Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s decision on Jan. 5 to disrupt the National Assembly’s leadership election – and block Juan Guaidó from retaining his seat as the Assembly’s president – would seem to contradict government strategy heading into 2020.
With Guaidó’s domestic and international influence waning at the end of 2019, and with National Assembly elections constitutionally mandated to take place this year, Maduro and his allies seemed well-positioned to further consolidate their power.
Taking control over the Assembly, which has been in opposition hands since 2016, was not going to be easy. The administration would need to win votes despite minority support from the public (our polling at Delphos recently showed voter intentions at 50% for the opposition to 20% for the government) while at the same time convincing international observers that the elections would be legitimate.
Still, it was a trick that Maduro seemed he would be able to pull off – thanks to a combination of opposition voter malaise, legal and extralegal maneuvering and gerrymandering to give his side the best possible chance of winning, and a few concessions and adjustments on the economy to make certain sectors of the country feel that their lot was finally improving.
The government’s radical action on Jan. 5 instead appears to have given the opposition an opportunity to fight back.
After the Maduro administration’s efforts in recent weeks to discredit Guaidó failed to reduce his share of support in the Assembly, the government took a drastic step of trying to stop his re-election by force, blocking entry to the legislative palace to a majority of opposition congressmembers on the day of the vote. The government then attempted, despite numerous legal and procedural roadblocks, to stack the Assembly leadership with opposition parliamentarians who months ago were expelled from their parties. The opposition coalition, for its part, moved its session to a separate site, in accordance with parliamentary rules, and Guaidó was ratified as president.
Just what the government was hoping to accomplish is still unclear. Taking uncontested control of the National Assembly, and thus removing a block on Maduro’s ability to execute his agenda (especially internationally) would, on its face, seem to have been a near impossible outcome. Images of military members physically preventing deputies from entering the legislature have left the international community with little choice but to disavow recognition of the new Assembly leadership (in much the same way they have opted not to recognize Maduro’s National Constituent Assembly). Even the governments in Mexico and Argentina, which are not at all eager to criticize the Maduro government, didn’t hesitate in coming out against the administration’s actions.
A Russian deputy minister has said that his country would increase efforts to support Venezuela economically if Guaidó were no longer president of the National Assembly. That could help explain the administration’s course of action. But would the manner in which Maduro went about things on Jan. 5 fit with Russia’s expectations? Is the government’s degree of desperation for Russian help such that it was worth making such a hasty move against Guaidó?
In any case, the effect of Maduro’s move on the opposition appears to have backfired. A dissident opposition faction called July 16 turned up unexpectedly at the external session held by Guaidó and voted in support of his re-election. It is still early to tell, but one effect of Maduro’s move against the National Assembly could be to push disparate factions of the opposition closer together.
So why do it? What did Maduro and his allies have to gain from such drastic action? Three possibilities come to mind, none of which is entirely convincing just yet.
First, is that the government views the coming parliamentary election, with Guaidó still in place as Assembly president, as a greater threat to its hold on power than was previously believed. The 2020 parliamentary election (which will most likely be held at the end of the year) could have given Maduro a chance to remove an obstacle to his authority while at the same time regaining at least the veneer of legimitacy for his control over the legislature.
The government has for months been carefully planning a path toward winning the election while at the same time making certain concessions to somewhat level the playing field. Maduro and his allies know that they would be best served by avoiding a repeat of the disputed 2018 presidential vote, which served as a catalyst for Guaidó’s rise and led to the most widespread public protest in years. The government’s goal has thus been to project to the outside world that these elections would be more free and fair than in the past, while at the same time convincing Venezuelans who support the opposition that the outcome would in fact be a foregone conclusion.
It is possible, however, that the government has decided that this was too fine a line to walk, and that risking international ire was better than allowing for even the slight chance of defeat at the polls. If this is the case, the government’s offensive against the opposition can be expected to continue, and a move against Guaidó himself could be in the works.
Another possibility is that the government didn’t believe that the opposition leadership was in a position to react strongly to its moves to take control of the Assembly. Guaidó and his allies are currently operating from a position of weakness, and their ability to bring Venezuelans on the streets diminished over the second half of 2019. Indeed, at the time of writing there had yet to be a major mobilization of support for the opposition outside parliament or on the streets following the events of Jan. 5. If this is the government’s view, it may try to stick to its strategy of recent months – preparing for elections with a slightly higher possibility of defeat – while at the same time forcefully taking steps to weaken its principal competitors.
Finally, it is possible that Maduro and his allies simply miscalculated. The government may try to do what it can to minimize the negative effects of the move and re-center their focus on their electoral strategy. Regardless, the government has already damaged its credibility just as it was trying to convince the international community of its willingness to shore up the electoral process. Maduro has also given the opposition, which benefits most when the government acts arbitarily and overplays its hand on legal or constitutional issues, a cause around which to regroup.
There are still shadows hanging over the events of Jan. 5, but for now Maduro’s decision remains a difficult one to understand, particularly as the government seemed to hold the cards ahead of this year’s election. What does seem clear is that the administration has moved itself further away from a negotiated solution to the crisis, and favored its radical wing. The coming days and weeks may give us a better idea of what the government was thinking – and whether the opposition can take advantage of the opportunity it’s been given.
Seijas is a Venezuelan political analyst and statistician, Ph.D. He is the director of the Delphos poll. Follow him on Twitter @felixseijasr