CARACAS, Venezuela – The Venezuelan National Electoral Council (CNE) has opened polling stations across the country and citizens are filing through as the electoral body has opened the first stage of the opposition’s recall effort against President Nicolás Maduro.
In the December 2015 election, Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) lost their majority in the National Assembly for the first time since 1999 (back when their coalition was known as the Fifth Republic Movement). On the other hand, the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) won big and took the majority in the National Assembly, the unicameral parliamentary chamber.
Maduro, through the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), has passed certain laws and overruled bills created by the MUD in the National Assembly since the parliamentary election. 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.
Since December’s parliamentary gains, the opposition has thus consistently called for the ouster of Maduro “through political channels” and they have announced several mechanisms through which they can attempt to remove him from power three years before his mandate expires.
Earlier this week, the TSJ rejected one of those mechanisms, the removal of Maduro later this year via constitutional amendment. This option, proposed by members of the Radical Cause (a center-left party in the MUD), would have amended several articles of the Venezuelan Constitution: shortened the presidential term from six years to four, shortened the terms of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice judges from twelve years to six and limited both of those positions to only one re-election.
Maduro’s predecessor, the popular Hugo 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 Henrique Capriles Radonski of the MUD. This ensured that Maduro would finish the term for which Chávez was elected, which is scheduled to end in early February of 2019.
Had the opposition’s amendment proposal, which easily passed the vote in the MUD-dominated National Assembly, passed, then Maduro’s term would have ended in early 2017 instead of 2019, meaning that the electoral season would have begun in only a few months. This now-dead process, according to the opposition, was the most “painless” way of achieving regime change in that it would allow Maduro to “save face” because technically, he would have simply been finishing his (shortened) mandate instead of being removed from office.
The Constitutional Chamber of the TSJ, however, shot down this plan as it ruled that “any amendments made to the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela do not have effect retroactively.” To allow such an amendment to immediately affect any sitting figures, regardless of their political ideology, is “an unquestionable breach of Article 5 of the Constitution which says that the electoral will of the people who elected a public figure for a defined amount of time cannot be violated,” the TSJ said.
Naturally, the MUD did not take too kindly to the TSJ’s ruling and alleged that Maduro used his influence to make the decision himself through the court. Regardless, they have now moved on to the next removal mechanism, the recall referendum, which the Constitution says allows for the removal of a sitting leader halfway through their mandate.
To begin this process, the organizers of the recall effort must simply gather just 1 percent of the registered electorate, or some 198,000 signatures, within a span of 30 days in order for an official plebiscite to be called.
This is just what started to occur on Thursday as the National Electoral Council (CNE) finally delivered the recall forms nationwide in the two days before and the signatures began pouring in.
Across Venezuela, signature collection centers have sprung up in brick-and-mortar buildings and under awnings in public plazas. The various political parties within the MUD coalition are sponsoring and operating the signature collection centers as opposition figures claim that the 198,000 votes will be collected long before the weekend is over, let alone before the 30-day limit expires.
Just how quickly signatures were gathered and how many people came out to support the measure surprised even Henrique Capriles Radonski, Governor of Miranda State and the MUD’s candidate in the last two presidential elections. Capriles Radonski claimed that in just two days, the MUD has been able to collect over 1,000,000 signatures for the recall effort.
“The response has been overwhelming. We can be happy with this result for now as we have gathered more than enough for the first stage. We will deliver the signed forms first thing Monday morning. As for now, we are already preparing for the next goal: 4 million signatures,” Capriles Radonski said.
He was referring to the second step of the recall process, which is a repeat of the first step with a count of 20 percent (4 million) of the electorate instead of 1 percent of the electorate, but the signatures must be collected within 3 days instead of 30. If enough signatures are collected during the second step, the National Electoral Council (CNE) will then count and review the signatures. Once the CNE approves, the official 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.
If he is removed before the second week of January 2017, presidential elections would be called within a month but if Maduro is removed after the first half of January, then current Vice-President Aristóbulo Istúriz (PSUV) will take his place and finish the mandate in January of 2019.
The process was filed with the CNE in early March, but the opposition has accused the electoral body of purposely dragging its feet and delaying the recall effort, which the opposition estimates will last approximately seven months from start to finish.
Earlier this week, Maduro announced that local and federal government employees (and some others in the public sector) will be working only on Mondays and Tuesdays during the first half of May due to the energy crisis in the country. Hydroelectricity provides some 70 percent of the nation’s energy, but due to a severe and ongoing drought, efforts are being made to reduce consumption until the rainy season, which typically starts in early June, arrives.
Opposition figures, however, claim that this is another ploy to severely delay the recall process as the audit procedures require a large amount of time and manpower from government workers charged with carrying out the process. They say Maduro purposely made this decision so that the recall would take place after the aforementioned January date so that the PSUV would stay in power through Istúriz.
Led by Chávez, the “Bolivarian Revolution” was immensely popular in Venezuela for well over a decade but a series of developments over the last several years severely damaged its popularity and reputation.
Fed up with issues like high inflation, shortages, high crime rates, insecurity and what they deem to be political repression, the populace of Venezuela has been increasingly turning away from the PSUV, especially since the death of Chávez in March of 2013 and the subsequent worsening economic situation in the country, brought about mostly by the sharp fall of oil prices and other commodities.
For those same reasons, 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, intensified for several weeks thereafter and left 43 Venezuelans dead (mostly security figures) before calm returned to the nation.