CARACAS, Venezuela – President Nicolás Maduro has reshuffled members of his cabinet including his second-in-command while the opposition, firmly opposed to Maduro’s rule and looking to actively oust him, has elected a new head to lead their coalition in Congress.
In early May, the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) officially initiated the effort to recall Maduro when the National Electoral Council (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 and the CNE found 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.
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. The CNE approved the completion of the first stage and announced that the second stage would take place at the end of October.
The second stage was to be 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.
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.
In late October, however, the CNE decided to stop the recall process temporarily until cases of fraud and their sources are investigated after several regional courts flagged the irregularities and instances of “widespread fraud.” The opposition accused the CNE of once again 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 lengthy and intensive audit procedures, especially due to the cases of fraud, and these procedures require a significant amount of time and manpower.
Given the adjusted 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 should theoretically be held at some point in mid-February at the very earliest but the CNE could further postpone the process.
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 the current Vice-President will take Maduro’s place and finish the mandate as scheduled in January of 2019, ensuring no change in policy.
Given that today is that date and the recall process did not produce a result prior to January 10, this means that the second-in-command will assume the presidency should the recall process occur.
Last week, this was to be Aristóbulo Istúriz of Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). As of this weekend and following a reshuffle, however, Maduro named another person to the position of Vice-President: Tareck El Aissami, an experienced politician, statesman and a 42-year-old native of the western state of Mérida who was born to Syrian Druze immigrants.
The move by Maduro to name El Aissami, a man deeply despised by the opposition, his second-in-command was seen as the President further surrounding himself with loyalists during a turbulent time.
El Aissami is a graduate of law at the University of the Andes (ULA) in Mérida where he was a staunch supporter of former leader Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) and joined his PSUV party, then known as the Fifth Republic Movement.
In 2005, El Aissami was elected as a Deputy to the National Assembly on behalf of the PSUV for his native State of Mérida. He climbed the ranks of the party and assumed several important internal leadership posts before being named Interior Minister (2008-2012). He was then elected Governor of Aragua State where he served from 2012 until just last week.
The opposition, meanwhile, who have led several violent marches on the CNE’s headquarters in Caracas to place pressure on the body to rapidly carry out the recall process in recent months, have made changes of their own.
Jesús Torrealba remains the the Secretary General of the MUD, continuing with his calls for “mass mobilizations” and change through means that are “democratic, constitutional, electoral and peaceful.”
In the unicameral legislature, however, the MUD has replaced the centrist Henry Ramos Allup as the President of the National Assembly with Julio Borges, a more conservative politician of the right-wing Justice First party that has pledged to be even more confrontational than his predecessor when dealing with Maduro and the PSUV.
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. Furthermore, a Supreme Court ruling ratified the fact that three MUD candidates from the Amazonian region were illegally elected. 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.