Venezuela's Opposition Poised to Make Gains

4 MINS READJan 22, 2015 | 17:37 GMT
enezuela's Opposition Poised to Make Gains
Venezuelan opposition leader and Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles Radonski addresses reporters at a Jan. 14 press conference in Caracas.

With Venezuela deep in an economic crisis, the most prominent leader among its political opposition, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski of the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica coalition, has called for a protest in Caracas on Jan. 24 that will be accompanied by national demonstrations. The country's politically active student protest movements have also called for nationwide demonstrations to take place Jan. 23. The renewed protest activity suggests that the Venezuelan opposition, which for nearly a decade was too internally divided and politically unpopular to threaten the government in elections, will try to capitalize on public discontent to make gains in the legislative elections tentatively scheduled for late 2015. For the opposition, taking control of the legislature would be a significant political victory that could grant it greater control over certain aspects of the government's domestic policies.

The opposition's call to protest comes at a problematic time for the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, has historically relied on high levels of public spending in election years to maintain its majority in the legislature, but the country's current financial hardships will make such outlays more difficult this year. The average price of the Venezuelan crude oil basket plummeted from around $100 in July to around $38 the week of Jan. 19. The price drop has directly affected the country's primary source of revenue and forced the government to reduce expenditures on its patronage networks. Venezuela is facing a shortage of dollars needed for imports, a problem that will exacerbate product shortages and increase prices for consumers. In an effort to find a solution for the country's economic crisis, Maduro embarked on a two-week global tour at the beginning of the year that included several OPEC member states.

Most private polling firms in Venezuela are showing a notable deterioration in Maduro's approval rating among voters over the past two years, from around 50 percent to about 20 percent currently. According to opposition-oriented polling firm Hercon, 83 percent of respondents to a recent poll wanted the Venezuelan government to be replaced as soon as possible, primarily because of its handling of the economic crisis.

Over the past decade, the PSUV has faced few immediate challenges from the country's opposition and has enjoyed an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. The opposition typically has been nothing more than a fractious coalition of ideologically disparate parties united primarily by a common stance against the government. For example, opposition parties took to the streets to stage protests last year, employing one of the few levers available to directly pressure the government, but the strategy proved divisive. The various parties disagreed on Capriles' more conciliatory position of seeking to negotiate solutions to existing economic and social problems with the Maduro government. As a result, the protest movement remained divided and eventually lost momentum.

With the worsening economy diminishing political support for the government, Capriles' call for protests is most likely an attempt to unify the political opposition ahead of the legislative elections next December. His timing makes sense: The fallout from the economic crisis has steadily altered Venezuela's political landscape, with voters defecting from the PSUV as they have seen government policies impact their immediate well-being. In this environment, Capriles and the opposition parties could conceivably break the PSUV's nearly 10-year legislative dominance. This would give the opposition increased control over some budgetary appropriations and political decisions, posing a more direct challenge to the Maduro government's leeway in pursuing its desired domestic policies (though an opposition-controlled national assembly would be equally limited in how it deals with the worsening economy).

Capriles' support for political demonstrations will likely increase the tempo of street protest activity in the coming weeks. How the public responds to these calls will be a test of his ability to unify the opposition ahead of the elections. The government will rely on its security forces, particularly the national guard, the Bolivarian National Police and some colectivos to disrupt the street protests and deter future demonstrations. If protesters cannot find ways to maneuver around security crackdowns, the street demonstrations will likely have little effect on the Maduro administration.

While the risk of these demonstrations turning violent and disruptive remains, low oil prices will continue to be the main influence on Venezuela's future economic and political direction. Maduro will come under increasing pressure to make economic adjustments to address the crisis with measures likely to include devaluing the bolivar, which is currently valued at 175 to the U.S. dollar on the black market. Other possible moves include decreasing exports of low-priced fuel and oil and increasing the domestic price of gasoline. However, the potential for social backlash and internal dissent from within the PSUV will make implementing such measures difficult for Maduro. With few direct options available to the president, and with the government's popularity on the decline, Capriles and other opposition leaders will continue their attempts to galvanize public opinion ahead of the legislative vote.

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