Venezuela in 2014: Maduro Administration Given Reprieve by Divided Opposition

VA.com’s Ewan Robertson offers an assessment of the relative positions of the Bolivarian government and conservative opposition after a bumpy year for Venezuela’s politics and economy.

By Ewan Robertson - Venezuelanalysis.com

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From left to right: opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez, Maria Corina Machado, and Henrique Capriles (AFP)
From left to right: opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez, Maria Corina Machado, and Henrique Capriles (AFP)
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The administration of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela is facing a tough situation going into 2015, when the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will attempt to retain an overall majority in parliamentary elections which will by key to deciding the institutional balance of power in the South American OPEC nation.

This year the Maduro administration succeeded in maintaining governability and the political initiative despite a series of challenges to its legitimacy and popularity. These challenges have included serious economic problems, an opposition insurrection, and diplomatic hostility from the United States. In recent months economic difficulties have been compounded by a squeeze on public finances caused by the falling price of oil, which is the source of almost all foreign export earnings.

Current opinion polls provide sober reading for the government, suggesting that Maduro’s popularity has fallen by half since his election in April 2013. According to the Datanalisis polling company, Maduro enjoyed a 51% approval rating before his narrow victory in last year’s presidential election, compared with 24.5% in November this year. These findings are backed up by the IVAD firm, which found that Maduro’s popularity had fallen from 54% in March 2013 to 34.6% in September 2014.

It is likely that falling presidential approval is tied to ongoing economic problems. According to the September IVAD poll citizens viewed product shortages as the country’s worst problem, followed by crime, which traditionally tops such polls. Both Datanalisis’ and IVAD’s most recent polls found that around 80% of citizens feel the situation in the country is negative. Further, according to the IVAD September poll, 70% of citizens do not trust that Maduro will be able to solve the country’s economic problems.

The problems include an overvalued currency, the world’s highest inflation, and shortages of basic consumer goods across the economy. The government has introduced many measures to tackle these problems, including cracking down on the smuggling of basic products and gasoline to Colombia, and has accused business groups of being responsible for causing the situation through waging an “economic war”. However despite repeated announcements of planned structural reforms designed to reduce distortions in the economy, no action has yet been taken on key issues such as reforming currency controls, a possible devaluation, or reducing subsidies on the domestic sale of gasoline and other goods and services.  

Despite this apparently bleak panorama, Bolivarian government officials continue to appear outwardly confident and determined, and predict a victory in the 2015 parliamentary (National Assembly) elections. Part of the reason for this is that they have an important factor in their favour: the dismal state of the political opposition.

Opposition Strategy in 2014

This year the opposition was presented with an opportunity to make important inroads into Chavismo’s traditional support base, with many people in lower income groups disappointed or frustrated by the government’s seeming inability to solve shortages and high inflation. Yet apparently failing to learn the lessons from their insurrectionary period in 2002 – 2004, the opposition engaged in a violent and exclusionary strategy which ended up dividing it internally and hobbling its ability to present a credible project nationally.  

After the government’s victory in the December 2013 municipal elections, the more moderate wing of the opposition began to attend dialogue talks with government officials at the invitation of Maduro. Even Miranda state governor and opposition leader Henrique Capriles – who had unconvincingly claimed fraud after he was defeated by Maduro in the April 2013 presidential election – attended one such event. It appeared that Maduro’s legitimacy would be widely accepted and the country’s peace and governability would be guaranteed, allowing the government the breathing space to take difficult measures and attempt to solve distortions and problems in the economy.

However in early February 2014 the hard-line wing of the opposition – led by Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado – launched an unrest strategy called “La Salida” (The Exit, or The Solution), which involved a mixture of mass protests, violent riots, and militant street barricades aimed at shutting down Venezuela’s cities. Perhaps not by coincidence, the movement’s strategy undermined the government’s ability to resolve the very problems that protesters ostensibly cited as reasons for their discontent: chiefly economic problems and high crime. The government meanwhile argued that the unrest was designed to provoke a state coup, and waited until local communities became fed up with street barricades before moving in to dismantle them. The toll of the February – May opposition unrest movement was over 40 deaths and some 1,000 wounded, as well as great damage to public property in the areas affected. Civilians from both sides and security officials were killed, and a debate over human rights abuses perpetrated by opposition militants and National Guard officers continues to be waged through media and institutions.

