In Venezuela, the executive and legislative branch are now engaged in nothing short of open war. The Venezuelan Supreme Court announced late on Wednesday that it would take over and assume the legislative powers of the opposition-dominated Congress. The Court alleges that the National Assembly are in contempt of court over a case involving three opposition legislators. The opposition claim that this move is simply a coup. In fact, some have compared it to the autogolpe (self-coup) of President Alberto Fujimori in Peru in 1992.
Executive-legislative relations in Venezuela have been smoldering since the legislative elections of December 2015. As I have discussed previously on this blog, although the opposition won enough seats for the all-important two thirds majority, some political shenanigans managed to prevent the super-majority taking all of their seats. The Supreme Court 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, revolving around accusations of vote buying. To prevent the escalation of another political crisis, in January, 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.
Although this denied the opposition the magic two thirds majority required to change the constitution, they have nonetheless placed President Maduro on the back foot, both in and out of the Assembly. However, President Maduro has found an ally in the Supreme Court. The Venezuelan constitution does not grant President Maduro veto power, but presidents are allowed to refer a bill to the Supreme Court, who can rule on the legitimacy of the legislation. So far, in the government’s battle with Congress, the Supreme Court has proven to be President Maduro’s best ally, striking down a number of the opposition initiatives. In this case, the Court accuses the leaders of Congress of not handling the case of the expelled legislators according to legal procedures.
This all comes amid a debilitating economic crisis for Venezuela. The Maduro administration has been seeking investment in the state oil company PDVSA in order to raise much-needed income. Some of this mooted investment was to come from Russia. The opposition led-Congress was looking set to oppose these type of joint ventures and foreign investment in Venezuela’s oil industry. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court also authorized Maduro to negotiate such ventures without Congressional approval.
Venezuela’s actions have been condemned by governments across the region and by the Organization of American States, but it looks as if Maduro’s administration are now being forced to go for all or nothing. We have written before on this blog, notably with reference to Venezuela, about electoral or competitive authoritarianism, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002. These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety.
In Venezuela, it doesn’t even look like much of that façade remains any more.
 Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.