The Beginning of the End of Chavismo?

After sixteen years in power, Venezuela’s revolutionary socialists look vulnerable.

President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela visits Quito, Ecuador, September 21
President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela visits Quito, Ecuador, September 21 (Prensa Miraflores)

Sixteen years after Chavismo took hold in the country, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) could — for the first time — lose its parliamentary majority. Elections in December will test the party’s ability to withstand growing discontent and support for a united opposition.

The majority of opinion polls place support for the opposition between 50 and 60 percent with government backing at roughly half that number.

The PSUV currently has 96 out of 167 seats in the National Assembly against 63 held by their opponents who would need 84 for a majority.

Ever since the PSUV’s president, Nicolás Maduro, took office following the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, in April 2013, he has faced an uphill struggle.

As oil accounts for 96 percent of Venezuela’s exports, the economy has been shattered by plummeting oil prices, now at a low of $38 per barrel. Inflation is believed to be at 120 percent (government data has not been released since December 2014) and there have been food shortages, power outages, mass anti-government protests and mass arrests.

There have been more than 2,800 demonstrations this year alone with Venezuelans taking to the streets for better social rights, jobs, basic services, education and solutions to food shortages. The government’s inadequate response has led to lootings and robberies.

With prices of essential household goods rising by an estimated 15 percent a month, Venezuelan central bank reserves at a twelve-year low of $15.3 billion and the economy expected to shrink 10 percent this year, the situation has clearly spiraled out of control.

Maduro’s most recent attempt to stop the rot — last month’s announcement of a 30 percent increase in the minimum wage and a cap of 30 percent on profits from the sale of household items — seems too little, too late.

Critics accuse the president of deflecting attention from his administration’s economic shortcomings by stoking international tensions. He has tried to apportion blame for increased rates of criminal activity, inflation and food shortages to Colombian nationals residing in Venezuela illegally. The governments claims they are buying subsidized Venezuelan goods and selling them at an enormous profit across the border in Colombia. Following Maduro’s call for a state of emergency along the western frontier of Venezuela, 1,500 undocumented Colombians have been deported. 20,000 more, fearing for their safety, have left of their own volition.

The most recent escalation of conflict came in September when opposition leader Leopoldo López was sentences to fourteen years imprisonment for inciting violence during protests last year. The opposition has been galvanized and united by what is seen as a politically motivated sentence. Jesús Torrealba of the big-tent Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) hopes the criticism will translate into an electoral victory in December.

Should MUD win a majority, though, it will have more to do with the disenchantment most keenly felt under Maduro than any great affirmative support for the opposition’s policies.

Many Venezuelans have appreciated social spending reaching 60 percent of economic output as well as the nationalist rhetoric and an apparent commitment to popular participation under PSUV rule. So while 70 percent of voters disapproves of Maduro’s management, 53 percent are equally disapproving of the opposition, long marred by factional infighting and tainted with pre-Chávez failures.

Although Maduro has continued with rule by decree, nationalizing private enterprises and maintaining social programs, his move in February to liberalize exchange rates resulted in the fracture of — and protests from — his traditional support base. As things stand it would seem that the curtain is closing on his presidency.

But the election processes may yet frustrate the opposition’s efforts to achieve a majority in the National Assembly. Circumstances have been so manipulated that the odds are always stacked in the ruling party’s favor with an imbalance in media coverage and public funds financing their political campaigns.

Nine of the opposition’s most prominent candidates have been barred from running due to alleged inconsistencies in financial disclosure.

Maduro has also kicked out independent observers. This hardly inspires confidence in the election’s outcome.

Even if the MUD were to deprive the Socialists of their majority, it would not lead to immediate changes as loyalists continue to dominate the executive, judiciary and military leadership.

In 1999, Chavismo swept in to replace a regime that was accused of corruption, economic mismanagement and political unaccountability. In December, the opposition will argue the same is true. Recurring themes are hard to shake. Whatever the outcome, more hardship awaits ordinary Venezuelans.