Saturday, 14 January 2017

'Skin in the game': Venezuela's Socialist Party is losing its influence but tightening its grip on power

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro holds a book with a photo of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez as he talks to the media during a news conference after the 17th Non-Aligned Summit in Porlamar, Venezuela September 18, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The Socialist Party of Venezuela, first under Hugo Chavez and now under Nicolas Maduro, has held the country's presidency for 18 years, since Chavez swept into office at the end of 1998.

But recent years have been tumultuous for the PSUV, the Socialist Party's initials in Spanish.

Since Maduro took over by winning a special election after Chavez's death in early 2013, Venezuela has been buffeted by economic crises spurred on by poor policy and the decline of the price of oil, from which Venezuelan draws the vast majority of its export earnings, as well as by political tensions stoked in part by Maduro's efforts to maintain power.

While Chavez maintained some level of popularity — a 2009 survey put his approval at 54% to 45% disapproval, and a survey soon after his death in 2013 found 55% of respondents wanting his policies to continue — Maduro has seen his popularity steadily decline.

A spring 2015 survey found the current Venezuelan president with a 68%-29% approval-disapproval rating, and more recently he has seen his popularity fall below 20%. Now support for Maduro's Socialist Party appears to be feeling the same decline.

A recent survey of political leanings by Venezuelan pollster DatanĂ¡lisis found that the PSUV is no longer the dominant political force in the country.

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, October 26, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

"The independents are at 45% while the opposition [is] around 27% and the PSUV only amounts to 18%," said DatanĂ¡lisis director Jose Antonio Gil, according to Globovision. "The big news is that the PSUV lost from 2004 to now the primacy as the principal party in the country."

When Chavez died from cancer in 2013, 40% of Venezuelans identified with the PSUV, but Maduro's administration "has lowered it to less than half" that number, Gil said.

Gil, who didn't specify the period over which the survey was taken, added that in terms of political self-definition, 47% of respondents identified with the opposition, and only 20% aligned with the governing socialists. Those saying they were "neither nor" were 33%.

Those who are "neither nor" reject both the government and the opposition, Gil said. "They want dialogue and peace, they are fed up with the conflict between the government and the opposition. For these people sitting at the dialogue table was a positive opportunity."

Jesus Torrealba (R), secretary of Venezuela's coalition of opposition parties (MUD), talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The Socialist Party's unpopularity was demonstrated in December 2015, when it was drubbed in a national legislative election that saw the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), take a commanding majority. Since then, amid widespread popular distaste, the PSUV's leadership has held together, and the party has pursued other means to maintain political control.

It contested some of those legislative elections, seeking to deny the opposition a supermajority. Over the last several months, Maduro's government has stymied opposition efforts to mount a recall referendum that could have removed him from office and triggered a new election.

Maduro's efforts to block the recall were aided by other government bodies, the national electoral council and the supreme court in particular, that dragged their feet on official decisions and blocked moves by the opposition-controlled legislature to check Maduro's power and bring on the recall vote.

The window has closed on the period during which a recall would have ousted Maduro and led to a new election; at this point, Maduro's vice president would take over should a recall vote him out of the presidency.

Opposition leaders have been divided on how to proceed.

Deputies of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD) Romel Guzamana (L), Julio Ygarza (2nd R), Nirma Guarulla (R), and the governor of the Amazonas state Liborio Guarulla (2nd L) attend to a meeting at the Supreme Court in Caracas January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Some have called for a new round of street protests, while others want to continue Vatican-mediated dialogue with the government. The MUD's leader has ruled out further talks. (Divisions within the MUD have hindered its ability to present a cohesive response to Maduro, and in turn hamstrung its efforts to win popular support.)

In the National Assembly, the opposition has mounted other efforts to condemn Maduro.

This week, opposition lawmakers adopted a resolution declaring that Maduro had abandoned his office, saying that while he regularly appeared on television (and hosted a salsa show) for hours a day, he had "failed to perform the basic duties of governing."

Socialist Party leadership dismissed the resolution, saying the assembly had acted disobediently and that the opposition legislature's political trial would amount to nothing.

Maduro himself called the measure a "coup d'etat" and said he was launching an "anti-coup commando squad" made up of hardline senior security officials. In recent days, police acting under orders of that new squad have arrested three opposition politicians on weapons charges and accusations of plotting a coup.

"President Maduro has not resigned and he will not resign," Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello said before the vote. "He has not abandoned his post, and we have not recognized nor will we recognize a disobedient legislature."

"The truth is Maduro will continue as president," Cabello said after the resolution passed.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro Diosdado Cabello

Recent moves by Maduro have demonstrated how high his administration views the stakes in its struggle for political survival in Venezuela.

Earlier this month, he appointed former Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami as vice president. El Aissami, like other recent government appointees, has been linked to US drug-trafficking investigations.

Bringing El Aissami and other Venezuela officials who could face charges abroad into his inner circle "is not simply an attempt to slap the US in the face, but rather a rational move for Maduro, since he knows [they] will now fight to the end," David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Business Insider in August last year.

"There is also a perverse logic whereby anybody with an indictment or subject to sanctions suddenly has extremely high exit costs" if they were to oppose the Maduro administration, Smilde said at the time. "This makes them extremely attractive to the Maduro government as core defenders."

Venezuela grocery store shelves

The Venezuelan military — already cited by both sides as a possible "king-maker" in Venezuela — has been brought further into the government's fold.

In summer last year, Maduro put the military in charge of distributing food and medicine, both of which are in short supply for much of the country. An Associated Press report indicates this control has led the military to develop trafficking and bribery schemes, which add to accusations military personnel are heavily involved in the drug trade.

"By allowing the military to oversee food distribution in Venezuela, Maduro has made the armed forces a direct stakeholder in permanence of the regime," Geoff Ramsey wrote this month for WOLA's Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog. "In effect, military officials have enough 'skin in the game' to side with the government instead of the people if there is social upheaval."

The military's leadership seems cognizant of these ties. Earlier this month, in a rebuke to new National Assembly President Julio Borges, the Venezuelan armed forces restated their "absolute loyalty and unconditional support" for Maduro.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela's embattled government hikes minimum wage by 50% — the 5th increase in a year

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