Venezuela’s opposition took control of congress on Tuesday during a rowdy but historic swearing-in ceremony that was closely watched around the world.
The opposition coalition, known as MUD, won an overwhelming victory in the Dec. 6 legislative elections, handing the late President Hugo Chávez’s ruling socialist party its worst electoral defeat in a decade.
President Nicolas Maduro initially recognized the opposition's victory, but then started grumbling about vote-buying and fraud, and challenged the election results before the Supreme Court—a move that prevented three of the opposition congressmen from taking office today. Without those three votes, the opposition is just shy of the two-thirds supermajority it needs to pass key reforms.
The opposition claims it won fairly, and will assume all 112 seats from its Dec. 6 win.
In the month following the elections, rumors quickly spread that the socialist government would find ways to block the newly elected congressmen from taking office on Jan. 5. Some chavista supporters even threatened to occupy the National Assembly building to physically prevent the opposition lawmakers from taking their oath of office.
But the chavistas' threats of rebellion proved to be more bark than bite, as the opposition legislators trickled into the National Assembly today, escorted by activists and police.
By midday, congress was in session. Newly sworn-in congressional president Henry Ramos Allup promised to promote an agenda of “constitutional and peaceful change” in a country still led by Chávez's successor, whom the opposition has threatened to remove from office by referendum within the next six months.
But before getting to that matter, the new congress will prioritize a long list of issues, starting with freeing all “political prisoners” and finding ways to reboot the country’s collapsing economy.
Opposition groups are also calling on the new congress to launch inquiries into allegations of government corruption in Maduro’s administration.
But even with a supermajority control of congress, the opposition will still face an uphill battle in Venezuela, where every other national government institution remains under chavista control, including the courts.
The situation sets the stage for a potential showdown between the legislative and judicial branches. Maduro's government appears to be preparing for battle; it recently strengthened its hold over the Supreme Court by appointing 13 loyalist judges.
The president also changed laws that would require the Central Bank to turn over economic data to congress, limiting the opposition’s leverage over economic policy or bookkeeping.
Still, opposition leaders maintain an optimistic outlook.
Julio Borges, the leader of the largest opposition party, said the new congress will start with a law that gives property titles to Venezuelans who live in government-owned housing projects built by the chavista administration.
Another priority will be to implement economic reforms to alleviate Venezuela’s product shortages.
“This [new congress] is a victory for those who work much and earn little,” Borges said.
Ruling party congressmen heckled Borges’ speech before abandoning the congressional building in protest. The chavistas argued that the opposition did not respect congressional rules prohibiting policy speeches during the swearing-in ceremony, and accused the new opposition congress of representing the interests of the “bourgeoisie.”
But before storming out of congress, chavistas used their time on the congressional floor to launch their own political tirades. Congressmen for the ruling party often surpassed the time limits allocated to them by the congressional president, who struggled to maintain order in the assembly.
“This talk of change is political farce,” said socialist lawmaker Calixto Ortega. “We will be in the streets defending the social conquests of the revolution, and fighting for a new tomorrow.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.