President Maduro and His Imaginary Parliament

Venezuela’s opposition has just won a majority in the National Assembly — but the ruling socialists are already working to undermine it.

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According to the psychological literature, approximately one-third of children between the ages of 4 and 8 engage in play with an imaginary friend. Sadly, the research says little about how we should respond to middle-aged politicians who express a desire to do business with an imaginary legislature.

We might soon have an answer to that question. On Dec. 6, Venezuela’s opposition won a landslide victory in nationwide parliamentary elections. Those who predicted that the government would simply accept defeat were ­quickly proven wrong. No sooner were the results announced than President Nicolás Maduro and his remaining allies began working to deprive the National Assembly, now dominated by an opposition supermajority, of its institutional power.

Last Wednesday, Diosdado Cabello, the head of the outgoing parliament, announced the creation of a new and unelected “Communal Congress,” whose members he then invited to convene at the parliament building. Soon after, Maduro rather ominously floated the idea of transferring “all power” to the new body.

Needless to say, none of this would be in line with Venezuela’s much-abused constitution. But during the past sixteen years of chavismo, legal niceties have rarely stood in the way of the late President Hugo Chávez or his successor. Maduro and his followers have no intention of sharing power with a parliament dominated by opponents they have long labeled “fascists,” “coup-mongers,” and “oligarchs.” After the blow to their popular mandate at the polls, the ruling socialists have been gearing up for a major showdown, pitting the four branches of government they still control against the legislature — and, by extension, the popular will. (In addition to the usual executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, Venezuela also has an electoral authority and an amorphous fifth branch known as the poder ciudadano, or “citizens’ power.”)

To this end, Maduro and Cabello have already moved to pack the 32-member Supreme Court with 12 new judges, following their predecessors��� suspicious “early retirement.” For good measure president Maduro has also declared that he will “not accept” any legislation passed by the new parliament to free political prisoners, virtually guaranteeing that such an initiative would end up at the mercy of the supreme court. He has also imposed a three-year freeze on hiring and firing that includes public officials among them key posts within the parliamentary administration.

Making ample use of the bully pulpit, Maduro and Cabello have also made frequent public attacks on the legitimacy of the National Assembly. Maduro has dismissed the opposition victory as a temporary fluke or else an “electoral coup” staged by nefarious foreigners and unnamed oligarchs. Most recently, Maduro has claimed that the opposition had managed to “control parts of the electoral system, violate security, and buy votes” as part of a shadowy (and quite possibly adorable) plot he calls “Mission Koala.”

The authorities have also launched probes alleging electoral irregularities against some of the winning candidates, presumably an attempt to pry loose one of the opposition’s seats. On Tuesday, one of the major opposition parties denounced a court-led attempt to bar twenty-two of their recently elected legislators from taking office. Losing even one seat would deprive the opposition of its crucial two-thirds majority. If that happens, the parliament will be unable to launch a referendum to recall Maduro, amend the constitution, or appoint opposition candidates to the supreme court and the electoral body.

Perhaps the most ominous part of the government’s effort to undermine the elected legislature has been the creation of the “Communal Congress,” justified by the constitution’s reference to “citizens’ power” as a branch of government. The unelected members of the new “Congress,” responding to Cabello’s call, are currently occupying the parliament building, potentially opening the door to conflict when the newly-elected members of the National Assembly try to claim their places in January.

Since the adoption of Venezuela’s current constitution under Chávez in 1999, the branches of government have rarely if ever been in conflict. Instead, the rubber-stamp legislature has done little more than to further the aims of the executive, while the supreme court, which has never ruled against the president, once stated publicly that the very idea of separation of powers unacceptably “weakened the state.”

With state powers no longer working in lockstep for the first time in recent memory, the change in legislative control opens up myriad avenues for confusion, and potentially civil strife. If the “Communal Congress” interlopers refuse to budge from the building come January 5, the supine supreme court might approve a disruption of the scheduled transfer of power. Such a scenario would be clearly unconstitutional — but any opposition complaint would be referred back to the supreme court, which has never been shy about ignoring inconvenient constitutional text.

Oscar Ghersi, who teaches constitutional and public law at the Central University in Caracas, describes Cabello’s new counter-parliament as “an unprecedented institution drawn from an extremely implausible reading of the constitution, verging on an outright coup by the government.” While the poder ciudadano has long existed on paper, he notes, it has never been developed beyond the community level, and even those councils barely function in practice. Ghersi hopes that the government is simply bluffing, perhaps to strengthen its negotiating position – though there’s the more ominous possibility that it’s trying to nudge the opposition into open revolt, thereby justifying a crackdown. Ghersi worries that any escalation could quickly get out of hand.

Since the election, a brilliant little propaganda video has been making the rounds on state television, citing past situations in Latin America where opposition legislatures have overthrown presidents. But at present, the most likely coup may be one unleashed by the president himself.

Latin America has quite a history of “self-coups” (autogolpes), maneuvers in which the executive illegitimately seizes constitutional authority from other branches of government. But the results have varied. In 1992, Peru’s President Alberto Fujimori suspended the constitution, disbanded the legislature, and fired a critical mass of supreme court judges. While he was subsequently criticized in some quarters, he nonetheless managed to remain in power for nearly another decade. Probably inspired by this example, Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano attempted a similar power grab the next year that failed disastrously, forcing him to flee the country in disgrace.

Both of these presidents had a great deal in common with Venezuela’s president today. Like Maduro, each had highly personalized and authoritarian styles. And in both cases, these characteristics led to conflicts with their legislatures.

Fujimori’s autogolpe succeeded in part because he was able to evoke an existential threat to the country — the Shining Path insurgency — to recast his attack on democracy as part of a broader “state of emergency,” helping secure support from the armed forces and mitigating international hostility. In Serrano’s case, however, his own country’s rebels had already sued for peace, making it much harder to justify his “emergency measures.” As a result, he was unable to survive politically.

This background throws an interesting light on Maduro’s periodic attempts to summon up crises. Every few months he seems to “foil” another alleged U.S. coup or spark an international incident with Venezuela’s neighbors. And in the run-up to the election, Maduro had no trouble concocting new doomsday scenarios should the opposition gain a majority. The voting results themselves speak to the limited success of this tactic.

And there’s another factor that should give the Venezuelan president pause: his steeply declining popularity. Fujimori staged his coup at a moment when his public approval rating stood at a robust 60 percent, while Serrano had little more than half that at the time of his own power grab. The most recent polls showed Maduro’s rating at a dismal 22 percent, and it seems likely to have slid still further in the aftermath of his party’s electoral defeat.

Freddy Guevara, a leading member of the opposition who has just been elected to the National Assembly, is hopeful that Maduro will be unable to push too hard for precisely this reason. “They may have the institutional tools — the [supreme] court always validates any crazy thing that occurs to them,” he says, “but they lack the political capital.” He points out that the government didn’t only lose the election, but also the support of crucial areas that house major military bases and chavista community groups. In this light, he says, “it would be crazy for the government to try to hijack the will of the people.”

In the photo, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro delivers a speech during a military parade in Caracas on Dec. 12, 2015.

Photo credit: JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

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