Latin America, Politics

Venezuela: Is negotiated transition the only way out?

A second round of talks aimed at negotiating a solution to the Venezuelan crisis is currently underway in Norway. Delegations from President Nicolas Maduro and self-declared interim President Juan Guaido will face each other for the first time, with initial talks held only with the Norwegian mediators. Details are scant on the meeting, but it follows comments from both Maduro and Guaido on the negotiations.

In a televised address this week, Maduro said, “We are going to show our good faith, to be able to find democratic solutions to help overcome Venezuela’s conflict based on the platform the parties agree on.” For Guaido’s part, he remains sceptical. “This is not negotiation. This is not dialogue,” Guaido said, adding that his team was simply responding to an offer from the Norwegian government to mediate. He reiterated that any solution must involve Maduro standing down and allowing a transitional government to hold free presidential elections.

The opposition remains sceptical because they argue that Maduro has previously used dialogue to stall change and maintain his grip on power. Moreover, the idea of negotiating with Maduro in any form is highly unpopular among the opposition, which has spent months trying to push him out. Still, Guaido has defended his decision, warning that critics risk becoming accomplices of Maduro’s dictatorship. “We have to play on all the boards... we have to have an active presence in all places,” he said.

On Maduro’s part, he called on the opposition last week to accept his proposal for early parliamentary elections, a challenge to both sides to demonstrate their level of popular support, although no date was specified (elections for the National Assembly are due by end-2020).

Is Maduro finally seeking a way out of the country’s worsening political crisis? On the surface, it sounds like the offer of elections is a concession, but what will it achieve? We look at two scenarios, assuming that parliamentary elections are held:

If such elections are free and fair, Maduro’s party (PSUV) is surely unlikely to win a majority – so it doesn’t help them – while an opposition victory may not give them any more power than they already have. The opposition, led by Guaido, has been in control of the National Assembly anyway since the 2015 legislative elections. So the opposition has little incentive to play along with Maduro’s antics. However, the opposition risks being criticised by Maduro for being uncooperative and undemocratic if they decline the offer, although of course such claims would be baseless and we expect Guaido’s international backers to see through such a ploy. With Guaido having already rejected the proposal, calling it “cynical”, would Maduro still seek to go ahead with early elections, amid an opposition boycott, which really doesn’t help the situation?

If the elections are not free and fair, which seems likely, the result would be meaningless anyway. But winning a majority for the PSUV, even under flawed conditions, would embolden Maduro and may even provide a useful distraction to his supporters. Moreover, victory (however unlikely and flawed) may give Maduro the pretext to remove Guaido. The result would not be recognised internationally of course, and would likely attract even harsher sanctions. Still, the regime might see holding early elections, win or lose, as easing the pressure and buying a bit more time. Maduro might think that conceding to new parliamentary elections will get Guaido’s international supporters off his back, but that would be naive in our view unless there was a clear and demonstrated commitment by Maduro to hold free and fair elections with the presence of international observers, and to abide by the result. Very unlikely.

Besides, holding early National Assembly elections does not help the opposition’s cause, whose aim is to remove Maduro. The opposition already dominate the National Assembly, but the legislative body has been rendered largely ineffective by the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court. New elections may not give the opposition any more influence over Maduro’s levers of power (the military, the Supreme Court and PDVSA’s domestic operations), and of course, even if the opposition win an unlikely free and fair vote (or even increase their majority), President Maduro would remain in place.

There might be a chance that the opposition gain such an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly that the military leaders see that the public has spoken and desert Maduro. But that seems like wishful thinking. Rather, what the opposition demands is a new free and fair presidential election. That isn’t on the table at this stage.

What the call for early elections might signal is that the regime is on its knees. Sanctions are biting, oil revenues are declining, and despite help from his friends (Russia, China, Cuba and Turkey), it is not clear how long Maduro can survive, as the financial resources he needs to buy support and prop up the regime dwindle, and the humanitarian crisis takes its toll. But he has managed to survive this long, to most people’s surprise, and the political crisis could have further twists yet.

Latin America Politics