Venezuela – Opposition Legislators Give Up Seats in Stand-Off

For Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president and the chosen successor of Hugo Chávez, life has been very difficult recently. With shortages of goods in supermarkets across the country, spiraling inflation, protests and a record low oil price, political capital has been hard to generate. President Maduro’s woes were compounded by a very poor electoral result last month for his party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), and his electoral coalition, the Gran Polo Patriótico (GPP), which has resulted in divided government.

In December, elections were held to choose all 167 legislators for the unicameral Venezuelan National Assembly. Voter discontent and somewhat ironically, the shift to a mixed-majoritarian electoral system, allowed the opposition alliance, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), to win a very healthy majority in the house, and overturn the government majority for the first time in seventeen year.[1] The PSUV, penalized by the majoritarianism of the new electoral system, won only 55 of the seats. In contrast, the MUD managed to win 109 of the seats in the house, including the three seats reserved for indigenous representatives.

This gives the MUD the magic supermajority, which would allow them to begin the process of peeling back many of the reforms of the Bolivarian revolution; change the constitution; and appoint new Supreme Court justices. However last Monday, the current Supreme Court, which the MUD have accused of being full of Maduro’s supporters, barred three opposition legislators and one from the governing coalition from taking their seats. These four legislators are all from the state of Amazonas, and the PSUV alleged that there had been irregularities during the election. These four legislators were to be suspended until an investigation into electoral practices could be conducted.

If these three MUD legislators are unable to take their seats, then the opposition coalition loses their crucial two-thirds supermajority majority, significantly curtailing their ability to dismantle the Bolivarian reforms.

Regardless, on Wednesday of last week, the three opposition members of the Assembly were officially sworn in. On Monday, the Supreme Court announced that any decisions from the Assembly would be overturned, as the house has breached the Constitution by allowing these three legislators to be sworn in. In response, on Tuesday, the National Assembly President, Henry Ramos Allup, was forced to suspend the legislative session as the house lacked the necessary quorum following the refusal of the PSUV to take their seats.

A serious political crisis appeared to be brewing, which would only add to the country’s economic and social woes.

The political stand-off ended yesterday when the three opposition legislators in question, Julio Haron Ygarza, Nirma Guarulla and Romel Guzamana, agreed to give up their seats while investigations into the alleged electoral irregularities continue.

As it stands, MUD now only has 109 active seats, a 65 per cent majority and just short of the two thirds supermajority. Although an imminent crisis has been averted, I suspect that this will most likely not be the end of conflict between Maduro’s government and the opposition-controlled house.

[1] For a great analysis of the recent elections, which highlights the role of the electoral system change, have a look at John Carey’s Monkey Page post here.

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