The parliamentary elections in Venezuela on Sunday confirm widely predicted expectations that President Nicolás Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela has been, for some time, under intense public pressure to the extent that a substantial section of the Venezuelan public have virtually given up on his regime. And these election results indicate that that pressure will undoubtedly increase from the opposition United Democratic Platform which now has a parliamentary majority.
It is doubtful, given the general credibility of polls in Venezuela, that President Maduro really expected to win these elections, though the wide margin of the seat results, 99 to 46, may well have surprised him. And they will certainly indicate to him that the coat-tails of his predecessor Hugo Chávez no longer have the power that they had. In effect, the President tried to run on Chávez’ record, when it has been evident for some time that a large section of the population has been unable to see any evidence of this in a country where inflation has, from recent accounts, exceeded 500%, and normal day-to-day commodities have been increasingly unavailable to the general population.
We can expect that the opposition will seek to maintain and intensify the pressure that it put on Maduro before and during the elections, probably hardening any inclination on his part to positively respond to the election results in terms of policy measures that can diminish the severity of the present economic situation. For in the course of a persistent rigidity of positions over the last few years, a consequence of the political crisis has been that, in the words of one commentator “both sides are not used to dialogue, an obviously necessary element of parliamentary democracy.”
The election results also appear to confirm that any substantial political legitimacy that the influence of the late President Hugo Chávez might have been expected to be transferred to Maduro, seems to have radically diminished after 17 years of the exercise of power by the PSUV party and regime, and that Maduro is now left to create an ideological and practical political platform for himself. For what seems fairly apparent too, is that over the last two years or so, the largesse which the regime has been able to dispense, based on relatively good prices for its oil resources, has been substantially diminished as the world price of the commodity has collapsed, and there are no signs of any imminent recovery.
Many observers had already come to the conclusion that the apparent loss of political legitimacy on the part of the PSUV was in some large measure due to a general attempt at militarization of the political system, and that had become increasingly perceptible because Maduro has not possessed, and was therefore unable to utilize, the kind of charisma that Chavez possessed. That notwithstanding, it seemed that even the deceased president would have wished to transform the political system from its character of parliamentary democracy to some other apparently constitutional form that would guarantee a certain institutionalized influence of the armed forces.
Yet, it might be invidious to project too wide a gap in the ability of Chávez, as against Maduro, to hold the allegiance of a reasonable section of the population who might be willing to give credence to some kind of new constitutional form. For the fact of the matter is that the popular success of any form of regime in an economy substantially dependent on mineral resources, really depends on the price of the resource maintaining an acceptable level; that is, one able to sustain not only a satisfactorily functioning economy, in particular one without the distortions now characterizing the Venezuelan economy, but which can ensure a programme of substantial dispensation of financial resources to the relatively large category of unemployed (and some say unemployable) individuals characteristic of many developing countries’ economies. This is not uncommon in the developing world.
Many Caribbean observers of this present experience of Venezuela will be well aware that, in terms of the decline of mineral prices and its negative political consequences, this is a situation that has not been unknown in the Caricom arena, most noticeably in respect of Jamaica under Michael Manley, in respect of the bauxite industry in the 1980s. So, as we have intimated above, the real issue is whether the relationships among the political parties and actors, and more importantly, between the political parties now dominant in the parliament, and the military in Venezuela, can be sustained in terms of recognition by the military of the legitimacy of the election.
No doubt, the extent of the grip which President Maduro has on the armed forces will be assessed not only by himself but by the various political party contenders in the country, including the Platform for Democratic Unity which, with allies, is now dominant in the parliament. Memories, not necessarily that long, will go back to the events of 1989, when large numbers of people died in confrontations with security forces. But in terms of the sequel to the present election results, it is not unlikely that the president himself will be an object of concern, in terms of his ability to come to terms with the functioning of the parliament after it is convened.
Caricom states, many being recipients of not insubstantial resources and other assistance from the Chávez-Maduro regimes, will be concerned over the evolution of events in the country. There is obviously much speculation about the attitude of hitherto opposition forces, now dominant in the parliament, in respect of PetroCaribe and other aspects of the Chávez-Maduro regimes’ generosity to our Region. In a recent visit to St Lucia the president emphasized his commitment to this, and to continuing close cooperation with the English-speaking Caricom states, and present events suggest that their governments will be following closely the political trends in the country as they develop.
Yet there will be other observers. At present, a party which, we might say, is ideologically closer to some of the victors in Venezuela, has just achieved victory in Argentina, and has not shown signs of any partiality, indeed the opposite, to the Maduro government. And in Brazil, the government of President Dilma Rousseff shows increasing signs of fragility and vulnerability, suggesting that concentration on the exercise of substantial influence vis-à-vis other major countries will not be a substantial priority.
Caricom governments will necessarily be watching these trends with much interest.