The post-election situation will push the parties to embrace radical means of resolving the internal political conflict, and the losers, as always, will be the people of Venezuela, exhausted by the severe economic and humanitarian crisis, writes Dmitry Razumovsky, Director of the Institute for Latin American Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The elections to the National Assembly of Venezuela, which took place on December 6, could have created at least the only legitimate body of power in the eyes of both opposing sides. However, through the efforts of the opposition and the authorities, all hopes for a political, constitutional solution to the nation’s acute internal political crisis have again been postponed indefinitely. All parties remained fixated on themselves, and nothing has changed. The losers, as always, are the Venezuelan people.
The election of a new National Assembly was of great symbolic importance for Venezuelan society. During the last elections, in December 2015, for the first time in years, the opposition gained control over parliament, represented by the Round Table of Democratic Unity bloc, which took 109 seats out of 164. The authorities did not want to cooperate with a parliament that was not under their control, and therefore they deprived it of real powers and created a parallel structure — the National Constitutional Assembly. This controversial action, from a legal point of view, laid the foundation for the further escalation of the conflict, the most acute moment of which was the proclamation in January 2019 by the unrecognised National Assembly that its speaker, Juan Guaido, would take the role of interim president. The ensuing crisis is well known among Russians, as it was widely covered in the media.
According to the Constitution of Venezuela, the country’s unicameral parliament has broad powers to control the actions of the government, all major economic projects (including the oil sector) are coordinated with it, and it can appoint its nominees to the highest state bodies: the Supreme Court, the National Electoral Council, etc. When Hugo Chavez was alive, due to his personal popularity and the social achievements and merit of the government, the pro-government United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and after 2011 the Simon Bolivar Great Patriotic Pole (GPPSB), where the PSUV was a main force, were able to gain a majority in fair and recognised elections.
After the crisis entered an acute phase in January 2019, various options to get out of the political deadlock were worked out and voiced, both within Venezuela and abroad. The most frequent call was to hold elections for both the National Assembly and the re-election of the president. Demands for the latter’s re-election were prompted by opposition’s doubts about the integrity of the 2018 presidential election campaign, when key opposition leaders capable of challenging the incumbent president were barred from participating under various pretexts. Early general elections would allow for the resetting the political system, returning legitimacy to the figure of the president, and allowing for a capable, plenipotentiary parliament. Nicolas Maduro categorically rejected such a scenario, insisting that such a procedure was not provided for by the country’s Constitution, and also denied his opponents their objections to the honesty of his victory in May 2018. As a result, the prospects for new presidential elections, even with the possibility of Maduro’s participation, have become illusory, remaining only in the opposition’s rhetoric. The opponents of the current government did not have any real levers to achieve them.
Amid this situation, the elections to the National Assembly remained the only opportunity to at least somehow bring the opposing sides closer together. But elections may be different. It is one thing to conduct a most transparent and fair election campaign with the admission of all the main political forces to participate and ensuring equal opportunities for everyone, including the current government. It’s another option to turn elections into an instrument for solving their own tactical political tasks due to the maximum selectivity of admission to participation and the opacity of the procedures for organising and counting.
The first option, which could be called ideal, optimistic, was practically impossible in the first place. Under any scenario, the radical faction of the opposition would refuse to participate and would try to sabotage the elections. The just demands of the current government that Washington lift sanctions to ensure equal opportunities were, as expected, ignored. On the contrary, we saw the White House’s course towards an even greater escalation of the economic strangulation of Venezuela, which aggravated the humanitarian catastrophe and clearly prevented the government from performing its functions normally, let alone conducting an election campaign. The opposition, which failed to implement a political “blitzkrieg” and quickly seize power at the beginning of 2019, clearly began to lose the support of the population. By the beginning of 2020, voices of disappointment began to sound more and more against Juan Guaido. With such a drop in ratings, fair elections would no longer be so interesting and promising for the opposition leaders; the logic of the aggravation and radicalisation of the struggle began to prevail. Having accused the authorities in advance of an attempt at another usurpation of power by rigging elections, its opponents tried to give a “second wind” to the fading wave of protests.
