VENEZUELA’S ELECTION on Sunday produced a huge victory for those who believe that democracy can provide a path out of the country’s profound crisis. Despite deeply unfair conditions, an opposition coalition recorded a landslide victory over the regime of President Nicolás Maduro, giving it a commanding majority in the National Assembly. That could open the way to political negotiations and the adoption of desperately needed measures to save a major oil producer from economic collapse — if Mr. Maduro and other political heirs of the late Hugo Chávez will cooperate.
Unfortunately, that does not look likely so far. Mr. Maduro on Sunday night said he accepted the election outcome — reportedly under pressure from the military — but by late Tuesday, election authorities had failed to announce final results that opposition leaders said give them a crucial two-thirds majority in the assembly. Though he backed away from pre-election threats of violence, Mr. Maduro blamed the loss on “counter-revolution” and an “economic war” while promising to “move forward with more revolution.”
If sustained, that response would undercut the moderate opposition leaders who favored the electoral strategy over street protests and who now propose to prioritize solutions to the economic crisis over an attempt to use the legislature to dismantle the Chavista regime. As independent Venezuelan analysts have pointed out, an economy-first policy would be the most sensible response to voters, who turned out at the extraordinary rate of 74 percent not because they necessarily wanted to replace the Maduro government with the opposition but because they are desperate for relief from endemic consumer-goods shortages and triple-digit inflation.
The steps to ease those afflictions — and head off a debt default by Venezuela in the coming months — are obvious but painful. The government must reform a wildly distorted exchange-rate system and remove capital and price controls, stop charging less than 1 cent per gallon of gasoline, end runaway spending backed by the printing of money and cease persecution of the private sector. The regime’s best strategy would be to offer the release of political prisoners and a freeing of the media in exchange for the opposition’s acceptance of co-responsibility for the bitter economic medicine.
If Mr. Maduro and other hard-liners have their way, however, the Chavista movement will react the way it has to past political reverses — with autocracy. The president may seek decree powers from the outgoing assembly or try to pack the supreme court, which could then reverse all measures passed by the new opposition majority. That would push the opposition to seek a referendum on the president’s removal from office or a rewrite of the constitution — steps made possible by its claimed supermajority.
Outside powers will likely seek to prevent such a meltdown and broker a deal; the United States has already offered its services. Such mediation has failed in the past due to the regime’s intransigence. Many of its senior figures, compromised by involvement in drug trafficking or other major corruption, may believe that any yielding of power would place them personally at risk. If Venezuela is to be saved from more conflict and chaos, those Chavistas who remain uncorrupted and principled must now act for the common good.