Venezuela’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) suffered a devastating loss in Sunday’s parliamentary election. The opposition Democratic Unity Front (MUD) received 56 percent of the popular vote to the PSUV’s 41 percent. Due to a majoritarian electoral system, the MUD won 112 seats (67 percent), with the PSUV taking 55 (33 percent). The opposition will control the National Assembly for the first time in 16 years. With a super-majority of two-thirds, the opposition will have significant powers, including the ability to block government spending and ministerial appointments, unseat sitting Supreme Court justices, remove the vice president, call for a constitutional assembly and initiate a recall referendum against the president. (It is unclear if the National Assembly can call a recall referendum on its own or only after gathering signatures from 20 percent of the electorate.)
President Nicolás Maduro immediately accepted the defeat, demonstrating that widespread fears voiced by the opposition, international media, and the US and other foreign governments that the government would not accept a loss were unfounded. It is worth noting that the government’s recognition of the MUD victory stands in marked contrast to the opposition’s repeated refusals to accept electoral losses in the past (including 2004, 2006, 2013), despite the fact that numerous observers, including Jimmy Carter, have praised Venezuela’s electoral system as technically sound and “the best in the world.”
Why the Government Lost
“Things are worse now than they were during the Caracazo,” said Omar Machado, referring to the 1989 popular uprising in Caracas that was sparked by the sudden imposition of neoliberal austerity and left hundreds (thousands, according to some estimates) dead at the hands of state security forces. Machado, a community organizer from the Caracas barrio of 23 de Enero, then rattled off a list of everyday products—shampoo, soap, deodorant, tampons, and birth-control pills—that he and his family have been unable to obtain for months. If Machado wants to buy basic food items, such as chicken, corn flour, and black beans, at regulated prices, he must face the long lines found throughout Venezuela. The lines exist “because of the bachaqueros who buy some product for 19 bolivares and then sell it for 200 or 300.” (A bachaquero is someone who buys price-regulated products and resells them on the black market at much higher rates.)
The difficulties Machado and millions of Venezuelans face making ends meet are due to a severe economic crisis brought about by low oil prices (oil revenues account for 96 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings and 40–45 percent of the federal budget), the government’s poor management of its currency exchange rate, and, if the government is to be believed, an “economic war” waged by businesses and the opposition. The IMF estimates that Venezuela’s economy will contract 10 percent this year and that inflation will reach almost 200 percent. Poverty and unemployment have been rising. There are widespread shortages of innumerable goods, from coffee, eggs, and toilet paper to auto parts, cement, and industrial inputs. And there are the vexing, ubiquitous lines, which can last for five hours or more, for everything from withdrawing money from the bank to catching a bus to buying food staples and basic consumer goods at regulated prices.