The End of the Beginning of Chavismo in Venezuela

Of all the plausible scenarios for Venezuela’s parliamentary elections yesterday, the actual outcome is the most positive and, to me, the least expected.

Past midnight last night in Caracas, and more than five hours after polling stations closed, the head of the government-controlled National Electoral Council announced that the opposition Democratic Unity Movement (MUD) had won 99 seats in the National Assembly against 46 of the government’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). The other 22 seats supposedly remain too close to call. Within minutes, president Nicolás Maduro went on air to admit defeat, while blaming an “economic war” for the results.

This is not the outcome most expected six hours earlier, when the National Electoral Council (CNE) illegally ruled that polling stations were going to stay open one more hour, while the state-controlled TV unabashedly called people to vote for the PSUV and there were reports of hordes of government supporters being driven to polling stations. More worryingly, once polls were supposedly closed, and despite having an electronic voting system that should produce results within minutes, the electoral authorities went mute for five hours.

It seemed like déjà vu all over again. In April 2013 something similar happened during the presidential election between Nicolás Maduro and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. The MUD was privately confident that it had won the election, but hours later the CNE announced that Maduro won by 1.5 percentage points. A recent Congressional testimony by Russ Dallen, editor-in-chief of the Latin American Herald Tribune, explained in detail how fraud was committed that night. Was it all happening again?

Privately the MUD said it won 113 seats, which would give it a two-thirds majority with the power to name new directors to the CNE and propose constitutional reforms to be approved via referendum. It could even call for a recall referendum on Nicolás Maduro. A 101-seat majority would empower the opposition to sack government ministers. So the 14-seat difference between what the CNE announced and what the MUD said it won is far from meaningless. It’s critical to determine what’s ahead for Venezuela.

Can we say this is the beginning of the end of chavismo? I would paraphrase Winston Churchill and call it instead the end of the beginning of that political movement that came to power nearly 17 years ago. It won’t be an expedient transition from autocracy to democracy, and the government can still inflict serious setbacks. We are entering uncharted waters in the relationship between chavismo and the opposition. Will Nicolás Maduro discover his inner Montesquieu and start working constructively with an opposition-controlled National Assembly? I doubt it. Will he look to undermine the powers of the Legislative? That’s more likely if precedent is any indication.

Today is a great day for democrats in Venezuela and around the world. But there is a lot of work ahead to rebuild Venezuela’s shattered democratic institutions.