Venezuela: Lawmakers set the stage for the military to step into the crisis

Venezuelan lawmakers have set the stage for the military to determine an outcome to the accelerating economic, social and political crisis that has left the oil-exporting nation on the brink of ruin and mayhem.

In an extraordinary session of the National Assembly on 23 October, legislators declared themselves in rebellion and vowed to impeach President Nicolás Maduro for violating the constitution and conspiring with electoral officials and judges to block a presidential recall referendum. The legislature is due to vote on a political trial on 25 October.

The National Assembly’s challenge to Maduro was precipitated by the electoral authority’s 20 October ruling that it had suspended the process by which opponents could gather signatures to trigger a recall, prompting them to brand the decision a coup. There were always doubts that a referendum would occur but the ruling makes it official.

Polls have indicated that Maduro would roundly lose a referendum. He is hugely unpopular and most Venezuelans blame him for driving the economy into the ground. Basic foods are scarce, prices are rising at hyperinflationary rates, incidents of looting are increasingly frequent, and crime is rampant.

Many had seen the prospect of a recall referendum as reason to be patient. But the abrupt end to the year-long referendum drive now opens the window for a surge in frustration and anger to elevate Venezuela’s simmering crisis onto a more dangerous plane in which the military has the last say.

With the legislature majority-controlled since the start of this year by opponents of Maduro, a procedure such as a ‘political trial’ could be undertaken swiftly—much quicker than the months-long impeachment of Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff. The National Assembly could also name new top judges and electoral officials in a matter of days.

However, who would enforce such decisions? Since the opposition captured a majority of seats in the legislature last December, the president has used the Supreme Court, where he controls a majority of judges, to neuter its rights and initiatives. Earlier this month, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that it had the authority to approve the 2017 budget, a task that is clearly the constitutional remit of legislators.

It’s also feasible that the Supreme Court could itself declare the National Assembly in violation of the constitution and order its dissolution, a decision that would massively aggravate tensions.

In effect, the National Assembly is preparing the ground to test the armed forces’ allegiances by calling on them to decide on whether to uphold constitutional order, or to side with Maduro as a de facto dictator. The National Assembly has urged the military to disobey any orders from the government deemed to be unconstitutional.

The blocking of the referendum process will exacerbate tensions inside the military, where some officers and troops have also favoured a recall. Yet the military may be forced to make a decision sooner rather than later because of the deteriorating economic situation. Severe shortages, hyperinflation and crime also affect the families of soldiers.

Opposition leaders have called for nationwide street protests to begin on 26 October. Massive demonstrations were instrumental in the manoeuvrings and coup that unseated Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, for two days in 2002. Protests waned thereafter, but there have been signs that they are again gathering strength.

While the level of discontent in the armed forces could be influenced by the scale of popular demonstrations, it is the degree to which troops are required to violently repress protests which is more likely to lead the generals to say that enough is enough, and withdraw their support for Maduro.