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Venezuela’s Opposition Is Poised to Win Big — But Maduro Isn’t Done Yet

Venezuelans are fed up with their chavista government. But taking down Maduro will take more than a win at the polls this Sunday.

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This Sunday, Venezuelans will go to the polls to elect all 167 members of the National Assembly, the country’s single-chamber legislative body. All opinion polls predict that the opposition will soundly beat the ruling Socialist party allied to President Nicolás Maduro. For the long-suffering opposition, the prospect of a decisive election victory has ignited hopes of rapid regime change.

Those hopes should be tempered. While an opposition win would be a turning point, it would not mean the end of Maduro.

Before late President Hugo Chávez picked Maduro to succeed him, chavismo — the political movement he founded — was practically unbeatable, winning every national election since 1998 but one. Chávez used his personal charisma, the emotional bond he created with voters, and the largesse from a seemingly endless stream of petrodollars to build a political empire.

He extended this power to the courts, the military, the legislature, even private business. Today the government’s iron grip can be felt in every institution. For the past sixteen years, the ruling socialists have been able to wave off criticism of their attacks on civil liberties by saying, with some degree of truth, that they had the backing of a majority of Venezuelans.

Now one of the country’s most important institutions may be about to free itself from that control. An opposition win — no matter the margin — would have huge symbolic meaning.

A loss for the government this Sunday is almost inevitable, partly as a result of the terrible state of the economy. The plunge in oil prices, combined with the government’s refusal to adapt its policies, has led to widespread scarcity of basic staples, the world’s deepest recession, and the world’s highest inflation rate. If the opposition manages to win two-thirds of the National Assembly, they could trigger a referendum to recall President Maduro. Even winning a simple majority would make life uncomfortable for the government.

But would it mean more than that? Can the opposition plausibly use the legislature to force regime change in Venezuela? Or even to change specific policies?

The answer is probably “no” (at least in the short term). As weak and unpopular as he is, Maduro still commands the military, the courts, and his own party. That is enough to keep him in power.

Maduro has faced some criticism from members of his coalition, but it has come from minor players who have quickly been sidelined after suggesting the hapless president needs to change course. Chavismo does not tolerate dissent, and good chavistas never retreat and never negotiate. Chávez himself experienced his share of electoral losses and tactical setbacks, which he then invariably ignored or surmounted. His heirs would be painted as “traitors to his legacy” (a term frequently used for dissidents) if they did otherwise.

As for the courts and the military, both bodies are packed with loyalists who benefit from Maduro’s insane policies. According to many insiders who have fled the country, both bodies control the smuggling of price-controlled goods as well as the copious amounts of drugs that transit through the country. Any policy changes that would touch their interests would weaken their support for Maduro, which he desperately needs.

The opposition likes to fantasize about the powers their projected majority will give them. This reflects a certain naiveté regarding the realities of politics in Venezuela. The National Assembly could very well begin proceedings to remove Maduro from office, but the courts will surely have something to say about that. And while current candidates like to think otherwise, the National Assembly does not set economic policy.

Many of Venezuela’s long-suffering people want change, and they want it now — but there are several acts still to be played in this tragedy. This election may deal a huge blow to chavismo’s internal logic of revolution empowered by the people. But it won’t be a definitive turning point. To put it in the language of baseball (a sport Venezuelans are mad about), Maduro is losing, but there are still several innings to go.

In the photo, a supporter of the opposition Movement of Democratic Unity (MUD) party attends a campaign rally on December 3, 2015, in Caracas, Venezuela.

Photo credit: LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @juannagel

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