The Venezuelan government has good reason to engage the opposition in negotiations. On Sept. 7, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) opposition coalition drew thousands of people to demonstrations in Caracas in favor of holding a recall referendum in 2016. Should they get their way, a successful vote would result in a new presidential election that, given the level of public dissatisfaction with Maduro's administration, could play out in the opposition's favor. (By contrast, if Maduro were recalled in a 2017 referendum, his vice president would replace him, according to Venezuela's Constitution.) MUD has already shown itself capable of capitalizing on popular discontent, and the scale of the recent protests suggests that it has substantial support among the Venezuelan people.
The Ruling Party's Dilemma
The public's mounting displeasure with the president presents a conundrum for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). In Venezuela's current political climate, the regional and presidential elections scheduled over the next three years could end the party's control over all branches of government. The government's latest calls for dialogue are likely an attempt to avoid that outcome and the immediate censure of a 2016 referendum. According to several reports, Maduro's administration is trying to persuade the opposition to drop its demands for a recall vote this year in exchange for a new presidential race in 2018. But even if the administration fails, the negotiations themselves may be enough to stall the referendum until next year, allowing the PSUV to maintain control of the presidency even if Maduro is ousted. Should that happen, the vice president — currently Aristobulo Isturiz — will take his place. The question of whether Isturiz will be replaced before then is still up for debate, though. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, who is already legally empowered to exercise executive powers via ministerial decree, has been floated as a potential successor to the vice president.
Either way, the proposed negotiations will buy the PSUV time, perhaps enough to negotiate the party's exit from power and ensure its role in the next government. As an added bonus for the ruling party, any attempt by opposition leaders to engage in substantive talks with the PSUV will likely create friction within the MUD coalition. Parties such as Vente Venezuela, for example, will not favor the idea of delaying the referendum until 2017, much less waiting for an early election in 2018. Since Maduro's vice president is legally required to replace him in the event of a recall in or after 2017, early elections in 2018 would be possible only if both sides agreed to them and the Supreme Court approved them. With consensus in short supply in Venezuela, that outcome seems unlikely.
Still, there is evidence to suggest that the groundwork for negotiations has already been laid. On Sept. 13, Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodriguez, former National Assembly Speaker Diosdado Cabello and Maduro all acknowledged that meetings are taking place between opposition and ruling party figures with the intent to open talks. The three men are the members of the ruling party's civilian faction whose positions are most likely to be jeopardized by the rapid political transition a referendum would trigger. According to Maduro, Pope Francis has signaled that the Catholic Church is willing to support negotiations in Venezuela as well. Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who has visited Venezuela several times in the past month, is also reportedly mediating the discussions between the PSUV and the opposition, though there have been reports of two meetings without Zapatero or other foreign mediators present.
No Guarantee of Progress
Of course, just because preparations are being made for a dialogue does not mean that it will actually move forward. That Maduro and two of his closest allies in the ruling party publicly announced the talks could indicate their intention to delay a true negotiation. The appearance of entertaining the government's offer could undermine the opposition's unity and reduce its ability to coordinate protests — the very factors thus far that have enabled it to force the Maduro administration to the table. Furthermore, the government cannot openly declare its intention to put off the referendum without risking greater unrest. The periodic, if uncoordinated, demonstrations against the government already taking place could become focal points for more frequent and violent protests amid Venezuela's worsening economic circumstances. Even if the government and opposition reach an agreement to hold an early election in 2018, there is no guarantee that it would stem the discontent driven by the increasing economic hardship among Venezuelans.
Pressure is building for Maduro's government to find a solution to the stalemate in Caracas so that the country can begin fixing its deeper economic issues. Striking a bargain with the opposition could be one way to do that, but considering the number of competing interests in both the PSUV and MUD, it will not be easy. Instead, the most likely scenario still appears to be pushing off the recall referendum until 2017. Though it would be politically costly for the ruling party, it is also an option both sides could agree on — especially as the internal unity of each party comes under more and more strain.