How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has never had a chance to move into his country’s official presidential palace, which is still occupied by the daughter of his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez. And after yesterday’s crushing legislative defeat, odds are that Maduro will never need to call the movers. The prospects of him completing his term, which ends in 2019, are growing dimmer by the day.
“I’m not sure if Maduro can survive this,’’ Vanessa Neumann, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told me. “He faces the threat from the opposition as well as a palace coup. I give him less than a 50 percent chance of finishing his term in office.” An ashen-faced Maduro acknowledged defeat early this morning, saying that his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) would accept the results, which had been projected by most polls.
According to the National Electoral Council, the Democratic Unity coalition (known by its Spanish acronym MUD), won at least 99 of the 167 seats in the National Assembly. The PSUV won 46, and 22 remain too close to call. The MUD won about 58 percent of the popular vote that has so far been tallied, with the PSUV trailing at 42 percent.
The Electoral Council is expected to release full results later on Monday. If the MUD wins 112 seats, the party will have a supermajority, which would allow it to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution and start procedures to hold a recall referendum against Maduro. Even with 99 seats, the party will be able to pass an amnesty law to free political prisoners and set the legislative agenda.
“The country wants change, and that change is beginning today,” MUD’s leader, Jesus Torrealba, told cheering supporters after Maduro conceded. “We won’t persecute or condemn those who think differently than we do.” Outside the MUD’s headquarters, jubilant supporters lit fireworks and honked car horns.
The MUD’s victory, which had been forecast by most public opinion polls albeit with much lower margins, dealt a body blow to Chavismo, the social movement created by Chavez. It was also the latest strike against leftist regimes in the region, following the election of a conservative business leader in Argentina and moves to impeach Brazil’s president.
In some ways, Maduro’s eventual defeat was set in motion well before the election. Handpicked by the dying Chavez to succeed him, he was always viewed as a surprise choice. A former bus driver and union leader, Maduro was singled out as being representative of the country’s poor and working class. In truth, part of his appeal was that he posed no threat to Chavez while he was still alive, unlike other potential successors. He also had the blessing of Cuba’s Castro brothers, an important consideration, Purcell said.
“He is a complete revolutionary, a man of great experience despite his youth, with great dedication and capacity for work,” Chavez said when naming Maduro as his heir apparent. Chavez further urged his supporters to back Maduro to continue the revolution.
Maduro tried to mimic his mentor, invoking his name at every chance. But he often misspoke and made gaffes, once even saying that the departed Chavez had appeared to him in the guise of a bird, tweeting advice. Maduro, who styled himself as a “son of Chavez,” couldn’t compete with his predecessor’s lively speaking style and common touch.
Things got worse in the last few weeks when two relatives of his wife were arrested in Haiti for allegedly trying to sell cocaine to undercover U.S. agents. The pair are now in New York, awaiting trial.
But yesterday’s rebuke was much more than could have been predicted from his lack of charisma and the scandal.
“The key to his undoing was the economy,” Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy, told me. “The more than 50 percent drop in oil prices has hit the economy hard.” Indeed, Venezuela sits on the world’s largest oil reserves, but has struggled to increase output. Oil sales account for 95 percent of the country’s hard currency, an especially important fact in a country that imports 70 percent of the goods it consumes.
The economy is expected to contract by at least 10 percent this year, and inflation is raging at more than 150 percent annually. Shortages of basic foodstuffs, medicines, and spare parts are common as Maduro has slashed imports to free up dollars to service his country’s foreign debts and avoid a default.
Maduro and his party asked voters to give them more time to make the economy better, blaming the downturn on a so-called war against their policies by the country’s business elite and outsiders such as the United States and Colombia. He also promised to continue Chavez’s social programs, pledging to increase pensions, scholarships, and public housing.
But his inability to take strong steps to halt the economic decline led to a steady erosion of his support among the poor, his bastion of support.
Guillermo Blanco was one person who turned away from Maduro. A 65-year-old farm laborer in the central state of Aragua, Blanco had voted for Chavez, Maduro, and the PSUV in each of the preceding 19 elections since 1998. Yesterday, he decided to stay home.
“I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the opposition but Maduro is no Chavez,” Blanco said. “The economy is a disaster, and I have to wait hours in line just to buy food. There are no seeds to plant, no fertilizer nor insecticides. Prices are constantly going up, and I can’t survive.”
Although Maduro pledged this morning to continue to fight to protect the revolution, most of his energies will likely go toward fending off potential challenges to his rule. Although his party lost control of the assembly, Maduro still wields tremendous power and enjoys the backing of the armed forces, for now.
“Maduro still has one month remaining on a law that gave him special powers to rule by decree,” said Neumann. “He could create a new, parallel assembly that would have more powers.” There is precedent: Chavez and Maduro have created parallel governments for some states and cities where the PSUV lost elections. The new bodies usurped many of the functions of the institutions they were created to replace.
Another option is that the outgoing assembly, in which the PSUV has a large majority, could vote to extend special powers to Maduro, thereby undermining the powers of the incoming body. The new assembly takes office on January 5. [Such a step wouldn’t be out of line for Maduro and the PSUV, which has taken similar steps in the past. But in the current environment, such a move would risk international, and more importantly South American censure.
But Maduro may also face challenges from within his ruling circle, analysts said. With yesterday’s defeat, Maduro is increasingly viewed as a liability by businessmen who have enriched themselves during the last 16 years of the socialist revolution, as well as the top brass of the country’s military who have similarly profited.
PSUV activists, who face gubernatorial elections next year, and mayoral elections in 2017, are alarmed by yesterday’s vote. The PSUV currently controls all of Venezuela’s 20 statehouses. They stand to lose up to 15 if current trends continue, says Tarek Yorde, a Caracas-based political consultant who previously worked with the PSUV.
“People—the new business elite, military men, and militants—were worried before,” he says. “Now they are panicking. They know investigations are going to be opened, and they fear they could lose their positions, their power. Given that, Maduro is viewed as expendable.” And with Maduro’s approval rating hovering around 25 percent, he could be recalled if MUD legislators move quickly to start a referendum.
The question is who could replace him in the short term. His current vice president, Jorge Arreaza, who is married to Chavez’s daughter, is seen as too young and inexperienced. The president of the outgoing National Assembly, Diosadado Cabello, is even less popular than Maduro. Yorde said that the PSUV may reach out to one of Chavez’s old guard as a possible replacement.
But for Maduro, the ride might be coming to an end. “Maduro is too much of a threat to not only their positions but to their pockets,” says Yorde about the business elite and military. “I give it less than a 30 percent chance that he finishes out his term.”