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Venezuela opposition MUD fractures after Constituent Assembly loyalty oaths

25.10.2017

Nicolas Maduro's opponents swore they would "never kneel before the dictatorship," but a handful just pledged loyalty to the president's contested parliament. The "betrayal" has opened a rift in the opposition coalition.

Venezuela's opposition coalition looked to be crumbling on Tuesday amid accusations of treachery and betrayal.

Henrique Capriles, a key leader of the Democratic Union Roundtable (MUD), pulled out of the long-standing coalition after four governors from a fellow coalition party broke ranks and pledged allegiance to President Nicolas Maduro's controversial Constituent Assembly.

The beleaguered MUD won just five seats in regional elections on October 15, with Maduro's socialists winning the remaining 18. Opposition figures (above) had accused Maduro of rigging the election.

Read more: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro defends disputed regional elections

Either way, Maduro warned that any governors who won seats in the election would have to swear oaths in front of the Constituent Assembly, a powerful legislative boday that had been installed by Maduro in August with the task of rewriting Venezuela's constitution. It trumps the opposition-dominated parliament known as the National Assembly.

The five elected opposition governors initially had pledged they would not stand before the Constituent Assembly, which MUD parties and international observers have decried as a blatant power grab by Maduro.

The betrayal

But four of them, all from Henry Ramos Allup's Democratic Action Party eventually reversed course and took the oath.

"We are assuming the political cost of defending our electors' votes," said Laidy Gomez, governor of the western state of Tachira, who took the oath.

If Capriles pulls out of the MUD opposition coalition, his Justice First party will follow suit

Maduro met with three of the governors on Tuesday and said, "A new era of coexistence, harmony and cooperation has started with an important sector of the opposition."

Capriles demanded that party leader Ramos Allup leave the MUD coalition for allowing them to break rank.

"When a person is sick, you need to operate to remove the tumor," said Capriles.

Members of Capriles' Justice First party indicated they would also pull out of the coalition if their leader walked away.

Ramos Allup said the four had "exiled themselves" from his party by betraying the coalition and taking the oath. But Capriles accused him of "washing his hands," saying nobody in Ramos Allup's Democratic Action Party moved a finger without the veteran leader's approval.

Read more: DW exclusive interview with Venezuelan Former Attorney General Luisa Ortega

'Zulia will never kneel'

The only governor who refused to be sworn in, the Justice First party's Juan Pablo Guanipa from the western Zulia state, remained defiant on Tuesday. "This government is misery, destruction and it is doing great damage to Venezuela," Guanipa said. 

"Zulia will never kneel before the dictatorship."

Constituent Assembly leader Delcy Rodriguez warned Guanipa's actions "will have consequences."

Venezuela regional elections: What you need to know
The election

Venezuelans will vote for governors in all 23 states on Sunday. The election had been slated for December, but the government-friendly electoral commission, CNE, delayed the vote after predicted losses for the ruling Socialist Party. The party has traditionally dominated state governor's offices, but recent polls have projected that the Venezuelan opposition will win a majority of governorships.

Venezuela regional elections: What you need to know
The challenge

Scrutiny of the vote's transparency is set to be intense. An election software company said authorities had tampered with the final turnout count after Venezuela's last election in July. The CNC has recently moved 203 polling stations from areas with strong opposition support. It said security-related considerations were behind the decision.

Venezuela regional elections: What you need to know
The president

Nicolas Maduro replaced former President Hugo Chavez following Chavez's death in April 2013. Maduro's authoritarian reign has seen the rapid decline of the economy and a huge drop in support for the president's government. Maduro recently set up a new constituent assembly after his Socialist Party lost control of the country's parliament in 2015. The move led the US to label him a "dictator."

Venezuela regional elections: What you need to know
The opposition

The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) is the main opposition group in Venezuela. It was launched in 2009 and is made up of about 20 parties from across the political spectrum that oppose President Maduro. Key leaders include Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo Lopez, and Maria Corina Machada (pictured). MUD demands include restoring power to the parliament and releasing hundreds of political prisoners.

Venezuela regional elections: What you need to know
The economic crisis

The Venezuelan economy has collapsed since 2014. Real GDP will have contracted by 35 percent in 2017 compared to the end of 2014 according to the IMF, and the fund predicts inflation to exceed 1,000 percent by the end of the year. Stacks of cash are needed to buy bare necessities. The crisis has also caused widespread food shortages and led many to flee Venezuela to neighboring countries.

Venezuela regional elections: What you need to know
The political crisis

The economic crisis has undermined Maduro's popularity and helped fuel a political crisis. Security forces have repeatedly clashed with demonstrators calling for the president's removal. Despite losing the street and power in the parliament, Maduro's position is still relatively secure. He has the support of the military, the Supreme Court, and the newly created constituent assembly.

