As Venezuela's political opposition celebrates its first electoral victory in 17 years by gaining control of the national legislature, uncertainty still bedevils the country's political landscape. Once the euphoria of victory subsides, a new phase of escalating confrontation will ensue between President Nicolás Maduro and the new opposition-led congress.
Real de-Chavization -- undoing the long-standing, generous social welfare programs introduced under former President Hugo Chavez and maintained under Maduro -- is unlikely to happen anytime soon. And any attempt to remove Maduro, whose term ends in 2019, through constitutional means could meet with extra-constitutional measures. This may include complete disregard for legislative decisions with the tacit, if not direct, support of the Chavista-dominated security services and armed forces. The legislature will seek to deconstruct Chavismo's systemic cronyism and undo the endemic corruption eroding Venezuela's economy.
While the opposition will control the national legislature when it convenes on January 5, its constitutional ability to sway the executive branch may collide with political realities. Chavistas still dominate the ministries of interior, defense, and justice, as well as Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A (PDVSA), the state oil company. Even a critical mass of civil society will struggle to effectively counter this formidable bloc. The sway of sizeable demonstrations must not be underestimated, of course. But much also depends upon which route the various circles of elites eventually choose should in extreme circumstances materialize: either backing a new legislature with enormous public support or an increasingly erratic president who controls the levers of public order, at least for now. An ongoing game of reckless brinksmanship marked by constant confrontation would have disastrous consequences for Venezuela. Economically, it would accelerate the current decline into a vicious downward cycle. Politically, violence could break out at any given moment leading to a largely unpredictable and dangerous outcome.
As the opposition settles into power, confrontations of increasing frequency and vigor between Maduro and congress will unfold at all levels of state, principally through the Chavista-dominated courts and ministries. An eventual spillover into the streets may prove inevitable. With a virtual monopoly on most instruments of state power, Maduro and his Chavista acolytes will go to any lengths to preserve, protect, and advance the Bolivarian revolution and, above all, the vested interests they have accrued over the past 17 years. For them, politics is largely a zero-sum game where winner-takes-all. A certain level of conciliatory rhetoric about national consensus-building in the period immediately following Chavismo's legislative defeat should surprise no one. The honeymoon period, however, will be short-lived. For Chavismo, power cannot be shared. It must be fought for. All along, achieving total control remains its underlying aim.
Growing polarization in Venezuela will continue to include verbal attacks, militant rhetoric, and the threat of the use of force by the Chavista system. The actual use of force cannot be excluded -- the political violence of recent years in response to high levels of inflation, shortages of basic goods and urban crime offer a clear precedent. Maduro will attempt to divide the opposition and provoke it into action, then use whatever pretext is available to crack down on any form of dissent or systemic threat. The pro-Chavista paramilitary Bolivarian Circles, known for intimidating and beating opponents, can be unleashed at any moment.
Part of Chavismo's success has been its opponents' failure to unite. Until now, and throughout the electoral process, Venezuela's democratic opposition has shown unprecedented unity during extraordinarily challenging times. Although the December 6 polls was largely free and legitimate, the general environment was neither fair nor free from fear. Hostile state-sponsored rhetoric helped to create an atmosphere conducive to political violence.
As the odds of confrontation rise, it will grow increasingly difficult for Maduro to cling to the vestiges of Chavismo. Friction is already brewing in Chavista circles as the blame-game for the legislative defeat gathers speed. Furthermore, Maduro lacks the traits that made Chavez a sensation: charisma, the ability to inspire, political savvy, along with the luxury of governing during a time of high oil prices.
During the worst economic crisis in Venezuela's recent history, Maduro has failed miserably. In Chavez's absence, he has also struggled to rally the Chavista base he inherited. After all, it can no longer be showered by the largesse of PDVSA, which the government used as a partisan piggy-bank. Venezuela is blessed with one of the largest energy reserves in the world. But gross mismanagement and rampant corruption during the age of Chavismo have driven PDVSA and the rest of the economy into the ground.
All along, the survival of Chavismo and the Bolivarian Revolution hinged on the price of oil. Chavez used oil as a political weapon to garner support at home and abroad, primarily in Latin America. However, the regional state of fear that characterized Chavez's Venezuela has largely dissipated. Chavez had the financial clout and power and cult of personality to influence and mobilize left-wing movements throughout Latin America. His fierce rhetoric and direct personal attacks could complicate matters for leaders and governments throughout the region.
Chavez's death in 2013 and oil's drastic price drop have removed any remnants of regional fear and thwarted Chavismo's leverage. Furthermore, there is a brewing regional tide against the far-left populism of the past 15 years. Center-right Mauricio Macri's recent presidential victory in Argentina on November 22, for one, marked the first major step in this direction. Immediately after winning, Macri launched the first salvo by calling for Venezuela's suspension from Mercosur, the South American regional trade bloc, on the grounds of alleged human rights violations. However, Macri backtracked on his plan after the overwhelming Chavista legislative defeat.
As Chavismo weakens at home and continues to lose its shine throughout Latin America, new regional voices will rise to join the ranks of those condemning its particular brand of populism. A general shift toward more centrist, accountable, and transparent politics seems almost inevitable at this critical juncture.