economic war has triumphed," said Mr Maduro, who was surrounded by top socialist leaders in the presidential palace as he mostly pulled phrases from the stump speech he had been delivering before the election.

Hardliners in the opposition seemed similarly entrenched, preferring to talk about ending Mr Maduro's rule before his term ends in 2019 rather than resolving Venezuela's triple-digit inflation, plunging currency and the widespread shortages expected to worsen in January as businesses close for the summer holiday.

Some opposition figures caution that the result has more to do with anger at Venezuela's woes than an embrace of the opposition. While even moderates pledged to use their new leverage to pass an amnesty for opponents jailed during last year's protests, putting food on the table is the priority for most Venezuelans.

"The opposition needs to accept this with a lot of humility," said political consultant Francisco Marquez, who managed one of the winning opposition campaigns. "This was a punishment vote and we will need to show people that we're up to the task."

Voting on Sunday was mostly peaceful, though several ruling party governors, including Mr Chavez's brother Adan, were videotaped braving boos and insults as they entered polling centres. Turnout was a stunning 74%, the highest for a parliamentary election since Mr Chavez ended compulsory voting in the 1990s.

The scale of the political earthquake was such that socialists lost even in Mr Chavez's home state of Barinas, where Adan Chavez is one of several family members holding high office. In the capital, the opposition won by almost 20 percentage points, even prevailing in the emblematic 23rd of January slum where a mausoleum holds the remains of Mr Chavez, who is revered by the poor as their "invincible commander".

It was also a major blow to Latin America's left, which gained power in the wake of Mr Chavez's ascent but has struggled more recently in the face of a region-wide economic slowdown and voter fatigue in some countries with rampant corruption.

Last month, Argentines rejected the chosen successor of president Cristina Fernandez, herself a close ally to Mr Chavez, turning instead to the relatively conservative mayor of Buenos Aires. And In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff is battling impeachment over a corruption scandal in her long-ruling Workers' Party.

Mr Maduro had repeatedly vowed to defend Mr Chavez's legacy in the streets if his party lost, but he softened his tone in his initial post-election comments.

Reining in Mr Maduro, who became president after Mr Chavez died in 2013, will be tough. He still has a near-complete grip on all other branches of government and state institutions, and may be able to outflank a hostile congress when it convenes next month.

However, Mr Maduro also faces the challenge of maintaining the loyalty of different factions of the Chavismo movement, including the military, Venezuela's traditional arbiter of political disputes.

Press Association

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