In recent months Venezuela has become emblematic of the failures of socialist economics to American and European media outlets looking for something to contrast with the seeming alienation of young millennials from capitalism. And without a doubt, Venezuela's economy is a disaster area, one that has only become worse since the collapse in oil prices.
Ultimately, however, the problems in Venezuela are as much political as economic. Yes incoherent economic policies have been pursued, but they have also been pursued within a system with no functioning judiciary, no checks or balances, and where political conflict becomes winner-take-all. Hugo Chavez is not responsible for this though he undoubtedly escalated the conflict. The bane of Latin American politics since independence has been the lack of the uniquely English concept of a "loyal opposition" an opposition that is both a viable alternative government, and one whose assumption of power will not signify ruin for those in power. Without such a concept, it is impossible to have free elections or an independent judiciary, since there are only two possible roles for either to play; that of affirming the authority of those in power and that of undermining it.
Absent such a concept, elections largely exist to ratify and legitimize the authority of existing office-holders rather than to determine the victor between contesting groups. It is axiomatic for opposition groups to refuse to accept their legitimacy as they are not designed to ever allow them to win, much less take office if they somehow do so. Equally, it is impossible for transitions to happen half-way. As elections are always weighted in favor of those in power, if not outright rigged, they cannot resolve disputes in a way that does result in the destruction of one party. Hence in the cases where cohabitation is forced on rival political forces, the government of national unity in Zimbabwe between 2008 and 2013 for example, the 2013 elections threatened disaster for Mugabe's opponents who controlled the National Assembly unless they could remove him. Their failure to do so resulted in their destruction.
This helps to explain why the victory of the opposition in Venezuela's National Assembly elections last year failed to change much. On the one hand, President Maduro and his allies had no intention of ceding power even if the economic realities compelled them to cede office, and in fact he is now pushing for the dissolution of the National Assembly itself. At the same time, however, the opposition never seriously tried to either work with him, or to improve the economic situation. From the start, they treated their victory the way a besieging army does a seizure of a portion of city wall; not as a position to begin talks, but rather as a base from which to launch a final offensive to finish off their foes. From the start, the first, and only order of business was the removal of Maduro himself, first through impeachment, and when a Supreme Court ruling denied them the needed two thirds majority on a technical ruling, by collecting enough signatures to trigger a recall election. In effect then, the sole policy pursued by the opposition since taking office amidst the collapse of the Venezuelan economy is to collect enough signatures to trigger another election.
It is understandable why many in the opposition MUD might think that the removal of Maduro and the takeover of the Presidency is a prerequisite for any successful economic reform. In the long run it is likely true. Attempting to work with Mugabe almost certainly did not work for the MDC in Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, the refusal to even propose reforms with no chance of passing has reinforced the impression that the MUD considers the existence of Maduro and other Chavistas in office, not their specific policies, to be the major cause of Venezuela's troubles.
That is an unwise approach. Not only does it raise unrealistic expectations for when the MUD or its successors do manage to take power, but it also separates political activism from a wider society. The MUD managed to overcome the advantages of office and state control possessed by the Chavistas last year because voters associated a vote for the opposition with a vote for an improvement in their own lives and therefore were willing to overcome doubts about the intentions and policies of an alliance which stretched from Oligarchs to Communists. Now, however, the political contest has been turned into a mere battle for power, one in which Maduro still has all the advantages of state power, but the MUD is merely another political player battling for power and office. On a comparative level that is a loss for the opposition.
That loss may well matter because whether or not the MUD gets its recall, or alternatively Maduro succeeds in recalling the National Assembly, will not depend on the law or the number of signatures, but whether the MUD can mobilize enough popular unrest to compel the government to give in. Popular indifference is not a neutral factor, but rather one that would play into Maduro's hands.
Ultimately the opposition needs an actual program they can present Maduro as obstructing in order to win, The more this appears a petty power struggle, the more likely they are to lose. And they have not been playing their cards well over the last six months.