CARACAS, Venezuela – In a development that has angered the opposition, the Venezuelan National Electoral Council (CNE) has announced that the recall process against President Nicolás Maduro will conclude in 2017, meaning that if the recall goes through, new elections will not be held and Maduro’s second-in-command will assume the presidency.
Tibisay Lucena, the President of the CNE, laid out a schedule for the continuation of the recall that explained that the second round of the process would take place next month over the course of three days: October 26, 27 and 28. The dates presented, however, will likely have repercussions for the opposition as time is of the essence in determining who will assume power should the recall process succeed.
In early May, the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) officially initiated the recall effort when the CNE approved their request to place ballot boxes across the country.
Citizens filed through and the opposition said they gathered 1.8 million votes in just three days, well over the 198,000 signatures (or 1 percent of the registered electorate) needed in order for an official plebiscite to be called. The signatures were then to be reviewed and confirmed.
For this process, the electoral body invited all those that signed the recall petition and were not one of the some 500,000 whose signatures were deemed to be fraudulent to confirm their identities by reporting to regional CNE offices and having their fingerprints taken and compared with their fingerprints already on file.
In June, the CNE announced that over 500,000 of the 1.8 million signatures were were fraudulent; names listed were those of deceased individuals, unregistered or nonexistent individuals and other invalid types of signatures, according to the CNE.
Regardless, the remaining 1.3 million valid signatures were more than enough given that less than 198,000 were needed for the first round of the recall process to advance, even though the CNE still reported several thousand “fraudulent” identities that signed the petition for a second time.
The CNE approved the completion of the first stage and, as mentioned, has announced that the second stage will take place at the end of October. The second stage is essentially a repeat of the first stage but with a new “magic number” of signatures: 20 percent (or 4 million in bulk numbers) of the electorate instead of 1 percent of the electorate, and this time, the signatures must be collected within 3 days.
If enough signatures are collected during the second step, the CNE will then count and review the signatures over the course of 15 days maximum. 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.
Given this new timetable (and the high likelihood that the second stage of the recall process will succeed, according to polls), this means that the definitive recall referendum vote will be held at some point between early December of 2016 and mid-February of 2017.
Much to the opposition’s lament, the CNE announced this week that the latter date is the most likely outcome: “if the requisites are met and the recall mechanism is activated,” the definitive vote concerning the recall should begin its planning phase in early December, which means that “the actual vote itself given the 90 day statutory period will take place in the middle of the first trimester of 2017,” i.e. mid-February.
Indeed, the primary issue of the recall effort is timing: If the definitive vote is organized before January 10, 2017, a new election would be called within a month. If the vote is organized after that date, however, then current Vice-President Aristóbulo Istúriz of Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will take his place and finish the mandate as scheduled in January of 2019, ensuring no change in policy.
The opposition has already accused the CNE of purposely dragging its feet and delaying the recall effort at the behest of the incumbent government. The electoral body, however, says that it is burdened because recall petitions and subsequent signatures must go through audit procedures, and these procedures require a significant amount of time and manpower.
In recent months, the followers of the MUD have marched several times on the CNE’s headquarters in Caracas to place pressure on the body to rapidly carry out the recall process, and clashes have routinely ensued between demonstrators and security forces. The most recent public demonstration, which took place on September 1 with the same aim of expediting the recall process, was the largest in recent memory as it brought hundreds of thousands of anti-Maduro protesters onto the streets.
Jesús Torrealba, the Secretary General of the MUD, announced that another “mass mobilization” was planned for the coming weeks after the CNE’s statement. “The CNE and the rest of the government will encounter a nation of people ready to fight in defense of the Constitution,” he said.
Torrealba also described the CNE’s announcement as a “direct provocation” that is meant to drive the opposition to violence and thus, demonize them. “We must stick to our same strategy of actions that are democratic, constitutional, electoral and peaceful,” he said.
In the December 2015 election, the 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 MUD won big and became the majority in the unicameral parliamentary chamber.
Maduro, through the Supreme Court (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 rallied around the goal of removing Maduro three years before his mandate expires via public recall.
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 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.
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 of essentials like food products and medicine, 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.