Venezuela ‘braced for bitter political showdown’


Venezuela is braced for a bitter political showdown as the opposition takes control of parliament, pitting the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro against a coalition of lawmakers who aim to curb his power and try to set the foundering economy back on track, The Guardian reports:

In the month since the ruling PSUV party suffered a crushing defeat in December’s elections, Maduro has managed to tighten his control and limit the lawmakers’ power. Both the opposition and the government have called on supporters to demonstrate in central Caracas on Tuesday as the 167 members of the national assembly are sworn in, heightening tensions in the Venezuelan capital.

Reflecting the changing political winds, journalists for the first time in years were granted access to the legislature and state TV broadcast interviews with the opposition political leaders, some of them arriving like rock stars to loud applause and dressed in tropical dress shirts, ABC News reports:

Conspicuously absent inside the dome-roofed legislature were the oversized portraits of Chavez and independence hero Simon Bolivar that had been a fixture for years.

Instead, from the public gallery, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez held up a sign reading “Amnesty Now,” referring reference to what could be one of the legislature’s first orders of business: a law freeing dozens of activists jailed during anti-government unrest in 2014.

Maduro has also limited the National Assembly’s powers over the Central Bank, the BBC reports:

The president will now no longer need legislative approval to hire and fire Central Bank directors. The change was announced shortly before a new assembly, controlled by an opposition coalition, is due to be sworn in later on Tuesday. Under the new law, the Central Bank can also allocate money to the state without the approval of the National Assembly.

Opposition politicians said it was the latest in a series of moves to undermine the power of the legislature following last month’s elections.

Maduro, who is not scheduled to face presidential elections until 2018, is not giving up power lightly — setting the stage for a “final battle” between the opposing camps this year, warns Heinz Dieterich, a leading leftwing academic and ideologue of the “21st-century socialism” embraced by Chávez, the Financial Times reports.

“The final offensive by the opposition starts in January 2016, from the institutional sector,” Mr Dieterich wrote last week on the leftist website Aporrea. To counter this, Mr Maduro’s government was trying to “perpetuate its control of the state structure though a preventive institutional blitzkrieg”, he said.

The growing political polarization leaves the army as the only institution capable of protecting Venezuela’s democracy, said Diego Moya-Ocampos, political analyst at consultancy IHS Inc. in London.

“The degree of the armed forces’ willingness to secure the grounds of the National Assembly tomorrow will be a key indicator of political stability throughout the year,” he told The Wall Street Journal.

In a letter to President Barack Obama on Monday, Senator Robert Menendez, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he was deeply troubled by attempts by Maduro’s government to “reverse the results” of the National Assembly elections, Reuters adds:

Menendez, who sponsored a bill that imposed sanctions against Venezuela in 2014 after a crackdown on political opponents, urged the White House to take further measures to stop Maduro’s government from trying to undermine a meaningful political transition in Venezuela.

“I write to urge you and your administration to take immediate steps to ensure that Mr Maduro’s regime is denied the space to obstruct Venezuela’s path to democratic order,” Menendez wrote. “I believe you can accomplish this with a combination of close monitoring of key international organizations and meaningful, internationally imposed penalties.”

“Venezuela needs no more conflicts, nor clashes between powers; the people’s mandate was clear,” said Henrique Capriles (right), the moderate opposition leader who narrowly lost the presidential election to Mr Maduro and whose party now holds the majority of seats in the National Assembly.

But rival opposition factions are adopting a more hard-line stance.

Leopoldo López (left), the imprisoned opposition leader, has warned that if Mr Maduro and his followers “try to torpedo change by way of ignoring the results” of the elections “they will have to be removed”, The FT adds:

Once the rum-infused holiday hangover passes, some fear a repeat of the street protests of 2014 when a campaign of demonstrations spearheaded by Mr López sought Mr Maduro’s resignation, cost dozens of lives and deepened divisions within the opposition.

The looming power struggle is one the country, facing a 7 per cent contraction in economic output this year amid plunging oil prices, can ill afford.

“If the government keeps acting as it has been after the December 6 election,” warned John Magdaleno, who heads Polity, a Caracas consultancy, “it will precipitate a political crisis of magnitude.”

Opposition leaders have two different ideas on how to move forward, according to a STRATFOR analysis:

One option is to dismantle the legal protections built up over 17 years to guard the presidency and to eventually call a referendum against Maduro. The other is to negotiate legislative solutions to the country’s political and economic problems. Regardless of which option opposition leaders choose, they will have to negotiate with the most powerful components of Venezuelan politics, including the security elements, dissident chavistas and the multiple and unstructured political patronage networks known colloquially as colectivos.

Ultimately, MUD’s biggest challenge will be working together to solidify legislative priorities and to determine the best steps forward. In the short term, government officials are not likely to negotiate with MUD. But as civil strife intensifies, leaders and supporters of the ruling party will become more willing to work with MUD leaders. In the meantime, Venezuela’s economic problems will only worsen in 2016.

The coming weeks will tell whether the government and opposition can put aside their mutual hatred, said Jennifer McCoy, a longtime observer of elections in Venezuela.

“This is the moment when both sides need to determine how to move forward: whether they are going to work together or engage in a battle royal,” said McCoy, director of the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University.

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