CARACAS — Venezuela’s opposition won control of the National Assembly by a landslide, stunning the ruling party and altering the balance of power 17 years after the late Hugo Chavez kicked off the nation’s socialist revolution.
The opposition coalition won at least 99 seats in the incoming 167-seat legislature, electoral authorities announced early today. The ruling socialist party won 46 seats.
The opposition coalition needs to take 13 of the 22 remaining races to give it a two-thirds supermajority. That would allow it to pass major legislation, sack Supreme Court justices or convene a convention to rewrite Chavez’s 1999 constitution.
The victory is likely to fuel demands for President Nicolas Maduro to free jailed opponents and roll back socialist policies during what could be a period of intense political conflict, in a deeply polarized country mired in economic crisis.
Fireworks, car honking and shouts of joy broke out after midnight in the streets of the Venezuelan capital of Caracas when National Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena announced the partial results, six hours after polls closed.
Within seconds, Maduro recognized the opposition’s win, saying that despite an adverse result, Venezuela’s democracy had triumphed. But he recalled the long history of US-supported coups in Latin America in blaming the “circumstantial” loss on a conservative “counterrevolution” trying to sabotage the oil-dependent economy and destabilize his rule.
“I can say today that the economic war has triumphed,” Maduro, surrounded by his party’s top leadership, said from the presidential palace.
Opposition leaders wept with emotion and swigged champagne as the results were announced. Many seemed stunned by their win. Some cautioned that the result has more to do with anger at Venezuela’s woes than an embrace of opposition parties.
“The opposition needs to accept this with a lot of humility,” said political consultant Francisco Marquez, who managed one of the winning opposition campaigns. “This was a punishment vote and we will need to show people that we’re up to the task.”
The opposition coalition, which pulled together more than a dozen parties that have historically competed among themselves for power, has pledged to use its newfound leverage to pass an amnesty for dozens of opponents jailed during last year’s protests.
But leaders offered few other concrete policy proposals during the campaign, and it’s unclear whether politicians who have spent their entire political careers railing against the socialist party’s monopoly on power will be able to govern with Maduro still in the presidency.
Hardliners are already vowing to seek a recall referendum to cut short Maduro’s term before it ends in 2019.
“As soon as January comes, it’s amnesty for political prisoners, constitutional reform, a recall referendum. Radical change,” said Popular Will politician Alfredo Jimeno.
Voter turnout was a stunning 74 per cent, the highest for a parliamentary vote since compulsory voting ended in the 1990s, as Venezuelans punished Maduro’s government for widespread shortages, a plunging currency and triple-digit inflation.
“Venezuelan families are tired of living the consequences of the failure,” Jesus Torrealba, head of the Democratic Unity opposition coalition, told supporters at campaign headquarters. “The country wants change and that change is beginning today.”
The opposition victory deals a serious setback to the socialist revolution launched by Chavez, who until his death in 2013 had an almost magical hold on Venezuela’s long-excluded masses.
But Maduro, who became president after Chavez died, still has a near-complete grip on the executive and judicial branches of government, including the Supreme Court, so he can easily outflank a hostile congress if it lacks a super-majority. And some have already floated the idea that outgoing lawmakers will pass a law granting Maduro special decree powers to ride roughshod over the new congress, which won’t be sworn in until January.
Voting yesterday was mostly peaceful, though several ruling party governors were caught on film braving boos and insults as they entered their polling places.
The socialists lost even in Chavez’s home state of Barinas, where his brother Adan is governor and several family members hold high office. In the capital, the opposition won by almost 20 percentage points.
Maduro had repeatedly vowed in recent weeks to take to the streets and defend Chavez’s legacy if his party lost. But on Sunday night he softened his tone, urging his supporters to calmly regroup and accept the results.
“I call on all of our people to recognize in peace these results and re-evaluate many political aspects of the revolution,” he said.
Some government supporters are already bracing for a fight, however.
“Now everything will just get worse. The Chavistas will go to war with the opposition,” said Diana Areaz, who waited to hear the results with her friend, who makes a living dressing up as Cuban revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
For Areaz, who was eight years old when Chavez came to power, the defeat was unimaginable.
“I’ve only ever known one government. But the truth is Maduro abandoned the revolution, and now it’s hardly a revolution at all,” she said.