Sunday's legislative elections handed the Socialists their first defeat in 16 years. Now the opposition and the administration must govern together - otherwise, Venezuela could sink even deeper into chaos.
The many violent clashes that were feared did not take place. President Nicolas Maduro's relatively conciliatory reaction had a lot to do with that: "We have lost a battle, but now the fight for socialism begins."
Just prior to the vote, Maduro went on a massive verbal offensive and spoke of defending the revolution by any means necessary. The still-unsolved murder of a local opposition leader just over a week before the vote helped keep the tension high.
"Now it depends on whether Maduro will accept these results in the future and allow Venezuela to restore a sense of parliamentary governance," said Nikolaus Werz, a political scientist at the University of Rostock. Maduro's Socialists had rubber-stamped almost every law he sent them.
The lawmakers for the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) elected Sunday will not likely be as generous. Nevertheless, in Venezuela, the president wields great power. Thus, Maduro could potentially pass laws with the help of his current majority and other alliances before the new parliament is sworn in in January.
Stalemate or rapprochement?
All eyes are on the 22 seats that do not yet have declared winners. Results from remote areas should be tallied within the next few days.
Should the opposition achieve a three-fifths majority, any laws passed by the current parliament to give Maduro increased executive powers could be overturned in January. With a two-thirds majority, or 112 seats in total, MUD would also be in a position to fill new judiciary posts.
That would be important for Venezuela's many imprisoned members of the opposition. Immediately after election results were announced, Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition politician Leopoldo López, called for "the release of all political prisoners."
Voters' reasons for turning away from Maduro and Chavismo lie in part in Venezuela's debilitating economic stagnation. The country has the world's largest oil reserves, but suffers from inflation, a shortage of goods and increasing international isolation. Standing in line for hours for necessities such as toilet paper or flour has become a part of everyday life for Venezuelans.
Reversing the balance of power
According to unofficial results, MUD's 112 parliamentary seats put it well ahead of the Socialists, who thus far only appear to have won 51 of the 167 seats. That signals a general reversal in the balance of power. For the past five years, the Socialists and their allies have held 99 seats; the opposition only had 64.
This new situation will be a test for both sides. The opposition has yet to offer long-term alternatives to the current situation. "Now they have to develop a program and not just proclaim what they are against," the political scientist Werz said, "but rather what they feel is important."
The opposition has a history of inefficiency and infighting. The current alliance is made up of some 20 parties, consisting of conservatives, neoliberals and social democrats. Just agreeing on a candidate to stand in the next presidential elections will probably be a problem of its own.
Such an election could come sooner than desired for the incumbent Maduro. If MUD can gather enough signatures or put together a sufficient majority in parliament, Venezuela's constitution would allow parliament to hold a referendum on whether the president should remain in office after he has served half of his term.
Such a vote could happen in April. By that point, Venezuelans could turn back the revolution launched by Hugo Chavez in the 1990s altogether. "The transitional phase has begun," Werz said. "The outcome is uncertain."