Setback for Venezuela’s socialists

December 14, 2015 12:18 am | Updated November 16, 2021 10:19 pm IST

The socialists of Venezuela, first led by the late > President Hugo Chávez and then by President Nicolás Maduro, have had a near-total hegemony over power for the past 17 years. But the >results of the parliamentary elections held on December 6, in which the centre-right opposition secured a ‘supermajority’ with 112 seats out of the total 167, demonstrate that the socialist narrative which Chávez painstakingly built over the ruins of West-backed dictatorships and the failures of free-market capitalism has started losing its grip over the Venezuelan voters. Though an opposition victory was expected, their performance was better than even the most optimistic forecasts. With a two-thirds majority in the legislature, the opposition now has the strength to remove Supreme Court justices, pass laws and even draft a new Constitution, a move that could end Mr. Maduro’s presidential tenure. What has led to such a huge defeat of the socialists? The Venezuelan election comes close on the heels of the defeat of the leftist candidate, Daniel Scioli, in the Argentine presidential election. But it would be premature to see these two elections as part of a larger trend in South America of the resurgence of the Right. Rather, what the Argentine and Venezuelan stories tell is that the Left parties in these countries are paying a political price for the troubles in the economy.

In Venezuela, the socialists draw legitimacy and support from the government’s pro-poor welfare policies. Chávez’s redistributive policies had lifted millions out of poverty and boosted real income, helping the ruling party establish itself among the vast majority of the country’s poor. But this programme, largely funded by oil revenues, came under enormous strain when crude prices tumbled — compared to $115 a barrel in June 2014, it is now less than $40 a barrel — in the global market. Chávez’s original plan was to diversify the economy. But he did not face any imminent economic threat as oil prices were relatively high during his tenure. Mr. Maduro’s administration, which blamed the opposition for the economic worries of the country, however, failed to devise an alternative plan to let the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ stay afloat. Other economic and structural problems, such as high inflation, shortage of essential goods and poor infrastructure made matters more difficult for him. More important, Mr. Maduro lacks the political sharpness and charisma of Chávez, who, despite his combative style of politics, remained a highly popular father figure of the nation during his term. He was also a unifying force within the Socialist Party where growing rifts are now challenging Mr. Maduro’s authority. The election result is a wake-up call for the socialists. It is undisputed that the system that Chávez built has benefited millions of Venezuelans. But Mr. Maduro and his team need to refocus their energy on strengthening it, rather than simply blaming the opposition for every challenge they face.

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