A Constituent Assembly in Venezuela is No Substitute for Elections: WOLA Calls on Venezuela to Announce Electoral Timetable

In response to unfolding events in Venezuela, WOLA issued the following statement:

Washington, DC—On May 3, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro presented electoral officials with plans to create a National Constituent Assembly, which would have the authority to rewrite the Venezuelan Constitution of 1999. As a research and advocacy organization that has been closely following Venezuela’s political and economic crisis, WOLA (the Washington Office on Latin America) is deeply troubled by the initiative.

After indefinitely suspending a recall referendum process last year, and with no official timetable for overdue elections for state governors and pending mayoral elections, the announcement of this Constituent Assembly is, in our view, the wrong measure at the wrong time.

“Let there be no doubt, the Maduro government is convening a Constituent Assembly as a means to avoid holding elections it knows it will lose,” said David Smilde, WOLA Senior Fellow. “The way it has been called violates the people’s constitutional rights, and the structure that is being proposed could disempower the people for many years to come.”

President Maduro has claimed that this effort will resolve the country’s current political crisis. But the proposed mechanism for doing so is deeply flawed. The Venezuelan leader has suggested that roughly half of the delegates to this body would be selected from “the base of the working class,” which some have interpreted as a euphemism for organizations in support of the unpopular government. Venezuelan legal scholars have also raised serious doubts that the 1999 Constitution gives the president the authority to convoke such a process without subjecting it to a referendum.

Internationally, interest is growing in multilateral engagement to help Venezuelans resolve their country’s mounting crisis. In organizations like Mercosur and the Organization of American States (OAS), regional efforts to promote peaceful and democratic resolutions of Venezuela’s crisis are moving forward.

“The problem facing Venezuela is not its 1999 Constitution, but rather the Maduro government’s evident willingness to violate and even subvert that constitution in order to avoid facing the voters,” said John Walsh, Senior Associate for the Andes. “The only viable path forward lies in the establishment of a clear electoral timetable and committed negotiation with members of the opposition. The international community has recognized this, and it is time for Venezuela’s government to do so as well.”

As Venezuela’s crisis deepens, WOLA urges the Venezuelan government to heed these international calls for the establishment of a clear calendar for the country’s pending regional and upcoming presidential elections.

We also call on the Venezuelan government to desist in any initiative for a Constituent Assembly until after regional and presidential elections take place. If and when such an initiative is undertaken, it must follow constitutionally specified mechanisms and give the people full right to reject or endorse the initiative before it can move forward. Only the Venezuelan people themselves have the authority to approve a new Constituent Assembly.

WOLA calls on the international community to not be distracted or dissuaded by the Maduro government´s initiative, but to continue to insist on a clear timetable for elections.

On the Constitutionality and Timing of a National Constituent Assembly in Venezuela

The initiative as formulated in Decree 2830 is unconstitutional and undemocratic in two ways. First, it combines what should be two separate steps: initiating the call for such an assembly and actually convoking it. According to Article 348 of the 1999 Constitution, the President has the right to initiate a call for a Constituent Assembly. However, Article 347 says it is the people who exclusively have the right to convoke a Constituent Assembly. This presumably would take place through a referendum, as it did in April 1999. Only after a Constituent Assembly is convoked by the electorate as a whole could there be a vote on who would then be empowered to write the new Constitution. Decree 2830 effectively conflates the people’s power to convoke a Constituent Assembly with the president’s right to initiate the process, and only allows the people to choose who their representatives will be in that process. Put differently, as currently formulated the people are not empowered to say whether or not they want to rewrite the Constitution, only who they want to do it.

Second, while the initiative suggests that the participants in the Constituent Assembly will be selected by a universal, direct, and secret vote, it violates this by suggesting this vote will happen within “social sectors” (ámbitos sectoriales). This would give the currently constituted government authorities, for example the executive branch, unfair powers to structure the vote to prioritize their issues and favor their followers. This is not an appropriate way to write a document that provides the basic ground rules for government and the rights of all citizens.

WOLA is also concerned about the timing of this initiative. Constituent Assemblies are best undertaken in an environment of significant consensus, usually after an electoral process that confers fresh legitimacy upon elected authorities. In the current context, however, the government in power has weak public support and has postponed both the presidential recall referendum and regional elections that were to have taken place in 2016. This gives the unavoidable impression that the initiative is being used to avoid elections rather than build upon them. This in turn suggests that a Constituent Assembly would be used not to consolidate a moment of consensus, but prevent one from occurring.