In Venezuela, a need for magnanimity in victory

An election provides a stunning win for pro-democracy forces over a domineering ruler. Now Venezuela, with the world’s worst-performing economy, needs handshakes across a big political divide to make reforms.

Jesus Torrealba (C), secretary of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD), smiles next to deputies elected in Sunday's parliamentary elections, during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, Dec. 8.

Corruption and economic bungling have long hung over Latin America’s fragile democracies like a hive of killer bees. More often than not, however, democracy itself has provided a necessary corrective. Last month, for example, an election in Argentina gave fresh hope for a turnaround from financial disaster. Now a vote in Venezuela stands to fix a flawed democracy and pull this oil giant out of a deep recession.

The Dec. 6 vote for a new National Assembly was an electoral marvel. A coalition of different opposition parties, known as Democratic Unity, was able to adhere to nonviolent tactics and triumph against immense adversity. The increasingly authoritarian regime of President Nicolás Maduro controls major media and had put many opposition figures in jail. The coalition’s success at the polls sets a model for the region in how to hold fast to democratic principles.

The alliance’s win was so huge – nearly two-thirds of legislative seats – that the so-called revolution begun by the late populist Hugo Chávez in 1998, and carried on by Mr. Maduro since 2013, will now likely lose its allure. The ruling party’s socialist policies and mismanagement have turned a country with the world’s largest petroleum reserves into its worst-performing economy, according to the International Monetary Fund. Inflation is out of control and basic goods are in short supply. Many of the poor who once idolized Mr. Chávez have now abandoned his successor.

Despite that, Maduro remains the president, at least until 2019. The opposition must quickly learn how to govern. Uniting to save a democracy is easier than staying united to manage one.

The alliance’s leaders have different ambitions and policies. Even if it stays together, it must somehow negotiate with Maduro. Too many reforms are needed to right the economy. Venezuela cannot afford divided government.

The ability of the coalition to wisely use what remained of democracy to win the election should convince it to stick together and use its strength to reach out to a much-weaker Maduro. Each side now controls key levers of government. But the instinct for power plays must be suspended. Venezuela’s democracy has been given a rescue. Now its economy needs one.

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