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The end of the Chavez era? Venezuela's ruling party is losing its grip on power.

An opposition supporter celebrates the election results.
An opposition supporter celebrates the election results.
(Carlos Becerra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Sunday night, the near unthinkable happened in Venezuela's elections: The socialist government lost control of a major part of government for the first time in 17 years.

According to the New York Times, the opposition coalition won at least 99 seats in Venezuela's parliament, a solid majority. President Nicolás Maduro will remain in office — this was only a legislative election — but the opposition will have real control over the Venezuelan government.

This turn of events, which is the direct result of a nationwide economic and crime crisis, is a stunning defeat for Maduro — and the ideology, called "chavismo" (named after former President Hugo Chavez), that he stands for. And depending on how the last 22 seats are counted, it could get even worse for the government.

What happened Sunday night

Opposition supporters after hearing that they'd won a majority.
(Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)

Since Chavez swept into power in 1999, his party has dominated Venezuelan politics. His United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won every election, presidential and parliamentary, and had free rein to implement its agenda, which was oriented around restructuring Venezuela's economy to better serve the country's poor. When Chavez died in 2013, Maduro took over the party and was expected to retain similar control over Venezuelan politics.

Last night proved this assumption wrong.

The election "has upended everything everyone thought they knew about Venezuelan politics," Francisco Toro, a Venezuelan writer sympathetic to the opposition, writes.

Not that it was a total surprise. For months, polls showed the opposition — which is really a coalition of parties united by opposition to Maduro and his socialist policies — leading:

Yet no one was truly sure the opposition would win going into Sunday's election. That's how total PSUV domination of Venezuelan politics had been in the past 17 years.

"Nobody knows what is going to happen," Luis Vicente León, executive director of the Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis, said in a pre-election interview with AS/COA. But "I think we will see a country that is changing, that is showing chavismo that it is not the force it used to be."

He was right.

Why Maduro lost: a collapsing economy and skyrocketing crime

To understand Maduro's defeat, you need to understand a little more about chavismo — and how it collapsed.

Chavez initially swept to power by promising to help Venezuela's disenfranchised. He used the money from sales of the state's massive oil reserves to fund welfare programs and state subsidies for the poor. In 2003, he set up a currency pricing system for imports designed to make basic goods more affordable. And for many years, it worked — between 1999 and Chavez's death in 2013, the poverty rate in Venezuela plummeted (barring a spike during an opposition-led oil strike in December 2002):

(CEPR)

But in the past two years, this has all come crashing down. The currency pricing system that Chavez set up to make goods more affordable actually made it cheaper to hoard goods or sell them on the black market, which caused massive shortages and soaring inflation. Oil production ground to a halt as result of chronic incompetence in the state-run oil company, which — together with falling global oil prices — limited the country's ability to grow its economy considerably. The growing economic crisis, combined with endemic corruption in the criminal justice system, caused violent crime to skyrocket.

By the time of Sunday's election, things had gotten really, really bad:

  • 76 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty, according to one survey — the highest number since 1975.
  • A 2014 UN report found that Venezuela had the second-highest murder rate in the world. According to the UN, it's "the only country in South America that has had a consistently increasing homicide rate since 1995."
  • Basic goods, like toilet paper, were almost impossible to find in stores. Many people purchased them on the black market.
  • According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) projections, GDP will likely have shrunk by 10 percent in 2015, the most severe contraction anywhere on the planet (except maybe Syria). The IMF also estimates inflation at 159 percent.
  • Venezuela ranks very last on the World Justice Project's rule of law index, which measures the quality of a country's legal system on the basis of impartiality, corruption, and respecting rights, below Afghanistan.
  • Venezuela's oil production has barely increased since 2004. The oil sector makes up 25 percent of Venezuela's GDP.

As the tangible gains from chavismo disappeared, so did its electoral base. Maduro's defeat directly reflects the socioeconomic crisis currently sweeping the country.

"The Chavez I knew would never have accepted this reality," Gaspare Barraco, a Venezuelan voter in Chavez's home state, told the Associated Press's Hannah Dreier. "I can't get my diabetes pills. I haven't been able to buy chicken for a month. Everything is sacrifice now."

What happens next

Nicolás Maduro's life just got a lot harder.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

So what happens now? No one is really sure.

First, and perhaps most importantly, we're still not quite sure how big the opposition's majority is going to be. Currently, the opposition controls about 59 percent of the seats in parliament, with 22 seats left to be counted.

The distribution of these remaining 22 seats matters greatly, as AS/COA's Holly Sonneland explains. If the opposition picks up a three-fifths majority, it will be able to formally censure top officials in Maduro's government. If it wins a two-thirds majority, it could even amend the constitution and remove Maduro sympathizers from the nation's supreme court.

Given the distribution of seats outstanding, this is still possible. "A 2/3rd qualified majority is possible," Toro, the pro-opposition writer, wrote last night. "Maybe likely."

So depending on how the seats are distributed, this election could have somewhere from important to utterly profound consequences for the next few years of governance in Venezuela. On that score, we'll find out.

Perhaps the best news about the election is what didn't happen: violence. In the past several years Maduro (and Chavez before him) had been disturbingly authoritarian. Maduro responded to a wave of nonviolent protests last year with force: According to Human Rights Watch, the government's response involved "killings, arbitrary arrests, beatings, and torture." Leopoldo López, a leading opposition figure, is currently imprisoned. He's far from the only political prisoner.

Yet Maduro appears to be accepting the defeat with real grace.

"We have come with our morality and our ethics to recognize these adverse results, to accept them and to tell our Venezuela, ‘The constitution and democracy have triumphed,’ " Maduro said in a televised speech Sunday evening.

And Maduro's party is far from destroyed. While the opposition may have won this round, Maduro still controls the presidency, and will until 2019 (barring special elections). There's plenty of time between now and then for the country's politics to shift in his favor. It helps that chavismo still has a significant base among Venezuela's poor and disenfranchised.

"This doesn’t mean that it is over," Vicente León, the Venezuelan pollster, told AS/COA. "I think chavismo is here to stay in the political history of Venezuela."

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