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12/19/2015 07:00 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2017

Will A Venezuelan Opposition Party's Election Victory Bring Real Change?

An expert discusses the significance of Venezuela's recent elections and Chavez's legacy.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. We recently spoke with David Smilde, an expert on Venezuelan current affairs, about the country's elections and Hugo Chavez's legacy.

On Dec. 6, Venezuela's opposition coalition won the country's parliamentary elections by a landslide, marking the first defeat for the Socialist party since Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999.

The Socialist party's electoral collapse was widely seen as punishment for the country's deep economic and social crisis, and a huge blow to Chavismo, Chavez's ideology. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Venezuela's inflation rate will hit 204 percent in 2016 and the economy will contract by 6 percent.

In the wake of its victory, the Democratic Unity coalition pledged to free over 70 political prisoners. But Venezuela's socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, has vowed to block any amnesty efforts that come his way. "They can send me a thousand proposals for new laws but the killers of a people must be judged and must pay," Maduro said.

The WorldPost spoke to David Smilde, a Tulane professor and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. He lives part of the year in Venezuela, and has researched the country for over 20 years.

The elections marked the first time the Chavismo movement lost a National Assembly majority in 16 years. What does this say about the current political climate?

This election represents a real turning point in Venezuela's recent political history because Chavismo is a government that for 16 years has controlled all branches of government and consistently gotten strong majorities at the polls. Now its popularity has fallen to 20 to 30 percent and it's going to have to deal with a divided government.

This happens to many parties of governments around the world, but Chavismo is a government that defines itself in revolutionary terms. It portrays itself as a government that represents the poor majorities. It's always had this really strong discourse of consensus, of being a revolution, of irreversible change. Now they have suffered this big setback and face a divided government. The second most important branch of the government is the National Assembly, and it is no longer controlled by Chavismo.

It's going to require a real change. Chavismo is going to have to learn how to deal with an opposition and learn to be more democratic, learn how to recognize pluralism, or it's going to become a much more authoritarian government. The opposition won these elections in a system that was created by Chavismo. If Chavismo does not recognize these elections, that would be a new level of authoritarianism. Chavismo is quite exceptional, historically, in the sense that it's the one revolution that has led to socialism -- or an attempt at socialism -- through democratic means. 

What do the election results say about voters' expectations?

I think for voters, this election was really about the economy and everyday life. The situation in Venezuela is very difficult for people. Inflation is well into triple digits and scarcity is up to 80 or 90 percent of some basic goods. People are having a really hard time, and this was to punish the government for their poor economic performance.

Crime is still sky high; the government hasn't been able to do anything about it. This government has not put forward any new ideas in the past couple of years. I think this is what people voted out.

Chavismo is going to have to learn how to deal with an opposition and learn to be more democratic, learn how to recognize pluralism, or it's going to become much a more authoritarian government.

This is also a vote that's ripe for misinterpretation. The two political sides here have been in an all-out fight for political power for the past 15 years, and it looks like this is going to continue this year. 

The real losers, I think, are the Venezuelan people. They need solutions right now to very difficult issues and it's a little hard to imagine, at this point, the government and the opposition sitting down to change the economy and take care of social issues like the terrible citizen security situation. They're all difficult issues to deal with, and they're going to require unpopular measures. It's not clear if the opposition parties are going straight into this, or if they're just going to be fighting over political power.

Did the Chavismo movement's defeat come as a surprise?

No, it didn't come as a surprise. The polls have been really bad for the government all year long. Since the beginning of 2015, there have been long lines because basic goods have been scarce, and it was very clear that the government's economic policies were going to lead to really crushing inflation. The government was basically printing inorganic money at the same time that oil revenues were declining.

I was surprised that the opposition achieved a two-thirds majority, though. With 57 percent of the vote, they got 67 percent of the seats. It's a majoritarian voting system which was created by the government, by Chavismo. It helped them in 2010, but this time around, it totally backfired on them because they're no longer a majority.

To what extent is this shake-up expected to change policies in Venezuela? What are some of the major issues the reconfigured National Assembly is expected to tackle?

I'm sure the first thing the opposition Democratic Unity party is going to try and do is put through an amnesty law to release people it defines or views as political prisoners. That's going to be a fight because none of this has been tested.

The current constitution was written in 1999. Since then, there have been no real checks and balances because the Chavismo government has controlled every branch of government. There are all kinds of things that the National Assembly can do that they've never done before, like interpolating ministers and blocking the budget. But none of these things have happened before. The National Assembly could declare an amnesty for political prisoners, but this could be reversed by the Supreme Court, which is still in Chavismo's hand.

Since [1999], there have been no real checks and balances because the Chavismo government has controlled every branch of government.

There are suggestions that the reconfigured National Assembly wants to work on the economy, but the problem is that much of the economic policy's controlled by the government at the executive level, so it's not clear how much they could do there.

I think they would probably try to push through some policies that would be popular among people. For example, one of the things is to give property titles to people that have benefited from the Housing Mission bills, who have received apartments but cannot get titles to the apartments until after five years. One thing the opposition might do is try to put forward legislation that will give those people titles immediately.

The government's not going to want to work with them on anything. It's going to want to veto everything the opposition does or take it to the Supreme Court. They're probably going to try to put through some popular legislation to see what the government does. 

For much of the past 15 years, the executive has had some version of enabling law that allows it to decree laws without even consulting with the National Assembly. Much of what the National Assembly used to do was simply put forward declarations to support the government or against imperialism, and basically rubber-stamp anything that the executive put forward. They've never brought ministers in for interpolation either, which is a very basic function of a legislative arm.

I think at this point, the most important issue is just getting installed and starting to name the committees and functioning the way a National Assembly should -- as a check on executive power.

What's the likelihood that a reconfigured National Assembly can provide a short-term fix to the country's rapidly failing economy?

It's going to be difficult. If the government could just get a hold of its foreign exchange chaos, gas prices and electricity prices, you could see some recovery within a couple of months, but those are all really difficult policies to undertake, and I'm not sure that either side wants to pay the political costs for that.

To provide a short-term fix to Venezuela's economy, the country would need to free up price controls and raise the price of gas and electricity. There's so much market distortion: Venezuela has pretty ample resources coming in, but a lot of it is like trying to serve water with a sieve. Very little of it gets to the destination, which is the Venezuelan people. A lot of resources gets taken in terms of corruption and contraband. 

The currency is about 100 times overvalued. Anyone who has official access to rate dollars has a huge incentive to use it for capital flight, put money on the black market. So a lot of those dollars never get put toward imports or anything useful. They get taken in corruption. Very little of Venezuelan resources actually get to relevant spending by the government because of these distortions.

All of this suggests something is going on inside the government. There are stakeholders, people that benefit from these distortions preventing the government from changing.

So far there's no indication that there's any desire to work together, and without that, it's a little hard to imagine the kind of real changes they can bring about.

In a best-case scenario, moderates on both sides start trying to take some of these measures together and share the political costs. At this point, ten days after the election, that scenario is a little difficult to imagine. The Socialist government has recognized the electoral defeat but they don’t see it as legitimate, they don’t see any reason to change, they don’t see any problems with their policies, there’s been no sense of reflection or change or collaboration or recognizing the opposition so far.

Much economic policy is controlled by the executive, and the National Assembly can’t just do it on their own. The types of measures that they’re going to undertake are very unpopular ones.

Chavismo, more than anything else, was a rejection of neoliberalism, and all these measures are measures that look very neoliberal. The political costs are too high to take this on on their own. I can only imagine any economic change happening if they work together.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Washington Office on Latin America, and that the new National Assembly will probably try to push through popular, not unpopular, policies.

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