Key sectors: all

Key risks: political instability; sanctions; governability; civil unrest

On 5 January Nicolas Maduro’s regime moved to seize control of the National Assembly (NA), the only state institution theretofore controlled by the opposition. The NA is also the opposition’s last democratic foothold: the 2015 legislative elections in which it won 112 of the 167 seats were arguably the last free and fair elections held in Venezuela. Signals indicating Maduro’s desire to get hold of the NA and unseat opposition leader and partially recognised interim president Juan Guaido had been clear for months, particularly ahead of legislative elections due to take place in 2020. Maduro took over the NA by ordering the National Guard to physically block Guaido’s entrance to the NA building the day he was scheduled to be re-elected as its chair and by instead appointing government-backed lawmaker Luis Parra. This ended up adding further complexity to the protracted Maduro-Guaido showdown in which each appears to be fighting for their own survival.

Guaido could not access the building but was still re-elected NA chief on 5 January by 100 lawmakers who gathered at the offices of opposition newspaper El Nacional. Almost at the same time, Parra, a former opposition lawmaker recently expelled from the Primero Justicia party, was also elected NA chief in a move labelled by the opposition as a ‘parliamentary coup’ and by the United States as a ‘farce’. Even the governments of Mexico and Argentina, who recognise Maduro as rightful president, spoke against Parra’s highly controversial election. Reportedly 63 lawmakers were present in the NA building when Parra’s election took place, less that the required quorum of 84. On 13 January the Supreme Court gave Parra and the other lawmakers who claim to have been voted to the NA board five days to present documentation accrediting due process. Government interference in the outcome of the verification process should be expected, and uncertainty over the consequences of the move on the upcoming legislative elections, Guaido’s position, and the future of policy making will continue to increase.

A key question remains as to why Maduro did not wait for the upcoming legislative vote to rig the election and take over the NA. The answer could be desperation or perhaps, on the contrary, confidence built on the fact that one year after Guaido declared himself interim president, it has been proven that he lacks the power to oust Maduro. It may well be a combination of both. Moreover, Guaido’s position as NA chair grants him legitimacy as interim president. Maduro’s move was not just about getting hold of the NA. It was about stripping Guaido of the position that allows him to legitimately renew his mandate as interim president as well. The fact that on 7 January Guaido managed to break a military cordon and formalise his re-election as NA chief – and interim president – inside the NA building is crucial for the continuity of the opposition’s demands, if only from a symbolic standpoint.

The showdown is now between Maduro and Guaido and between Parra – backed by Maduro – and Guaido. The strategy to exhaust the opposition leader by attrition has been strengthened and will remain in place, with no signs of intentions on Maduro’s side to either step down or commit to meaningful negotiations to find a way out of the crisis.