Facing Headwinds, Referendum to Recall Venezuela’s President Moves Forward

Most Venezuelans want him gone. But Nicolás Maduro still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

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Venezuela is a mess. Violence, inflation, and food scarcity have skyrocketed. Electricity and running water are, for many, distant memories. Even the once-proud and relatively coddled national military has seen its soldiers reduced to smuggling cocaine or stealing goats for sustenance. Meanwhile, President Nicolás Maduro has held to a strict regimen of bloviating inaction despite his country’s economic and social collapse.

Maduro’s term isn’t up until 2019, but the long-marginalized opposition — which finally scored a victory late last year when it won a parliamentary supermajority — isn’t prepared to wait that long. Last week, opposition lawmakers launched a recall referendum, an arcane, multistep process that culminates in a public vote to remove the sitting president. In so doing, they gave long-suffering Venezuelans hope that they may soon see the end of Maduro’s ineffectual reign. Unfortunately, in revolutionary Venezuela, hope has a nasty habit of slipping through your fingers.

To be sure, in a country ranked 158 of 168 for perceived corruption and dead last in rule of law, recalling a sitting president, even an unloved one, was never going to be easy, particularly since Maduro’s United Socialist Party maintains a strong grip on almost all the levers of power. Then again, 68 percent of Venezuelans say they want him gone. After many years of Socialist Party dominance, the referendum represents Venezuela’s last best hope of a peaceful and democratic transition away from its failed revolution.

So early last Monday, at a satellite office of the national electoral authority, far in the outskirts of Caracas, the national coalition of opposition parties dropped off 80 boxes containing 1.85 million signatures, nearly 10 times the number needed to launch the recall process. The remoteness of the location, along with the fact that the signatures were delivered a day early and without notice, mitigated the risk of a “spontaneous manifestation” of Maduro supporters. Given the assaults on high-profile opposition leaders in recent weeks, this was a real threat.

Short of funds and decidedly unpopular, the president still remains a force to be reckoned with. The Venezuela Constitution, drafted soon after Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez came to power, set up five nominally separate branches of government instead of the usual three. Four of these — all except the national assembly — remain firmly in the regime’s hands. Since going over to the opposition in a landslide last December, the assembly has seen all of its legislation struck down by the supreme court, which hasn’t ruled against the presidency for a decade. The National Electoral Council (CNE) is no less loyal to the revolution, and it is this body that is charged with overseeing the recall, validating signatures, and establishing procedural norms.

Ominously, Venezuela’s previous recall referendum in 2004 was hamstrung by the very same electoral authority. Although initiated in August 2003, the referendum wasn’t held until a year later. Making clever use of various technicalities, the CNE delayed the vote until oil prices — and Chávez’s popularity — rose. The president ended up winning by nearly 2 million votes (though some experts criticized his victory as fraudulent).

In this recall, as well, timing will be crucial, though for different reasons. While Maduro is unlikely to recover in the polls anytime soon, should the recall process not be completed by Jan. 10, 2017, the Venezuelan Constitution stipulates that the executive vice president would take over, rather than holding new elections. While Aristóbulo Istúriz, the current vice president, might be marginally more palatable to the opposition than Maduro, removing the president while keeping the revolutionary system intact would represent, at best, a hollow victory. As the president can, in practice, appoint a new vice president at any time, there would be no guarantee that the eventual successor might not be even less desirable. By coordinating its efforts and playing for time, the government can therefore maintain its hold on power for another two years (albeit without Maduro), rather than face elections they would almost certainly lose.

Just as in Chávez’s heyday, today’s CNE seems ready to twist the law as much as necessary to protect the revolution and the president. Indignant opposition leaders had to request the forms needed to collect signatures three times before the CNE finally deigned to provide them. But by then the rules had changed. The previous requirement to collect nearly 200,000 signatures (1 percent of registered voters) was changed to require 1 percent of registered voters in each of Venezuela’s 26 states — a novel rule found neither in the constitution nor in the official Regulations for Petitioning for a Referendum. Instead, the new requirements were said to exist in an obscure Resolution #070906-2770, which was unfortunately not publicly available. (The text of the resolution has since turned up, and it doesn’t appear to say any such thing.)

With the opposition having managed to deliver more than 10 times the necessary number of signatures (a calculated risk, since they will take longer to count), and done so in a day less than required, the government decided to parry the move with a bit of old-fashioned coercion. While the CNE demurred on announcing how the signatures would be verified, former National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello — arguably chavismo’s most feared figure — wasted little time in declaring that any government employees who signed the recall petition should lose their jobs unless they changed their mind. Cabello’s statement was in no way legally binding, but Venezuelans have little cause to doubt the sincerity of his threat. When the supposedly secret list of 2.4 million signatories from the last referendum was made public, many were subsequently blacklisted from government jobs or denied public services.

And these were only the first steps. Should the recall move ahead, another round of signature collection will require signatures from fully 20 percent of the electorate. Only after these have been certified will Venezuelans be able to go to the polls to vote Maduro out by a simple majority (provided that turnout exceeds 25 percent and that more people vote in favor of recalling him than initially voted for his election).

Meanwhile, the government has suddenly reduced the length of workweeks for public sector employees, including those working for the electoral authorities, the legislature, and municipal governments: first to four days, then three, and finally to two four-hour stints every Monday and Tuesday. (The ostensible reason: to save electricity.) As a result, the weekly window for undertaking any governmental business — recall referendums included — has been curtailed sharply, as has the opposition’s ability to regularly meet with citizens and coordinate in legislative and municipal buildings. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and the specter of Maduro’s mandate going to his appointed successor looms large.

Venezuela’s first attempt at ousting a president through constitutional means — a legislative impeachment of President José Monagas in 1848 — ended when an armed mob massacred the legislature. The intervening years have done little to strengthen the institutional environment. Dozens of Venezuelan presidents have been successfully ousted through insurrections, coups, and even assassinations. In only one case — the politicized impeachment of President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992 — has the country’s constitution played even a peripheral role. By doing everything he can to derail the democratic process, Maduro is setting himself up to join the ranks of those whose terms ended in violence. And, when he does go, his mentor’s constitution (Venezuela’s 26th in just over 200 years) will almost certainly go with him.

In the photo, demonstrators gather signatures in Caracas on April 27 in support of a referendum to remove President Nicolás Maduro.

Photo credit: JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.