A centrist opposition coalition in Venezuela won a majority of seats in a divisive midterm congressional election Sunday, signaling the first significant loss for President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist Party in 16 years and a likely push to diversify Venezuela's economy away from oil, the country's main export. The elections come as Venezuela continues to see a weak economy, owing to the low price of oil, and new leadership looks to alleviate widespread poverty.
"Venezuela wanted a change, and that change came,” said Jesus Torrealba, chief of the Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition, BBC reported. “A new majority expressed itself and sent a clear and resounding message."
The coalition won a majority with 99 seats in the 167-seat National Assembly. Maduro and his party are direct political descendants of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. Following the latter's death, the seat of power passed to Maduro after a narrow victory in 2013.
Venezuela’s economy has seen a deep recession in the past several years, particularly since its fiscal strength and government funds are tied to the export of oil. A worldwide glut of oil production, coupled with reduced demand, has sent the price per barrel plummeting in the past two years. The price of Brent crude oil, a worldwide benchmark, hit a low of $42.18 Monday, down to its lowest point since 2009, Reuters reported. Citizens and media throughout the country have criticized Maduro for not taking more responsibility for the sluggish economy by actively lobbying for production caps or other policies to bump the price of oil.
The low price of oil has sent the South American nation’s economy into a tailspin, causing food shortages as well as the highest level of inflation in the continent, hovering somewhere around 200 percent, according to the BBC. Residents said the economic situation has made their daily lives impossible. “We’re in a state of constant deterioration,” local hotel worker Juan Pablo Hidalgo told the Wall Street Journal.
The slump in prices came just days after an OPEC meeting Friday that did not result in a production cap. Member states have been asking leadership to institute a cap in order to push up the price per barrel. OPEC has refused a production cap, saying the market will level out on its own, but experts criticized that logic. "A stronger dollar and the aftershock of Friday's OPEC meeting are weighing on the oil market," said Tamas Varga, an analyst at PVM Oil Associates in London, Reuters reported.
Venezuela is one of the founding members of OPEC, as well as the nation with the largest oil reserves in the world, and newly elected center-right parties are expected to push for changes to the oil economy. A large chunk of the funding for Venezuela’s budget and social services comes from oil revenue, and the new congress may slash spending on social programs in order to trim the overstretched budget, Agence France-Presse reported Monday. Chavez instituted costly social welfare programs during his rule when the price of oil was high, and with the low oil price still sinking, those programs have become unsustainable, according to some members of the opposition.
The new members of the National Assembly have said they want to diversify the economy by shifting away from heavy reliance on oil. They are also expected to lobby for lifting the price controls that, according to the opposition, have contributed to the widespread poverty and long queues to buy basic goods.
The effectiveness of the new legislators will depend on whether they choose to work with minority leaders in the National Assembly, one analyst said. “The opposition has to choose: Do they want to focus on helping the economy or kicking Maduro out of power?” Asdrubal Oliveros, head of the Ecoanalitica consultancy in Caracas, told the Wall Street Journal. “Just like there are bad losers, there are also bad winners sometimes.”