Venezuela’s left-wing authoritarian ruler Nicolás Maduro on Sunday consolidated his grip on power, with candidates favouring his rule declared to have won the National Assembly –– the only bastion that had so far remained out of his Socialist Party’s control.
The South American nation’s election authority said on Monday that pro-Maduro candidates had won 67.6 per cent of 52 lakh votes cast, with only 31 per cent of the total 2 crore voters participating in the polls – which most opposition parties had boycotted, calling them rigged.
Claiming victory, President Maduro said on Monday, “Today Venezuela wakes up with a new dawn of peace, joy, reunion and strengthening of democratic institutions. A new stage has begun for the reconstruction of Parliament and the recovery of our country. I am proud to be Venezuelan!”
Hoy Venezuela despierta con un nuevo amanecer de Paz, alegría, reencuentro y fortalecimiento de la institucionalidad democrática. Ha iniciado una nueva etapa para la reconstrucción del Parlamento y la recuperación de nuestro país. ¡Me siento orgulloso de ser venezolano! pic.twitter.com/Sc8EPNrbDu
— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) December 7, 2020
Most Western nations, though, have already discredited the election as a fraud by Maduro, and continue to recognise opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the oil-rich country’s legitimate leader.
So, how did things get to this point?
Venezuela’s troubles started in the mid-2010s, after the global boom in commodities ended, and the country slipped into an economic crisis. Among Latin America’s poorest countries, its oil-dependent economy had grown significantly during the boom, and massive investments in social spending during that time by President Hugo Chávez –Maduro’s predecessor and mentor– ensured the popularity of the “chavistas”, as the socialists are called.
After the economic collapse, the crime rate doubled and inflation multiplied– a situation that was made worse by West-imposed sanctions.
Opposition to Maduro
In the legislative elections of 2015, the socialists received a major setback when parties opposed to Maduro won the National Assembly in a landslide. The results were a shock for his regime, which used its might in the country’s judiciary to veto the Assembly’s decisions, and in 2017 started a new all-powerful (but rubber-stamp) body called the National Constituent Assembly.
The country’s watershed moment arrived in 2018, when Maduro claimed a re-election win in the presidential polls marred by irregularities, leading to them being discredited by several countries. A defiant Maduro still chose to begin his second term on January 10, 2019, which many Venezuelans and members of the international community branded as illegitimate.
With the executive and judicial branches firmly under his control, Maduro sought to curtail the powers of the National Assembly. The legislature resisted, with Juan Guaidó, its newly appointed speaker, questioning the government’s legitimacy. On January 22, Guaidó declared himself interim President. The West was quick to recognise his claim.
At the time, many experts believed that Guaidó could spell trouble for the Maduro regime, given his position as the National Assembly’s President, popularity among the masses, and recognition by over 50 countries as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
The “preordained” 2020 vote
To the dismay of his benefactors, Guaidó was unable to wrest power from Maduro, and has faced increasing danger after returning home from a tour he took between January-February 2020, which included a meeting with US President Donald Trump.
The country’s military has stood by Maduro, whose regime has shown no intentions of going away, despite being widely unpopular domestically. It continues to be supported by traditional US foes Russia, Cuba, China and Iran.
Maduro also left no stone unturned in ensuring the Opposition’s defeat on Sunday. Earlier this year, his regime stripped Venezuela’s main opposition parties of their leaders, and appointed its own representatives in their place. Guaidó was also barred from access to television and radio broadcasts.
Many opposition leaders were banned from standing for the election, and several were arrested or went into exile. The UN accused Venezuela of “grave violations of economic, social, civil, political and cultural rights” and decried what it described as a “shocking” number of alleged extrajudicial murders.
Maduro also ignored calls by the European Union to postpone the vote by six months, which could have created conditions for a fair vote, such as monitoring by international observers. In the end, the EU refused to send observers for the Sunday vote, saying that conditions for a fair election did not exist.
On their part, most opposition parties decided to boycott the election, on the grounds of it being rigged, and have organised their own online referendum on December 12 against it in protest.
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Why the vote still matters
Although the verdict of the legislative election brings no surprises, it shall have consequences.
For one, it would mean that Maduro’s Socialist Party would be able to cement their hold over all three arms of government, the prosecutor’s office and elections commission, making their path clear for complete authoritarian rule.
At the same time, it could weaken the image of Guaidó, who will on paper lose his constitutional post of the National Assembly’s president on January 5. This could further erode his authority, as it was based on this job that Guaidó claimed to be the country’s legitimate president in 2019.
However, Guaidó’s Venezuelan allies and backers of his claim to the presidency worldwide are expected to continue supporting him by disregarding Sunday’s vote and treating the 2015 National Assembly as being in continuation.
Already, Chile, a major democracy in the region, has thrown its weight behind Guaidó, declaring its support for the leader irrespective of the results of Sunday’s vote. Chilean Foreign Minister Andres Allamand said last week, “We continue to work under the premise that the legitimate authority that exists in Venezuela is Guaido.”
The US too is expected to continue supporting Guaidó, even after president-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20. It is unclear, however, whether Biden would adopt a similarly hawkish approach as President Donald Trump, who had adopted a hardline Venezuela policy for winning over Latino voters in the crucial battleground state of Florida.
What the election means for Venezuelans
With Maduro’s confrontation with the West expected to continue, the dire conditions that afflict Venezuela’s people are expected to persist. As per UN estimates, over 90 per cent of the country was living in poverty in April 2019. Ever since Maduro took charge after Chávez’s death in 2013, around 50 lakh people–a sixth of Venezuela’s population–have fled the country, making it the largest movement of people ever recorded in the continent.
The Caracas-based El Nacional, described as one of the last independent newspapers in Venezuela, said on Sunday’s vote in an editorial, “Do we really want to change? As has already been said, yesterday’s elections have nothing to do with democracy. The popular referendum organised by an opposition that is fragmented but which does lose its focus is the only alternative of expression. We have until (December) 12. Let’s tell the regime what we really want.”
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