Venezuela: Supreme Court Rejects Opposition’s Bid to Terminate Maduro Presidency Early

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CARACAS, Venezuela – The Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), the highest judicial body in Venezuela, has rejected the opposition’s bid to change the presidential mandate from six years to four years, which would have ended President Nicolás Maduro’s mandate early and called for elections in December of this year.

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.

Since then, the opposition 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 has also repeatedly called for the outright ousting of Maduro through mass mobilizations before the opposition gained parliamentary control.

What was once a radical faction, however, has now become the norm with the opposition as Maduro, through the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, has passed certain laws and overruled bills 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.

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.

The latest attempt, which the TSJ rejected, is to remove Maduro 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.

The opposition, confident that the incumbent would have stood no chance in the possible elections, said they would have had no objections to Maduro running on behalf of the Great Patriotic Pole, a coalition led by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

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 be precise, the TSJ declared in its ruling that the amendment could be passed “in principle” for future reference but it cannot be “immediately applied” for any sitting functionaries. Thus, the TSJ ruled that if a bill that does not name specific figures and simply asks for a change in future mandates, it will pass but given that it cannot have immediate (or retroactive) effect and specifically names Maduro, it was shot down.

Allowing 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.

While this option to remove Maduro was shot down, the opposition still has another trick up their sleeve: a recall referendum.

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 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. The second step is a repeat of the first with a count of 20 percent instead of 1 percent. 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. If he is removed, then current Vice-President Aristóbulo Istúriz (PSUV) will take his place and finish the mandate in 2019.

The process was filed with the CNE over three weeks ago, but the opposition has accused the electoral body of purposely dragging its feet and delaying the recall effort.

Last week, seven MUD parliamentarians chained themselves to the CNE offices in Caracas for over five hours and demanded that the recall proceedings be expedited while other MUD figures took several regional CNE offices by force. The seven (Marcos Bozzo, María Martínez, José Mendoza, Milagros Paz, Conrado Pérez, Juan Requesens and Milagros Valera) were finally removed by police as government and opposition supporters scuffled outside.

The MUD threatened to widen the call for expedited recall procedures through a street protest that would eventually end at the CNE offices once again.

The CNE, for its part, responded by saying that it will not respond to “pressure and blackmail.” Furthermore, the primary rector of that institution, Luis Emilio Rondón, outlined that the recall form presented by the opposition and now ratified by the CNE are “was delivered to the CNE on Tuesday the 27th” and will soon be distributed nationwide along with the official rules for collecting signatures.

Capriles Radonski, the prominent opposition figure, welcomed the development and said he had received his form late Tuesday night. He said that the call for street protests would now be modified to a “great day of collecting signatures nationwide.” Capriles Radonski said that those 198,000 signatures needed to pass the first step would be “collected within hours.”

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.

Since then, the economic issues in Venezuela have only worsened and given the violence and death that occurred in 2014, any major protest that now occurs in Venezuela carries with it a heavy tension and the threat of blowing over into similar unrest.

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