Venezuela | The coming confrontation

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 8.35.36 PMJan 9th 2016

A dangerous stand-off looms between the government and the newly elected parliament

IT WAS rowdy and disorganised. At one point it nearly degenerated into a brawl. But the opening on January 5th of Venezuela’s parliament, the first to be elected with an opposition majority in 17 years of autocratic rule, had the feel of a velvet revolution. The portraits of the late Hugo Chávez, the founder of the populist movement that still governs the country, and Simón Bolívar, the 19th-century liberator whom the chavistas claimed as inspiration, had been taken down. Speeches by opposition deputies, once routinely cut short by the bullying former president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, were heard in full. Dozens of police guards around the building leaned into their car radios to hear politicians rail against the authoritarian and incompetent rule of the current president, Nicolás Maduro. “This is a wake-up call,” said a soldier as he listened raptly to the proceedings.

The chavistas did not put up with the harangues for long. After less than an hour they walked out—in protest at supposed procedural errors by the new president of the assembly, Henry Ramos. Even then they could not escape interrogation. Parliament’s new masters had opened its doors to all journalists, not just pro-government ones as before. The normally cocky Mr Cabello, who led the walkout, looked distinctly uncomfortable when confronted by reporters who asked mildly testing questions on live television. Cilia Flores, Venezuela’s first lady, who is one of 54 chavistas in parliament, icily refused to answer one about two nephews who are facing narcotics charges in the United States.

Chavismo has been wounded, but it is far from defeated. Parliament aside, all the main institutions of government remain under its control. The setback to the regime has made it more authoritarian. Before parliament’s opening Venezuela’s Supreme Court had ruled that four of the incoming MPs from the state of Amazonas, three of them from the opposition Democratic Unity alliance (MUD), could not be sworn in. They are the subjects of investigations into possible electoral fraud. This ruling threw into doubt the two-thirds majority the MUD appeared to win in the election on December 6th. Such a “supermajority” would allow the opposition to begin the process of appointing and dismissing Supreme Court judges and to convene a convention to rewrite the constitution. The day after its opening parliament defiantly swore in the three MUD deputies, restoring the opposition’s two-thirds majority.

Supreme weapon

In the battle that now looms with parliament, the Supreme Court may become the regime’s main weapon. One of the last acts of the outgoing assembly was to stuff the court with 13 new pro-government judges. Mr Maduro has already suggested that all legislation that he disagrees with, including a proposed amnesty to secure the release of scores of political prisoners, will be deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. “It is difficult to imagine that congress can have an institutional conflict against the Supreme Court and win,” says Luis Vicente León, a pollster.

The government may hope to provoke divisions within the MUD. Its representatives in the National Assembly are from a hotchpotch of 13 parties, united in their desire to defeatchavismo but often divided over the best means to do so. Mr Ramos, a cantankerous veteran from the Democratic Action party, which governed Venezuela before Chávez, was the choice of smaller parties within the MUD. They fear domination by the younger Justice First party, led by Henrique Capriles, who nearly won a presidential election in 2013.

Mr Ramos is himself a divisive figure. Ahead of parliament’s opening session he confirmed that he would seek the constitutional removal of Mr Maduro from the presidency within six months, presumably by launching a referendum to recall him from office. Moderates in the coalition have resisted issuing such a clear challenge to the executive so soon.

Time is working against the regime. The price of Venezuela’s heavy oil, virtually its only export, dipped to under $30 a barrel in December, its lowest since February 2004. Default on some of its $98 billion of foreign debt is “becoming hard to avoid,” says Barclays Bank. Over 2015 and 2016 the economy is likely to shrink by nearly 15%. Shortages of basic consumer goods will get worse. In the absence of official figures, analysts reckon that inflation is nearly 200%, the highest rate in the world. A decree by Mr Maduro, enacted before the new parliament opened, shows that the regime has little intention of doing anything new about the dire state of the economy. It strips the assembly of its right to appoint directors of the Central Bank, or even to question them.

As the confrontation between president and parliament worsens, Venezuelans wonder what role the army will play. On the night of the parliamentary election in December, the country’s defence minister, Vladimir Padrino López, declared in an unscheduled appearance on state television that the army would “uphold the constitution”. Some analysts saw that as a warning to government hardliners to accept the results. The night before parliament opened, General Padrino López went public again. “The Bolivarian Armed Forces is not a means to subvert the constitutional order,” he tweeted, somewhat cryptically.

The government’s eccentric claims about what is constitutional put the armed forces in an awkward position. “The military says it is going to defend the law, but what is the law?” wonders Mr León. Venezuela’s looming struggle is largely about the answer to that question.