CARACAS, Venezuela – Shortly after the Venezuelan Supreme Court held the nation’s opposition-led National Assembly in contempt for swearing in several representatives whose electoral wins were under investigation, those individuals in question will abandon their seats in order to resolve the situation.
On December 6 of 2015, the opposition’s Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition won big in the parliamentary elections, securing control of the 167-seat unicameral National Assembly by winning 112 seats.
Henry Ramos Allup, head of the centrist Democratic Action party, became the new head of the National Assembly where it was made known that the MUD would have an absolute majority after having passed the necessary threshold of two-thirds of the seats.
The 72-year-old lawyer is now tasked with “changing the government,” to use his words, as President Nicolás Maduro of the center-left United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and his Ministers are still mandated to remain in power until 2019.
Thus, the aims of the MUD are now to initiate some sort of mechanism that will attempt to recall or impeach Maduro before his term expires and call for early elections, and Ramos Allup has already announced that he would approve a parliamentary investigation into Maduro’s decisions and actions.
As Ramos Allup ordered the removal of all iconography bearing the image of Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez and Maduro inside the parliamentary chambers, leaving on the walls only the old oil paintings of native son, national hero and liberator Simón Bolívar, the PSUV figures grumbled and filed out of the building.
The reason for this was the “dishonorable proceedings” carried out by the opposition; that is, not that they were cheerfully celebrating their newfound majority or removing pictures but that they swore in as parliamentarians three figures who were still under investigation by the National Electoral Council (CNE) for irregularities in their electoral victories.
In response to the ongoing investigation, in which three candidates of the MUD and one candidate of the PSUV (all from the southern State of Amazonas) were implicated, the Maduro government had asked the National Assembly majority not to swear in the three individuals as that would violate national law and the national constitution.
Ramos Allup swore in the three individuals in spite of the legal repercussions and in response, the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) made the decision to hold the National Assembly in contempt as a consequence of the event.
This means that all acts passed by the National Assembly, since the swearing-in ceremony and until the investigation is concluded, is ruled void. Furthermore, the TSJ is technically allowed to assume control of the decision-making in the de-facto legal absence of the National Assembly, but no such action has been taken yet.
The opposition responded by condemning the TSJ’s decision as an “insult to the electoral will of the people,” a notion that was backed by the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, who said that the TSJ and the Maduro administration were “overstepping its bounds and overreaching in its functions” in a display of “erosion of democracy” in Venezuela.
The MUD did not, however, make a definitive decision in regard to what their next move would be, with most analysts speculating that some sectors of the MUD were seeking to avoid conflict while others sought to confront the Executive over the decision.
While the coalition was debating their course of action, the three disputed representatives reported to the National Assembly where they told Ramos Allup that they are giving up their seats temporarily until their respective investigations are finished.
The change in the number of MUD representatives in the National Assembly has now moved from 112 to 109, meaning that the absolute majority the opposition enjoyed briefly is gone and so are certain powers that come with that absolute majority, like the ability to pass constitutional amendments (that could cut short Maduro’s term) and far-reaching reforms and to name new judges to the Supreme Court that would vote in the opposition’s favor.
In any case, a battle between the branches of Venezuelan government (and possible further unrest on the streets) has been avoided, at least for now, and Maduro is set to deliver his State of the Union address on Friday evening in Caracas. Earlier this week, the President had threatened to make the annual speech outside of the National Assembly, where it is always delivered, given its recent legal status.
In the December election, the PSUV lost their majority in the National Assembly for the first time since 1999 (back when their coalition was known as the Fifth Republic Movement). Led by the iconic Hugo Chávez, his “Bolivarian Revolution” was immensely popular in Venezuela for well over a decade but a series of developments over the last several years severely damaged its popularity and reputation.
Fed up with issues like high inflation, shortages, high crime rates, insecurity and what they deem to be political repression, the populace of Venezuela has been increasingly turning away from the party, especially since the death of Chávez in March of 2013 and the subsequent worsening economic situation in the country, brought about mostly by the sharp fall of oil prices and other commodities.
For those same reasons, various anti-government groups and opposition leaders took to the streets on February 12, 2014, and the violent march that ensued ended in three dead and hundreds injured. The demonstrations, organized and led by opposition figure Leopoldo López, intensified for several weeks thereafter and left 43 Venezuelans dead (mostly security figures) before calm returned to the nation.
In September of 2015, López was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison for his part in the disturbances after having been detained at the Ramo Verde military prison in the interior of the country, some 35 kilometers (22 miles) south of Greater Caracas in the town of Los Teques, since February 18 of 2014.
López, who was already banned from serving in a public office in 2008 after he orchestrated similar demonstrations that ended in violence, was a decisive character among the opposition. With a shady past as he was implicated for receiving illegal promotions and kickbacks within the state oil company due to his mother’s long-held political connections, and his fiery anti-dialogue demeanor, López divided the opposition.
In the aftermath of the protests and his arrest, the mainstream segment of the opposition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), had remained firmly in opposition to Maduro’s ruling government but peacefully, choosing to battle Maduro and the PSUV through democratic elections.
On the other side were members of La Salida (The Exit), a radical dissident faction of the MUD that has refused to participate in any dialogue with Maduro and has called for an immediate change in leadership, urging an outright ousting of Maduro through mass mobilizations. López is the most prominent member of La Salida.
After López’s sentence, however, that fractured opposition only further unified and solidified their respective voting blocks for December’s ultimately successful elections. The MUD is planning to propose a bill very soon that will seek to free “political prisoners” across the country, including López.