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Venezuela

The following text forms part of Crisis Group’s Early Warning Watch List for December 2015, compiled for the European Union (EU) and its member states to provide analysis and updates on conflicts, and on opportunities for preventive action. Each Watch List identifies up to ten countries or conflicts which are particularly vulnerable to an outbreak or intensification of conflict or crisis – or which in some cases offer an opportunity for prevention or resolution – in the following six to twelve months.

Each country or conflict is chosen from the 70 crisis situations monitored by Crisis Group and regularly reported on in CrisisWatch; the choice of countries is representative of a range of conflicts and is not meant to be all-inclusive or a ranking of deadly violence. Each country summary contains an outline of recent developments and forthcoming events that may increase risks, and lays out opportunities for action for national, regional and international actors, in particular the EU and its member states.


Overview

The opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance inflicted a stinging defeat on the Maduro government in 6 December legislative elections. With most votes counted, the opposition has (at the time of writing) 110 out of the 167 seats in the National Assembly, to the government’s 55. President Nicolás Maduro conceded defeat a few hours after the polls closed. He attributed the government’s loss to the “economic war” that it claims is being waged against it by the opposition and its foreign allies. The following six months will test the abilities of the two sides to articulate a credible legislative agenda, and use consensus on core issues in light of the mounting challenges faced by the country, in order to avoid a dangerous political deadlock. Calls for dialogue between government and opposition have already been expressed by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, among other international leaders.

The EU, its member states, and the wider international community should:
  • Exhort the Maduro government to respect the will of the electorate by allowing the National Assembly to carry out its constitutional role, rather than seeking ways to neutralise its new leadership.
  • Follow-up on calls for dialogue between the MUD and Maduro’s government by encouraging both sides to find ways of avoiding gridlock once the new parliament is sworn in on 5 January.
  • Reiterate demands for opposition leader Leopoldo López and other political prisoners to be liberated, especially since a resolution of this thorny question could open up fresh possibilities for dialogue.
  • Call for the authorities to fully restore civil and political liberties, particularly freedom of expression and access to the media, and for the return of Venezuela under the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.
  • Express will and availability to cooperate in providing humanitarian and technical assistance, including through specialised bodies such as the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO), in order to improve the effectiveness of the chain of supply in food and medicines, particularly to remote areas of the country.
  • Stand ready to support efforts to facilitate political dialogue and institutional reform, including by providing technical support to assess the independence of the judiciary and the situation of freedom of expression, and eventually by providing advice on legislative making process and consensus-building.
Background

The crushing defeat inflicted on the Maduro government by the opposition MUD alliance on 6 December marks a watershed moment in Venezuelan politics. It is the first time in the sixteen years since Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, the late Hugo Chávez, came to power in 1999 that the opposition has won a national election (with the exception of the 2007 constitutional referendum). The result was beyond what most analysts, and the MUD itself, had expected, and could even leave the opposition with a two-thirds “super-majority” in parliament. This would allow it to exercise more effective control over the executive and even potentially modify the constitution or the composition of the Supreme Court (TSJ).

A few tense hours after the polls closed, Maduro conceded defeat, although he made clear that he considered the government’s poor results to be a temporary setback. This appreciation may well change, as the new political reality sinks in. However, by minimising the impact, Maduro defused the immediate threat of political violence (which many had feared beforehand). It remains to be seen whether the end of government hegemony over all state institutions leads to deadlock or dialogue. So far, the signs from the MUD have been positive as well. Its main spokespeople have stressed that opposition leaders are not out for revenge and would seek solutions benefiting all to the country’s severe economic and social crisis.

Maduro has a number of ways of blocking any initiatives emerging from an opposition-controlled National Assembly. But his trump card is control of the constitutional branch of the TSJ, which is the arbiter of last resort on any clash between executive and legislature. Nonetheless, the scale of his government’s defeat may oblige him to recognise a new reality. On a surprisingly high turnout (over 74 per cent of the 19.5 million registered voters), the MUD obtained more than two million more votes than its adversary, and more votes than ever cast for one political force in the country’s history.

It is clear that a large percentage of those votes came from discontented former government supporters. The opposition will have to find a way to demonstrate that it can translate control of parliament into solutions for scarcity, inflation, crime and other pressing social problems. But there may be some on the more confrontational wing who will push for Maduro’s resignation or a recall referendum next year. On the other hand, the moderates within the oppositional coalition have demonstrated that their much-criticised emphasis on the electoral route can produce results. Much will depend on the precise composition of the new assembly.

The international community, which played a key role in persuading the government to respect the result, immediately stressed the need for dialogue and conciliation. Calls for talks between the two sides came from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the EU’s Federica Mogherini and Ernesto Samper, secretary general of UNASUR among others. The incoming Argentine government of Mauricio Macri, in the person of newly-appointed Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, headed off a potential clash with Venezuela in the Organization of American States (OAS) and Mercosur by withdrawing a threat to use human rights mechanisms against it. This may allow a new consensus to emerge in Mercosur over how to deal with Venezuela, with potentially beneficial impact.

But while it is easy to call for dialogue, actually initiating one may prove difficult. A first stumbling block may be freedom for the country’s 70 or so political prisoners, including the prominent opposition leader Leopoldo López. Without that, the opposition cannot reach a deal with the government, but it will be tough to swallow for hardliners on the government side. Both Maduro and outgoing National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello (the two most powerful people in the country) have been weakened by the election result and there will be factions seeking to move against them. A divided and debilitated regime may not be in a position to enter talks, or to deliver on any agreements, and alternatives to the current leadership will not necessarily be more inclined toward dialogue.The dire state of Venezuela – since the fall of oil prices, budget income is down by one third as the country depends almost entirely on oil earnings – may yet encourage pragmatism within an otherwise jubilant opposition. Few in the MUD would want to assume full responsibility for the country in its current condition, take the blame, and have to carry out a vital but potentially painful economic reform package. Consequently, there is potentially considerable interest in a negotiated solution, even among the maximalists within the coalition.

Greater realism on both sides is perhaps the most important legacy of this election. It offers a better chance for a negotiated, peaceful solution to the Venezuelan crisis than has been seen for several years. But getting there will not be easy.


Read the full Watch List for December 2015 (pdf).

Learn more about the Watch List.


Note: The Watch List is produced as part of the project “Strengthening Early Warning and Mobilising Early Action”, co-funded by the European Union. The project aims to strengthen the links between early warning, conflict analysis and early response, and to build civil society’s capacity for early warning.

The Crisis Group EU Early Warning Watch List is one of many products the organisation produces to alert policy makers and the general public on unfolding crisis or conflicts, and which offers them solutions to support conflict prevention, management and resolution initiatives.

 
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