Venezuela’s ruling socialist party crushed in mid-term elections
Opposition United Democratic Table wins huge majority in weekend poll
Newly-elected Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Venezuela’s ruling socialist party has been crushed in mid-term elections held on Sunday as the country’s self-styled Bolivarian revolution suffered its worst defeat since the late Hugo Chávez first won power in 1998.
The opposition United Democratic Table, or MUD, alliance won an overwhelming majority in the 167-seat unicameral national assembly, taking 99 seats to the 46 won by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, with 22 more places still to be decided.
At almost 75 per cent, turnout was high for a mid-term election as the opposition capitalised on widespread public anger at an imploding economy, rampant corruption and uncontrolled violence that has left Venezuela with one of the world’s highest murder rates.
President Nicolás Maduro quickly went on television to say that he accepted the voters’ verdict, allying fears he himself stoked during the campaign that he would refuse to recognise what is his movement’s most significant setback at the polls in 17 years.
“We are here, with morals and ethics, to recognise these adverse results,” he told viewers.
He blamed the defeat on “the economic war” that Chavismo claims is being waged against its revolution by an alliance of local elites and the United States.
Already facing calls from the president-elect of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, for it to be suspended from the regional Mercosur trade bloc over its violations of the organisation’s democratic principles, the government in Caracas had come under pressure from Brazil to ensure the election was fair and its outcome accepted by both sides.
Nerves were set jangling in the MUD’s headquarters when the national electoral council extended voting time in order to allow people still in queues outside polling stations to vote. The MUD’s general secretary, Jesús Torrealba, protested the council’s decision, arguing “the law needs to be fulfilled” while the alliance’s principal leader, Henrique Capriles, accused the government of simulating queues to try to gain more time to get out its supporters.
Tension quickly dissipated with the council’s announcement of the opposition’s crushing victory in the early hours of yesterday morning, providing the spark for celebrations by MUD supporters, with many taking to the streets waving the national flag and letting off fireworks.
Despite Sunday’s victory, the MUD will face significant challenges in restricting the power of Chavismo which, as well as the presidency, still dominates the country’s military, state oil company PDVSA and communal councils.
To curtail the new legislature, Maduro can also make extensive use of the executive’s decree powers and, earlier this month, moved to cement his movement’s control over the supreme court which will arbitrate any possible disputes between the executive and new assembly.
But Sunday’s defeat hits at Chavismo’s claim to be a popular national movement. Many of its traditional poorer supporters have abandoned it in protest at the squandering of the country’s oil wealth which has provoked rampant inflation and shortages of basic foodstuffs.
The result is the second significant defeat for the populists who have dominated much of South America for more than a decade, following the victory of the right-wing Macri over Argentina’s Peronist movement in presidential elections there last month.
The decline in the prices of commodities such as oil and soy, key exports for Venezuela and Argentina respectively, has exposed their government’s economic mismanagement, leaving them with less cash with which to fund popular spending programmes.
In order to try to make up the shortfall, the government in Caracas has run up tens of billions of euro in debts with China, secured against future oil supplies.
Some figures in Venezuela’s opposition are already advocating a campaign to collect up the four million signatures necessary to trigger a recall election against Maduro.
He scraped to victory against MUD leader Capriles in presidential elections called in 2013 following the death of Hugo Chávez from cancer. His term is set to run until 2019.