Opposition win in Venezuela on Sunday may not change much

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By Franco Ordonez

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro might have a lot at stake in this weekend’s parliamentary elections. Or he might not.

If national polls are correct, Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela stands to lose control of Venezuela’s National Assembly for the first time in 16 years.

With the opposition gaining a bigger voice, the legislature might then become a place for democratic dialogue that has been missing in the country, said Jennifer McCoy, former director of the Americas Program at the Carter Center, the Atlanta-based human rights organization founded by former President Jimmy Carter. That dialogue could lead to a change in the country’s power dynamics and in Venezuela’s attitude toward the ruling party.

But the stakes may be lower than they appear. The legislature is only one of five branches of power in the government. And Maduro has the ability to shift more power from the legislature to other branches under his party’s control, McCoy said.

“Just because the opposition wins a majority in the legislature, it doesn’t mean it suddenly is going to have this major power,” said McCoy, who now is director of the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University.

Venezuela will hold legislative elections on Sunday. The date commemorates the first election of the late President Hugo Chavez, who launched the country’s socialist revolution when voters supported him on Dec. 6, 1998.

The United Socialist Party currently holds a majority in the assembly, but polls indicate the leadership gavel could change hands amid growing discontent over shortages, rapid inflation and rising crime.

The oil-rich country also has been besieged by more recent fears after last week’s murder of an opposition member and alleged death threats against the wife of Leopoldo Lopez, the opposition leader who recently was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

The Obama administration condemned the killing of Luis Manuel Diaz, who was a local leader for the Democratic Action party, as the “deadliest of several recent attacks and acts of intimidation” aimed at opposition candidates.

U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton went even further on Monday during a talk at a Washington think tank, accusing the Maduro administration of “doing all it can to rig these elections.”

Venezuela’s top diplomat in the United States, Maximilen Arvelaiz, criticized U.S. officials for linking Diaz’s death to the election. While Diaz’s murder was sad for the Diaz family, Arvelaiz said, Diaz himself had a criminal history and was connected to gang violence.

Arvelaiz called on the United States and the international community for patience and to allow the Venezuelan people to express their will on Sunday. He said the government will accept the outcome, noting that the results’ impact will be limited.

“Maduro will still be president on Monday,” Arvelaiz said.

As for the national polls showing defeat for the socialists, he said national polls don’t necessarily reflect sentiment in rural districts where the ruling party is strongest.

“We’ll see what happens on Sunday,” he said.

Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College, also cautions against assuming the opposition will win. While the opposition has a better chance than it has ever had of overturning the system known as “chavismo,”victory is not certain, he said.

To gain control of National Assembly, the opposition needs to win 84 of 165 district votes. And several of those are in rural areas considered chavismo strongholds.

“It’s not automatic,” Corrales said.

If the opposition does win, Maduro still will have avenues he can take to undermine a new National Assembly. The legislature is one of five branches of the Venezuelan government: executive, legislative, judicial, citizen and electoral.

“This government has many ways of neutralizing the impact,” said Corrales, who co-authored the book “Dragon in the Tropics: Hugo Chavez and the Political Economy of Revolution in Venezuela.” “If they end up with a simple majority, it’s very easy to bypass the congress. You do it through the Supreme Court. You do it through decrees.”

Much of the government’s power is concentrated in the judicial branch. The Supreme Court can declare laws and acts by other government branches unconstitutional. The Maduro administration has pushed more than a dozen Supreme Court justices to retire so they could be replaced before the new legislature convenes in January.