Whilst Venezuela’s economic woes began after the oil boom of the early 2000s came to an abrupt end, in a more specific sense, Venezuela’s political woes began after the 2015 National Assembly election. It was the 2015 National Assembly election that saw the country’s then unicameral legislative chamber fall into the hands of the right-wing opposition for the first time since former President Hugo Chavez promulgated a new constitution in 1999. This clearly presented Chavez’s presidential successor, President Nicolas Maduro with a problem – the same kind of problem that Chile’s Salvador Allende faced in 1973 and likewise the same problem that Donald Trump faced in January of this year: political deadlock between the executive and legislative branch.
In this sense, the post-2015 political deadlock in Venezuela was far from exotic. It is in fact a common feature in flawed presidential systems that would inversely be literally impossible in traditional parliamentary systems. Of course, the difference between political deadlock in the US presidential system and those in similar systems in Latin America is that when Washington is hit by political deadlock, the CIA and US military don’t conspire to end the deadlock with regime change. Thus, like Chile in 1973, Venezuela’s 2015 era crisis has been much more profound than the frequent government shut downs which regularly occur when the American White House and Congress are dominated by different political factions.
That being said, the 2015 Venezuelan political crisis is equally important in respect of illustrating Venezuela’s political system as one being flawed because of its structure, but one that is legitimate in terms of counting votes fairly. If Venezuela’s system was as anti-democratic as some in Washington allege, the anti-Maduro right wing opposition could not have won the National Assembly election in 2015. But the fact is that they did win and as such President Maduro looked desperately for a means to end the deadlock.
This situation is further symptomatic of the fact that presidential systems work best in either formal or de-facto one party states. This is the case because in such a system, political deadlock is solved through the absence of a fully fledged democratically viable opposition. To put it another way, the only reality in which one can have a true multi-party democracy and not end up with regular deadlock between the executive and legislature is when one is operating in a parliamentary system. Maduro therefore can either be faulted for being too anti-parliamentary or too pro-democracy, but logically he cannot be faulted for being both. Venezuela could have avoided deadlock by adopting a traditional Westminster style political system or could have otherwise adopted a de-facto one party system like that of Venezuela’s ally Cuba. Maduro adopted neither system and now he is paying the price.
In order to try and resolve the post-2015 deadlock, Maduro settled on a bicameral legislative solution within the framework of the existing presidential system. Maduro therefore created a new legislative assembly known as the Constituent National Assembly. Holding its first election in 2017, the Constituent National Assembly remains dominated by political allies of Maduro after the right-wing opposition boycotted the election. Thus, the crisis deepened as not only is the still operational National Assembly at odds with the Venezuelan President, but now the Constituent National Assembly is at odds with a National Assembly that refuses to recognise the supremacy and even the legitimacy of the Constituent National Assembly.
Matters became even more heated this year when the leader of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó illegally declared himself the President of Venezuela after administering the oath of office to himself whilst standing in a Caracas street. While Guaidó has thus far refused to engage in dialogue with Maduro, President Maduro has attempted to call Guaidó’s bluff by suggesting that new elections for the National Assembly should be held in short order. Clearly, Maduro hopes that for the first time since 2015, leftist factions will win such an election, but given that the US has openly called for regime change in Venezuela, the situation appears to be too little – too late for Maduro. This is true in so far as it was the case for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych who in 2014 agreed to repeal his own constitutional reforms and hold new elections based on the 2004 Ukrainian constitution. In Yanukovych’s case, the mob did not wait for such elections and instead he fled the country the following day when street thugs physically took over government institutions. In spite of cutting a different figure, Maduro is beginning to look at lot like Yanukovych as his new election tactic appears to be a means of stalling for time more than anything else.
In both Ukraine and especially in Venezuela, a traditional unicameral parliamentary system would have averted the political crisis caused largely due to a broken presidential system. Because parliamentary systems derive a nation’s executive power from which ever party or coalition has a majority (or in rare cases a plurality) in the parliamentary chamber, the executive-legislative deadlock that is so common in presidential systems cannot exist. Furthermore, if deadlock over a specific political issue does arise, parliament can either be dissolved by the executive or otherwise through an opposition tabled motion of no confidence directed at the executive. Fixed term presidential systems make this kind of flexibility impossible.
In a would-be parliamentary Venezuela, if opposition street protests were so frequent that some were to believe that the government had lost its popular legitimacy, a would-be Prime Minister Maduro could easily call the bluff of his opponents by holding a snap election. Alternatively, if a would-be Prime Minister Maduro was really losing the popularity among his erstwhile supporters as some suggest that he has, parliament could hold a vote of no confidence in a would-be Prime Minister Maduro. If he lost such a vote, new elections would be called and the people could have their legal say as to which faction they support. As it stands, the best Maduro can do is call for fresh elections in an already weak National Assembly that would not effect the rivalry between himself and the opposition figure claiming to be president of the country as a whole.
Transitions of power, even in times of crisis are smoother in a parliamentary system where there are no disputes between executive leadership and legislative majorities. Of course, Venezuela is being exploited by foreign powers which makes the political crisis all the more worrisome. That being said, if Venezuela had a system that was more difficult to exploit, the country would be able to approach even a foreign backed crisis from a position of strength rather than one of weakness.