Venezuela’s opposition trounced the ruling Socialists yesterday (6 December) to win the legislature for the first time in 16 years and gain a long-sought platform to challenge President Nicolas Maduro’s rule of the OPEC nation.
The opposition Democratic Unity coalition won 99 seats to the Socialists’ 46 in the 167-national National Assembly, the election board said, with some districts still to be counted.
Fireworks were set off in celebration in pro-opposition districts of Caracas when the results were announced, while government supporters dismantled planned victory parties.
Maduro, 53, quickly acknowledged the defeat, the worst for the ruling “Chavismo” movement since its founder Hugo Chavez took power in 1999.
“We are here, with morals and ethics, to recognize these adverse results,” Maduro said in a speech to the nation, although he blamed his defeat on a campaign by business leaders and other opponents to sabotage the economy.
“The economic war has triumphed today,” Maduro said.
His quick acceptance of the results eased tensions in the volatile nation where the last presidential election in 2013, narrowly won by Maduro, was bitterly disputed and anti-government protests last year led to 43 deaths.
Opposition leaders, who have lost over-and-over since Chavez’s first election victory 17 years ago, were jubilant, even though their victory was mainly thanks to public disgust at Venezuela’s deep economic recession.
“We’re going through the worst crisis in our history,” coalition head Jesus Torrealba said. “Venezuela wanted a change and that change came … a new majority expressed itself and sent a clear and resounding message.”
Opposition sources predicted that once counting was finalised, they would win as many as 113 seats. That would give them a crucial two-thirds majority needed to shake up institutions such as the courts or election board.
The result could also embolden government foes to seek a recall election against Maduro in 2016 if they garner the nearly 4 million signatures needed to trigger the referendum.
The Democratic Unity coalition capitalized on discontent among Venezuela’s 29 million people with the world’s highest inflation and product shortages.
Critics say failed nationalizations, rigid currency controls, and hostility towards the private sector spurred the economic crisis and that it was then exacerbated by a global slump in oil prices. Venezuela depends on crude for 96 percent of its export revenue.
The government’s defeat was another blow to Latin America’s left following last month’s swing to the center-right in Argentina’s presidential election.
Many Venezuelans blame the economic chaos on Maduro, who lacks the charisma and political skills of Chavez, his mentor and Venezuela’s leader for 14 years before his death from cancer in 2013.
Venezuela’s opposition will now have the chance to break the ruling party’s control over the budget and seek amnesty for dozens of jailed activists, including hardline leader Leopoldo Lopez.
“I’m so happy,” said his beaming wife, Lilian Tintori, who has become a prominent campaigner for the opposition.
With inflation believed to be in triple digits, vast lines outside supermarkets owing to shortages of basic goods and an 80% collapse of the currency on the black market, it was the economy that turned Venezuelans away from the government.
Underlining the depth of feeling, videos circulating online seemed to show five prominent socialist politicians – including Chavez’s brother Adan – being booed at voting centers on Sunday, with crowds yelling “the government will fall!” or “thief!”.
The European Union had warned previously against violence in the run-up to the ballot. EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini stated that “the people of Venezuela have peacefully elected a new National Assembly”.
“The process remains to be concluded in the same spirit of democratic responsibility and transparency”, she said, adding that the EU continues to stand ready to cooperate with Venezuela and its democratically elected authorities in the interest of all Venezuelans.
Mogherini warned that the vote was only part of a process for Venezuela, an oil-rich country sharply divided over the “21st century socialism” propounded by President Nicolas Maduro to build on the legacy of his late predecessor Hugo Chavez.
The centre-right opposition has struggled for years to establish a foothold and has seen many of its leaders jailed.
In the past year, the European Parliament has passed two resolutions condmening human rights abuses under the Caracas government.
Dita Charanzová, a Czech MEP in the group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, compained in EURACTIV earlier this year that Mogherini had “not taken these calls into a unified message of condemnation or even vocalised any significant words of solidarity with those being punished for exercising their fundamental freedoms in Venezuela.”