Venezuela regional elections: What you need to know
The curse

Venezuela possesses the world's largest oil reserves, and for many years, the country benefited from selling its black gold. But a 50-percent collapse in oil prices in 2014 devastated the oil-dependent economy with government petroleum revenues dropping from $80 billion in 2013 to $20 billion in 2016, according to the IMF.

Venezuela regional elections: What you need to know
The future

A big win for MUD candidates on Sunday may not spell disaster for Maduro's government. The powerful Maduro-controlled constituent assembly could try to undermine MUD governors. State legislative assemblies controlled by the Socialist Party could also frustrate MUD governors. Once the dust settles on Sunday, Venezuelan's are set to vote for the presidency in April 2018.

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Cracks in the MUD

Another important party in the MUD coalition, Popular Will ("Voluntad Popular"), said the oath-taking was a betrayal and that MUD had lost its usefulness.

Political analysts said the fracture within the opposition umbrella coalition spelled a troubled future for the MUD coalition.

"It's the perfect scenario for Chavism, allowing it to press ahead with its strategy of obtaining legitimacy for the Constituent Assembly, while the opposition is unraveling," electoral expert Eugenio Martinez told AFP news agency, referring to the socialist political movement launched by Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez.

"The decision will deepen divisions and potentially cause a rupture of the MUD," Risa Grais-Targow, Latin America director for Eurasia political consultancy told AFP.

"It will also provide Maduro with additional incentives to accelerate the timelines for local and presidential elections," with a growing likelihood that Ramos Allup will be the only opposition figure permitted to run for president, she said.

Venezuela on the brink
The last straw

In March 2017, violent protests erupted across the country in response to a Supreme Court decision to strip the legislative branch of its powers. Amid an international outcry, President Nicolas Maduro reversed the decision, but it was too late. Thousands continued to take to the streets, calling for new elections. More than 100 people were killed in clashes with security forces.

Venezuela on the brink
Hunger, a growing problem

The violence added to the ongoing economic and political crisis in Venezuela. Many Venezuelans spend more than 30 hours a week waiting in lines to shop, and are often confronted with empty shelves when they finally enter a store. President Maduro blames the crisis on US price speculation. The opposition, however, accuses the Socialist government of economic mismanagement.

Venezuela on the brink
Health care in crisis

The crisis has even affected health care in the oil-rich nation. Venezuelans often head to Colombia to collect medical supplies to send home, as seen in this picture. Hospitals across Venezuela have compared conditions to those seen only in war zones. As patient deaths rise, health officials have sounded the alarm on the rise of malaria and dengue fever.

Venezuela on the brink
Power grab

By July 2017, Venezuela's pro-government Constituent Assembly was established. For observers, it had all the hallmarks of a power grab. The new body adopted the authority to pass legislation on a range of issues, effectively taking away the powers of Venezuela's elected congress, which was under the opposition's control. The move drew wide international condemnation.

Venezuela on the brink
The West sanctions

In response to the political crisis, the United States and European Union imposed a series of sanctions against ruling officials. The US blacklisted members of the Constituent Assembly and froze all of Maduro's assets that are subject to US jurisdiction. The EU banned arms sales to the country.

Venezuela on the brink
Government victorious in regional elections

In October 2017, Venezuela held two votes: regional elections and elections for governors, which were long overdue. The opposition boycotted the vote, but then split, as some candidates and small parties chose to participate. This caused a deep rift within Maduro's opponents. The government went on to sweep the vote, which detractors say was unfair and heavily favored the regime.

Venezuela on the brink
Debt default

In November 2017, the oil-rich, cash-poor nation faced its day of reckoning. Credit ratings agencies declared Venezuela and its state-run oil company in "selective default." But Russia offered to restructure the South American country's debt to ensure Caracas pays its other creditors. US and EU sanctions, however, limited the chance of an agreement.

Venezuela on the brink
Presidential elections scheduled

The National Assembly announced in January 2018 that it would grant Maduro's call for snap presidential elections. The electoral authority, CNE, held the elections on May 20. The EU, the US and 14 Latin American nations warned that they would not recognize the results. The mainstream MUD opposition alliance boycotted the vote, leaving only one possible outcome.

Venezuela on the brink
Maduro wins ...

Maduro was re-elected to a second six-year term with about 68 percent of the vote. Turnout was only 46 percent, according to electoral authorities. However, the MUD opposition alliance put turnout at less than 30 percent. The Organization of American States (OAS) called the elections neither free nor fair.

Venezuela on the brink
... Guaido assumes power

But weeks into the new year, the situation took a drastic turn. On January 23, 2019, parliament president Juan Guaido declared himself interim president of Venezuela — a move that was quickly recognized by US President Donald Trump. Maduro called it a US-backed "coup." Days later, the US sanctioned Venezuela's state oil firm, while Guaido staked his claim on the country's foreign assets.

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aw/cmb (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)