Venezuelan opposition scores surprise win. But don't count Chavismo out.

Though the political opposition took a solid majority of seats in Venezuela's legislature, the ruling Socialists still hold onto many levers of power.

Nacho Doce/Reuters
Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles speaks to journalists during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, December 7, 2015.

Venezuela’s political opposition rode a wave of economic discontent in Sunday’s elections to win the majority of legislative seats for the first time in 16 years. It’s a historic shift for the oil-rich nation that’s spent the past nearly two decades under a socialist regime that had few checks on its power.

The electoral earthquake will give the opposition more control over public spending and a platform to demand amnesties for political prisoners, including its own leaders. The final tally of seats is still underway, but if the opposition wins two-thirds (112 posts) of the National Assembly, it could possibly appoint new judges, or even launch a recall of embattled President Nicolás Maduro in 2016. 

The opposition’s victory marks the beginning of “a new political reality in Venezuela,” says Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political consultant. “No one can say these elections will define the future, but [the results] open the door to change.”

But short-term outlook could be bumpy: The ruling party still holds the presidency and have other tools to resist meddling by the opposition-controlled legislature.

“This [victory] opens a window for the two sides to try and work together, but it’s not the final solution to the polarization and the very big problems Venezuela is facing,” says Mr. Pantoulas.

It's the economy...

Venezuela’s National Electoral Council announced early Monday morning that the opposition coalition, the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (MUD), had secured 99 seats in the National Assembly, while the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) won 46 seats. Some 22 posts haven’t been called yet.

Maduro quickly calmed fears of electoral violence by acknowledging the results. “We recognize and accept these adverse outcomes,” he said, blaming the results on an “economic war.”

Few dispute that Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy is at sea. Inflation is estimated at over 100 percent, and there are widespread shortages of basic goods. President Maduro took over in 2013 from the late President Hugo Chávez, whose 14 years in office coincided with record-high oil prices, which allowed him to shower money on the country’s long-ignored poor. The political machine that Chavez built is crumbling as the petro-dollars dry up.

But Sunday’s vote does not necessarily mark approval for the opposition coalition. It was more about the economy.

“The problems of inflation and shortages aren’t new, but they are definitely worse” since the 2013 presidential election, where Maduro won by less than two percentage points, says Christopher Sabatini, an adjunct professor at The School for International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

A record 74 percent of the voting-age population came out to cast their ballot Sunday – the highest turnout since 1993, when voting was required by law. 

“I’ve seen a prosperous and powerful country and today that’s only a memory,” says María Ortiz, who marked her 100th birthday on election day in Caracas, where she voted for the opposition. “All elections are important, and even more so when one suffers what is happening.”

Given the recent economic upheaval, “almost by default [the opposition] was handed a platform in this election, which is ‘we aren’t as economically incompetent as the past governments,’” Sabatini says. 

Some 85 percent of Venezuelans are dissatisfied with the direction the country is going, according to the Pew Research Center.

But not everyone is convinced that​ "anything" is better than the present leadership.

José Martínez, a retired singer who voted for the ruling party yesterday says he’s seen how far the country ​has come under Chavismo. “I know that we are in bad times right now, but what we need to do is fix those problems, not erase all that was achieved” over the past 17 years. “If you give the opposition a finger they’ll take your entire arm,” Mr. Martínez says.

The opposition offered few concrete policy ideas in the leadup to the vote, and the coalition, which is made up of over a dozen parties, is fractious and divided. The opposition has long been haunted by its role – tangential or direct – with past political blunders. That includes some politicians backing a failed 2002 coup against Chávez, and a 2005 boycott of legislative elections, which sent a message that the opposition viewed simply checking out of the political process as a solution.

“This [win] is an opportunity [for the opposition] to be both [pragmatic] and to have a chance to be protagonists in a positive way, instead of denouncing Maduro or taking to the streets in protest,” Sabatini says. “The problem is, are they ready to do that?”

'Divided for years'

Although the opposition victory is a serious setback for Maduro and the nearly two-decade run of Chavismo, its impact could be limited by whether or not they have a two-thirds majority in the legislature.

The ruling PSUV holds near total-control of other branches of the government, and could tap into that to curb how far opposition lawmakers can go with vetoes or legislative reforms. And some fear the government could take steps to weaken the National Assembly before the new term begins in January, by having outgoing ruling-party lawmakers vote to give the president special powers of decree.

“We have been divided for years,” a spokesman for the opposition coalition, Jesus Torrealba, said in a speech Monday. “There is no majority here that wants to flatten the minority.”

• Víctor Amaya contributed reporting from Caracas

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