A few short days ago, it looked like the political tide was changing in Venezuela.
The head of the new opposition-led Congress ordered the removal of former president Hugo Chávez's portraits from the capitol building and boldly promised to unseat his successor, Nicolas Maduro, within six months. An amnesty law for political prisoners was introduced and journalists were allowed to cover congressional sessions for the first time in years. The socialist government appeared bruised and battered after a beating in December’s elections, and the opposition was on the march.
But, just like that, it suddenly appears the tables have turned again. In less than a week, the government’s heavy-handed and highly questionable powerplay has managed to rollback some of the opposition's electoral gains, leaving the promise of political change suddenly in doubt.
The opposition MUD coalition this week was forced to surrender three of its recently assigned congressional seats following a Supreme Court challenge by President Maduro’s Socialist Party. That adjustment jeopardizes MUD's two-thirds supermajority in congress, and makes it harder for them to push for a referendum to remove the president from office.
“It’s a victory for the government,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington office on Latin America. “But it doesn’t mean the opposition is now in tailspin.”
The opposition congressmen who had to give up their seats are from the remote state of Amazonas, a jungle region that is inhabited mostly by indigenous populations. The ruling socialist party claims the opposition won those seats fraudulently through vote-buying, and got the high court to block their inauguration pending a full investigation.
MUD initially ignored the court order, and swore in the three disputed lawmakers anyway. That prompted a second, more severe, ruling from the socialist-stacked Supreme Court, which ruled this week that any law passed by the new congress would be “invalid” as long as the three legislators from Amazonas held their seats.
Faced with government gridlock and the prospects of presiding over an "illegal congress," the opposition reluctantly complied with the court’s decision on Wednesday and suspended the three Amazonas legislators pending judicial review. The high court is expected to rule in favor of President Maduro.
Indigenous voters from Amazonas state, protested the removal of their congressmen outside the supreme court
The move takes some of the wind out of the opposition's sails, just days after it looked like congress was charting a new course for the country. MUD will no longer be able to remove supreme court judges or reform Venezuela’s constitution.
Some opposition supporters are already fuming about their leadership’s decision to surrender its supermajority and are lamenting the lost opportunity to push for aggressive reforms in a country plagued by rising crime rates and a spiraling economy.
Daniel Lansberg, a Venezuelan political economy professor at Northwestern University, said that the opposition, by submitting to the government's strong-armed tactics, is making it politically “less costly” for the president to reverse the results of the popular vote. He says if the opposition would’ve dug in its heels it could’ve forced the government to take more extreme measures that would have hurt its national and international credibility.
But others think the opposition is being pragmatic, given the circumstances.
Anabella Abadi, an economic consultant and blogger for Caracas Chronicles, said that the opposition made the right move. “It’s their only way to stay relevant and stay in the game,” she said.
Abadi thinks the opposition can still pass several laws without a supermajority in congress, including an amnesty for political prisoners. “The opposition still has the power to hold hearings on economic issues, and review the performance of [and remove] government ministers,” she said.
David Smilde, of the Washington Office on Latin America, said that the government's tactics to weaken the opposition's election win are “worthy of reprobation.” But he thinks that, similar to Al Gore in 2000, the opposition had no choice but to adhere to the Supreme Court’s decision.
“Venezuela is a constitutional democracy and even when other people are unfair, if they have the law on their side, you have to abide by it,” Smilde said.
Despite MUD's setback in congress, Smilde says the Maduro government remains in a weakened state, which gives the opposition the chance to maintain momentum by focusing on “popular initiatives” that would bring relief to Venezuelans suffering from the nation’s ailing economy.
"They should challenge the government to do something instead of fighting for power,” he said.
And the opposition is already showing signs of doing just that, by pushing for a new property title law for people living in social housing projects. On Wednesday the opposition also passed a resolution that urges the president to reopen the border with Colombia. That move should be popular in states that have suffered from the border closure.
But even if the opposition manages to pass new laws, there will still be problems getting other branches of government under Maduro's control to abide by them.
At the end of the day, the opposition congress will need to leverage the support of public opinion to drive a wedge into Maduro's control over other government institutions.
“We’re entering uncharted territory,” Smilde says.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.