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Struggles loom as Venezuela opposition vows to fix crisis

December 7, 2015

CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela’s jubilant opposition vowed Monday to drag the oil-rich country out of its economic crisis and free political prisoners after winning control of congress from socialist President Nicolás Maduro.

But analysts warned political uncertainty and possible struggles lie ahead as the MUD coalition, with its moral figurehead Lilian Tintori, seeks to push its advantage against the mustachioed president whose side has been in power for 16 years.

Despite his fiery campaign rhetoric, Maduro promptly conceded defeat in Sunday’s legislative election and called for “coexistence” between the opposition and his PSUV party, which lost control of the National Assembly for the first time since 1999.

That seemed aimed at calming tensions after warnings of a repeat of last year’s deadly riots that left 43 people dead.

The boiling tension of the past weeks of campaigning subsided into caution as Tintori and senior MUD leader Jesús Torrealba vowed their side did not want “revenge” or violence.

“We have an immense responsibility,” Torrealba said in an interview broadcast online.

His mostly center-right coalition won at least 99 of the 167 seats in the assembly, the state electoral authority said, with 46 for the PSUV.

“What happened yesterday was an electoral tsunami, but a vote of confidence is one thing and a blank check is something else,” Torrealba added.

He said the MUD now had to “reinvent” itself to “deal with the crisis.”

Tintori, the activist and wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, appeared smiling in world newspapers Monday as she celebrated with supporters.

“I will not rest until all political prisoners are freed,” she said. “This is a historic day for Venezuela.”

EU hails, Cuba consoles

International powers who have lobbied for change in Venezuela hailed the result. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said it showed an “overwhelming desire for a change” in Venezuela.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini called it a “vote for change” and a call for “constructive political efforts to address together the challenges ahead.”

Cuban President Raúl Castro consoled Maduro, the successor of Cuba’s old ally Hugo Chávez who launched Venezuela’s socialist “revolution” in 1998 in the spirit of independence hero Simón Bolívar.

“I am certain that new victories will come to the Bolivarian Revolution,” Castro wrote in the Cuban state newspaper Granma.

Some political analysts wonder whether Sunday’s result could be part of a broader rightward political shift in Latin America. Argentines last month voted out their leftist President Cristina Kirchner, and Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff’s leadership is in crisis.

Reassured by Sunday’s peaceful election, Argentina’s conservative President-elect Mauricio Macri dropped his earlier threat to try to have Venezuela suspended from the Mercosur trade bloc.

Economic crisis

Hit by falling prices for the oil exports on which it relies, the country of 30 million is in an economic crisis, with shortages of basic foods and supplies.

Analyst Luis Vicente León, president of pollster Datanálisis, called the vote result “a big punishment vote” for Maduro’s economic management.

It was unclear, however, how far the MUD will be able to push its advantage in the National Assembly to force a change of course or even to get rid of Maduro, who vowed to push on with his socialist programs.

With the vote count for 22 seats yet to be published, the opposition’s majority could grow. Two seats more would give it a three-fifths majority that would increase its constitutional powers to challenge Maduro, although as president he could still veto their bills.

Analysts were cautious about the prospects for change, particularly since the MUD has so far not made any detailed economic reform proposals.

“The MUD itself may struggle to put together a coherent policy agenda,” wrote Edward Glossop, a Latin America analyst with research group Capital Economics.

Even if the MUD reached a two-thirds “super majority,” he said, “we suspect that the more immediate outcome …  would be a messy power struggle between the assembly and the president.”

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