Thus, there was practically no chance that the Venezuelans would be able to elect a new parliament in a normal way, as it should be for a democratic society, and thereby bring the beginning of the end of their sufferings. But a number of mistakes of the current government are worth pointing out. Of course, the election of a new composition of the National Assembly was in its interests. Convinced that the West (primarily the United States) is not interested in normal, open elections with equal conditions for all, Nicolas Maduro hoped to get a new parliamentary composition loyal to him. Thus, speaker Juan Guaido was deprived of his formal status, and the already very fragile structure of his constitutional claims to the right to be acting president were destroyed. In any event, this would not allow for the resolution of the main, deep-seated causes of the political crisis in the country, but would provide an obvious tactical gain for the current government. In spring and summer of 2020, the authorities committed several actions that were ambiguous in terms of democratic norms. First, there was a very controversial appointment of a new composition of the National Electoral Council — the main body responsible to conduct elections. The National Assembly was denied the right to send delegates, as required by the country’s constitution. Instead of an independent Council recognised by all parties to the conflict, Venezuela received a fully pro-government composition, which, as expected, was not recognised by any of the opponents of the government. Second, the leaders of the main opposition parties were replaced on the basis of dubious decisions of the Supreme Court on legal grounds. That is, the brightest leaders (Juan Guaido, Ramos Allup, etc.) were deprived of the right to participate in elections from their parties. Against the background of such actions, Nicolas Maduro sent letters to the European Union and the UN with a proposal to recognise the elections and send observers to guarantee their fairness. The European Union, which takes a softer position than the United States on the Venezuelan crisis, was certainly interested in not further aggravating the situation, but in seeking at least some way out of the impasse, so the option of recognising the elections was not completely rejected. This was facilitated by the fact that one of the brightest and most popular leaders of the moderate wing of the opposition, Henrique Capriles, unexpectedly for his colleagues in the opposition camp, called for participation in the elections to the National Assembly, even despite all the above-mentioned unconstructive actions of the authorities. At least such elections are better than none. His special position irritated the rest of the opponents of the government, and he was accused of being a traitor and a collaborationist. At the same time, there was a possibility that his participation, even if only with his own party, would legitimise the elections and put the opposition in a stupid position: the elections would take place, there would be no reason not to recognise them, since whoever wanted to could participate. As a result of powerful pressure being placed on Capriles, he was forced to change his mind, refusing to participate. Formally, he expressed solidarity with the position of the EU, which, as a result of long discussions, declared the need to postpone the elections to spring due to the pandemic. It is more than a controversial argument, given that the pandemic caused much less damage to Venezuela than to the United States, where the presidential elections were held in November, and no one demanded that they be postponed.
The Venezuelan authorities have gone their usual way. The PSUV party and its coalition partner, the Great Patriotic Pole, were opposed by the Democratic Alliance, a coalition led by, what many consider, “systemic” opposition leader Henri Falcon.As a result, the elections held on Sunday, December 6, did not bring the end of the acute political confrontation. The main keys to resolving the conflict do not yet lie in the plane of formal institutions of power. Maduro continues to maintain power thanks to the loyalty of the army and the solidarity of his ranks. The opposition will have to rely on absolutely illegal grounds and to explain why Juan Guaido should continue to remain acting head of state, being the speaker of a parliament, whose term has expired. Backing Guaido, the Lima Group issued a joint statement the day after the elections, denying the results and calling for a transition of power. The situation will push the parties to embrace radical means of resolving the internal political conflict, and the losers, as always, will be the people of Venezuela, exhausted by the severe economic and humanitarian crisis. The fatigue of the people is clearly demonstrated by a record low turnout — 31%, according to official data.