CARACAS, Venezuela – In what is sure to cause more tension in the already strained relationship between the branches of government, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has announced that he rejects the opposition-dominated National Assembly’s plan to institute an amnesty bill and that it “a bill that aims to protect criminals will surely not come into law.”
In the December 2015 election, Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) lost their majority in the unicameral National Assembly for the first time since 1999 (back when their coalition was known as the Fifth Republic Movement).
In turn, the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) became the new majority and as such, can easily pass bills through parliamentary means. The Executive and Judicial branches, on the other hand, are still controlled by Maduro and the PSUV, which has led to several MUD bills being struck down.
The opposition has accused Maduro of circumventing the will of the people (as they voted the the MUD into office as a majority) and a clash of powers has ensued.
Earlier this week, the MUD, who had been planning on passing an amnesty law for months but were not expected to present it for several more days, quickly put forth the Law of Amnesty and National Reconciliation. It was voted upon after just several hours and easily passed, despite not being placed on the National Assembly’s daily agenda per protocol.
The issue concerning those detained individuals dates back more than two years when protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against Maduro’s government. They were protesting against issues like high inflation, shortages, high crime rates, insecurity and what they deemed (and still deem) to be political repression.
The demonstrations intensified signicantly when various anti-government groups and opposition leaders took to the streets on February 12, 2014, and the violent march that ensued ended in three dead and hundreds injured.
The demonstrations, organized and led by opposition figure Leopoldo López (who remains jailed on a 14-year-sentence as the intellectual author of the February 12 disturbances and is the prisoner with the highest profile), intensified for several weeks thereafter and left 43 Venezuelans dead (mostly security figures) before calm returned to the nation.
In the aftermath of the unrest, many individuals were detained for their roles in the violence, either in inciting the violent acts or for failing to prevent them. Those people are considered political prisoners by the opposition while the Maduro government considers them simple criminals who were detained for their actions and not for their political ideologies.
According to text of the MUD’s Law of Amnesty and National Reconciliation, there are 78 political prisoners nationwide and the passage of the law should grant them immediate freedom.
The MUD expressed their delight at the passage of the bill as they all clapped and cheered at the conclusion of the vote. Lilian Tintori, the wife of López who has assumed an important role as a sort of unofficial spokeswoman for the opposition, said that the vote was “the beginning of the rescue of justice, reconciliation and freedom in Venezuela.”
Maduro, for his part, has always rejected any notion of an amnesty law and has promised to use any of his powers in order to veto the bill.
Héctor Rodríguez, the head of the PSUV bloc in the National Assembly, warned that the bill has no chance of being ultimately passed into law because it “violates both the laws of Venezuela and of international bodies” while other PSUV lawmakers said they would not even consider an amnesty law until a comprehensive victim reparation bill is passed.
Indeed, the Venezuelan Constitution provides two options which can be used by the incumbent leader to reject a law passed by the National Assembly.
The first is to refuse to sign it into law, then review it and add observations and comments and finally, send it back to be revised by the parliamentarians.
The second option is to send the bill to the Constitutional Court of the highest judicial body, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), which will determine if the bill clashes with the nationwide laws already established. This will surely be the the path chosen by Maduro as the judges of the TSJ are chosen by the Executive, meaning that they will vote in his favor. In fact, the TSJ has ruled in favor of Maduro every time since he assumed the presidency in March of 2013.
“The MUD have approved a law that intends to truthfully protect murderers, criminals, narcotraffickers and terrorists. These parliamentarians passed this law knowing that it is illegal under the national laws of Venezuela and international law,” Maduro said.
“Rest assured, ladies and gentlemen, that I will not let this law pass. No law that protects terrorists and criminals will pass through here, no matter what they do,” Maduro firmly said in a televised conference.
While Maduro can remain confident that the amnesty law will be struck down one way or another, the opposition is still busy at work determining how they will oust the sitting leader.
Just weeks ago, the MUD announced that it would be utilizing several mechanisms soon in an attempt to remove Maduro from power three years before his mandate expires.
With their newfound majority in the unilateral National Assembly, the MUD has rallied around La Salida (The Exit), a radical dissident faction of the MUD that has refused to be a part of any dialogue between the government and the opposition. La Salida had also repeatedly called for the outright ousting of Maduro through mass mobilizations before the opposition gained parliamentary control. La Salida’s ideas were once radical but have now become the norm with the opposition as Maduro, through the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, has passed certain laws and overruled bills (as mentioned) created by the MUD in the National Assembly
Seeing no way around this clash of government branches, the MUD has now as a unit rallied around the goal of removing Maduro from the presidential Miraflores Palace in contrast to just even a few months ago when the mainstream MUD was simply (but voraciously) calling for a change in the ruling government’s policies.
This is no longer the case, however, as even Henrique Capriles Radonski, Governor of Miranda State and the MUD’s candidate in the last two presidential elections, is calling for Maduro’s removal. The development is significant not only because Capriles Radonski is the MUD’s most prominent politician, but also because he has been repeatedly criticized by members of the opposition in the past for being “too soft” with Maduro.
Capriles Radonski estimated that the opposition would have a recall referendum completely ready for a nationwide vote at the beginning of October of this year. The recall referendum, whose outcome would depend on the popular vote, allows for the removal of a sitting leader halfway through their mandate, which has already occurred in the case of Maduro.
To do this, the organizers of the recall effort must gather 20 percent of the registered electorate, equating to some 3.9 million voters, within an official span of three days. If this is achieved, the National Electoral Council (CNE) will count and review the signatures and once the CNE approves, the referendum vote must be called within 90 days. For Maduro’s mandate to be revoked, the votes in favor of a recall must surpass the number of votes he gathered in the 2013 election, which means that over 7.5 Venezuelans must vote against Maduro in order for the recall effort to succeed.
Another option mentioned by the MUD to remove Maduro is via constitutional amendment. This option, already proposed by members of the Radical Cause (a center-left party in the MUD), would amend several articles of the Venezuelan Constitution: to shorten the presidential term from six years to four, to shorten the terms of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice judges from twelve years to six and to limit both of those positions to only one re-election.
Maduro’s predecessor Chávez was elected for yet another term in the presidential election of late 2012. Following Chávez’s death in March of 2013, Maduro served as the interim leader until a new election was held a year later where he narrowly defeated Capriles Radonski. This ensured that Maduro would finish the term for which Chávez was elected, which is scheduled to end in early February of 2019.
If the opposition’s amendment proposal (which would require a simple parliamentary majority) passes, however, then the term would end in 2017 instead of 2019, meaning that the electoral season would begin in only a few months. The opposition, confident that the incumbent would stand no chance, have said they have no objections to Maduro running on behalf of the Great Patriotic Pole, a coalition led by the PSUV.
This process, according to the opposition, is the most “painless” way of achieving regime change, and it would allow Maduro to “save face” because technically, he would simply be finishing his mandate instead of being removed from office.
Finally, two other options for an early termination of the mandate remain including the creation of a powerful Constituent Assembly and the practically impossible resignation by Maduro, something that he qualified as having “absolutely no remote possibility of any sort” of happening.