The Salida movement received reluctant support from the moderate wing of the opposition, and leaders such as Henrique Capriles appeared lukewarm over the strategy. Meanwhile citizen approval for the opposition MUD coalition fell to 36% in April according to Datanalisis, and polls showed that a vast majority of the population rejected the militant barricades, known as “guarimbas”, as a form of protest.

Once it subsided, the split that La Salida had created in the opposition was made clear.  Leopoldo Lopez had been jailed and charged over his alleged role in inciting violent acts, and Maria Corina Machado had been ejected from the Venezuelan parliament for planning to speak on behalf of a foreign government in an OAS meeting. The radical opposition had taken over the opposition’s discourse and agenda, focusing their activity on political-legal issues such as to free “political prisoners”, call a “constitutional assembly”, and “renew public powers”, rather than formulate a strategy based on bread and butter issues such as the economy, crime, and national development.

Meanwhile, the media presence of figures such as Henrique Capriles and fellow state governor Henry Falcon diminished. Then in July, MUD executive secretary Ramon Aveledo resigned, which was widely suspected to be due to internal opposition divisions. His replacement, Jesus “Chuo” Torrealba, has a less prominent role that Aveledo, presiding over a less cohesive opposition coalition than before. The opposition coalition is made up of around 27 political parties, most of them lacking a mass base, reducing their capacity for united action in any case. As a result of all this, since the middle of the year opposition strategy has become further splintered and incoherent: Capriles criticizes the government’s performance at local events in Miranda state; Jesus Torrealba organises public meetings to speak in the name of the MUD; Leopoldo Lopez’s Popular Will party gathers signatures for a “constitutional assembly”; and allies of Lopez and Machado campaign internationally over alleged judicial persecution.

By early December, the leader of the opposition Christian Democrat party COPEI, Roberto Enriquez, warned that the MUD should declare itself in a “state of emergency” over its lack of strategy and coherence, and that united parliamentary candidates and a national proposal were needed to be able to offer something to “more than 30% of Venezuelans”. Meanwhile according to the November Datanalsis poll, the most popular opposition figure is currently Henrique Capriles on 46%. While higher than Maduro’s approval, this is a low number for the leader of the opposition considering the wider political and economic situation, and highlights that a large sector of the Venezuelan population remains uncommitted to either political pole.

The state of the opposition on the ground was highlighted recently in the Andean city of Mérida. In the opposition-dominated University of the Andes (ULA), the opposition student movement split into two rival candidacies in recent elections to the university’s governing body. Gaby Arellano, a prominent figure within Leopoldo Lopez’s Popular Will party, headed the radical faction, while Jorge Arellano received the backing of more moderate opposition parties who organised to try and defeat Gaby, according to information given to this journalist by a politics professor at the university.  On 13 November Jorge Arellano was declared the surprise victor as university federation president. However, violence on two university faculties, where masked figures reportedly disrupted voting, meant the final result could not be confirmed. A recount in some voting centres was announced, yet violence once again prevented voting at the Trujillo faculty on 26 November. The Chavista candidate, Inder Romero, also reported being threatened by two armed figures on university property on 19 November. Finally, Jorge Arellano was confirmed the winner. This was significant as the ULA and Mérida city were at the heart of the militant barricades earlier in the year, and Gaby Arellano was seen as representing that strategy and being associated with leading figures of the hard-line opposition.

Looking forward

As a result of the rudderless state of the opposition, despite weak poll ratings the Maduro government heads into 2015 with the political initiative. The PSUV is being reorganized via internal elections and remains by far the strongest single political party in Venezuela. Some 30% of citizens identify with the PSUV compared with less than 5% for even the most popular opposition political party. Further, opinion polling continues to show that the majority of Venezuelans identify with the values of Chavismo (a strong welfare state with a private sector role in the economy) rather than the more neoliberal tendencies of the opposition.  

Turning the economy around remains the government’s central challenge in 2015. The current situation is generating increasing discontent, including in lower income sectors traditionally supportive of Chavismo. If shortages and high inflation continue then it may not even matter if the opposition remains divided. Through chavista abstention or protest voting the MUD will become the beneficiaries. If the opposition were to win the 2015 parliamentary elections this would significantly shift the institutional balance of power in Venezuela and greatly undermine the government’s capacity to bring forward its legislative program. It could also encourage the opposition to seek a recall referendum against Maduro before the end of his term in 2019. As such the political stakes next year will be very high.