Endgame for Nicolas Maduro

VIOLENT protests in Venezuela which started in April are set to further intensify with a steady increase in casualties. The nationwide demonstrations are demanding for early elections to attest President Nicolas Maduro's presidential mandate in the backdrop of a devastating economic downturn. Since the latest round of plummeting oil prices, Venezuela has faced soaring inflation, dwindling living standards and growing public dissent. Making things worse, an accelerating mass exodus puts Venezuelans as among the top global immigrants despite the absence of war.

International efforts to mediate and condemn the excessive force employed by the Venezuelan authorities have been met with fierce rebuttal from former foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez. The "tiger", as Maduro praised her, ferociously defended the government's hardline manner of (mis)handling protests during the Organisation of American States (OAS) summit in Cancun, Mexico.

She rebutted all accusations, effectively exerted Venezuelan diplomacy with OAS allies to deny a resolution against her country and instead turned the tables to discredit the host country, Mexico, by criticising its own dismal record on human rights and violence.

In light of all the challenges, Maduro's latest political manoeuvre is to call for a controversial new National Constitutional Assembly to amend the popular 1999 constitution – a Chavez hallmark and the holy grail of chavismo – as a response to ignore mounting pressure for a general election by the opposition.

The contention lies at the heart of the matter since Maduro bypassed the opposition-held congress to unilaterally announce the call for a new constitution by decree. His high-risk gamble has opened rifts within the government ranks and is undoubtedly headed for an imminent constitutional crisis.

The latest developments now show that there cannot be two more contrasting voices stacked in favour and against the embroiled Venezuelan president as he clings onto power.

Delcy Rodriguez resigned as foreign minister to contest as candidate for the National Constitutional Assembly scheduled for July 30. As a faithful comrade, she is expected to become Maduro's principal general to plough through a new madurista agenda at all cost. Despite any future attempts to masquerade Maduro's self-serving scheme as chavismo by using Hugo Chavez's legacy there is no denying that there will be a significant departure from the original 21st-century socialism set out by his predecessor.

On the other side of the internal divide, staunch chavista purists within the government are slowly but surely voicing their discontent with Maduro's political stunt. Attorney-General Luisa Ortega is now the latest high profile figure to publicly denounce the unconstitutionality of Maduro's decree to the extent of declaring that Venezuelan democracy is under threat. By abiding to the current 1999 constitution in actual force and in addition the legitimacy of her chamber she carries strong and valid criticism of the president while fast gaining broad support from the public.

Unfortunately for her, standing in the way of a president who is increasingly resembling an inspiring dictator will put her in a difficult position. She is set to pay a high price for her principled stand. So far she has managed to survive the cabinet shake-up and is defiantly weathering an official congressional inquiry against her.

Despite being a chavista stalwart Ortega risks being accused a traitor or worst an enemy of the state that might end with her as a political prisoner.

However, any unjust criminalisation of her would only contribute to her discourse, elevate her to martyrdom and encourage rebellion.

The fact that she has held her position despite the political adversaries stacked against her is indication that she is aware that she enjoys popular support among her colleagues and a growing grassroots base. In fact, she might be the last of the chavistas to still have any credibility intact to ensure incumbency.

If she plays her cards right she could possibly step up as a contender to regenerate and restore the popular chavista movement in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election. In the face of an unpopular sitting president and a fragmented opposition in an atmosphere of public disfranchisement she could ride the wave as an establishment alternative based highly on her credentials, principles and legitimacy.

Regardless of the outcome on July 30, the endgame for Nicolas Maduro is nigh. Even a slight low turnout for the new constitution will put into question his mandate and sadly violence is expected to escalate fuelled by infuriated frustration.

Maduro's options are limited to either tightening his iron grip as a dictator to remain in power or ushering a transition government in his favour. Either way, the floodgates for a political bloodbath – figuratively, of course – will only further fracture Venezuela.

At this juncture, it is very much that the stage is set for a political showdown between Delcy Rodriguez and Luisa Ortega for the leadership.

Not forgetting, in the midst of the current foray is the ambitious newly-appointed vice-president, Tareck El-Aissami, who has maintained elegant silence as he himself is engulfed in a personal scandal.

A looming checkmate of his own making is due for Maduro within the next few months unless he utters the infamous final three words first – "et tu Brutus" – when all bets will then be off.

Detractors of Chavez had maintained that cheap oil would be the end of chavismo populism but it was hardly predicted that the lack of succession planning would be the death of it. Perhaps it is just a paradoxical phenomenon of a post-legacy political reality.

The writer is guest columnist for a political magazine based in Mexico. A researcher and commentator of Latin American affairs, he was formerly information officer and political analyst for the Embassy of Malaysia in Mexico City. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com