Complex Road Ahead for Venezuela’s Recall Referendum

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

The process to convene a recall referendum against president Maduro started in full over the past week. On April 26 electoral ruling body National Electoral Council (CNE) issued the forms necessary to gather signatures, which is what the opposition needed to start the process. Last week government opponents held signature gathering rallies around the country in other to collect the signatures of at least 1% of the voters of each state, at minimum 195,721 voters. The opposition claims to have reached more than 2.5 million signatures nationwide. These will be submitted to the CNE on Tuesday, May 3.

Now comes a long and convoluted process which has been regulated by at least three different CNE resolutions issued since 2007. The deadlines and turnaround times have been a matter of much debate. According to legal scholar José Ignacio Hernádez, the CNE will then have to revise the signatures within 5 days, and then it will have 5 days to “validate” them.

This will take place in validation points around the country to which those who have signed will have to go and confirm their signatures. After this, the CNE will have additional 20 days to process the date from the validation process, a total of 30 days after the signatures have been submitted.

There is already ample disagreement about the dates of this first stage of the process. Pro-government CNE rector Tania D’Amelio said on May 1 that the verification of signatures would only begin after the 30 days period. But pro-opposition rector Rondón said that the norm referred to maximum period necessary, and that the CNE would begin the validation process as soon as the signatures were received.

To add confusion, the CNE has not yet made clear if these periods, and indeed all of the following referendum deadlines, will be affected by recent government announcements limiting the workweek to only two days due to Venezuela’s electricity crisis. The resolution however speaks of continuous days instead of business days.

According to a resolution issued by the CNE in February 2007, once the go ahead has been given for the actual referendum petition, the opposition would have three days to gather the signatures of at least 20% of registered voters, in a CNE organized process. After that, the CNE would then have 15 days to declare whether the petition is valid or not, and if so, three more days to convene the referendum, which would be held within the next 90 days. For all these periods the CNE resolution speaks of continuous days. At each stage of the process the CNE can declare the process null if it finds “omissions.”

Timing is crucial for the opposition if it wants the referendum to be held before January 10, 2017. This is the date that marks the mid-point of the Presidential term originally won by Hugo Chávez, and then fulfilled by Nicolás Maduro after Chávez’s death. There was some controversy whether January 10 or April 18 (which Maduro officially assumed power) marked the half-way point. But now even opposition rector Rondón points to January 10.

If the president were to be revoked after January 10, no new elections would be called and the vice-president would take over the presidency until the end of the period. Jennifer McCoy, former director of the Carter Center’s America’s Program and key mediator in the drive to the 2004 recall referendum, eventually defeated by Chávez, believes that the timing will be tight for the opposition to activate a referendum before the midterm.

Government media has been claiming that the opposition has been deceiving its supporters in the matter and that it is outright impossible to do so before January 10. But pro-opposition analysts claim that if the deadlines of the process are thoroughly respected, it is perfectly possible to hold the referendum before the critical deadline.

If this first stage of the mechanism is a measure, it is doubtful that the CNE will respect the stipulated deadlines and turnarounds. It took 48 days for the CNE to issue the signature-gathering sheets after the opposition handed its first of three petition letters to the electoral body. It also took some unconventional pressure, according the opposition. On April 21, a group of seven deputies belonging to the opposition Primero Justicia party chained themselves to a stairway inside the facilities of the CNE in protest to what they described as undue delays by the electoral ruling body.

The protesting opposition deputies, and journalists, were forcefully dislodged from the premises of the CNE by the National Guard. CNE rector Sandra Oblitas said that the deputies’ protest “constitutes an institutional violation and that her office will consider legal action against [the deputies].” In reference to the recall referendum she said the CNE “does not work under pressure.”

Precisely to pressure the electoral body, the opposition umbrella coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) had called for a peaceful street demonstration on April 27, but once the CNE issued the sheets instead changed its call to the signature gathering rallies.

The one pro-opposition rector of the five rector directorate of the CNE, Luis Emilio Rondón, criticized the way the National Guard treated the opposition deputies and expressed his disagreement with the rest of the directive of the CNE for the way they have handled the referendum petition by the opposition.

Further complicating the process for the opposition, president Maduro announced in April 29 the creation of a government commission, headed by the Socialist Mayor of Libertador Municipality and former CNE rector Jorge Rodriguez, to “check one by one” every signature submitted by the opposition to the CNE. Some pro-opposition analysts dispute the legality of this. Vicente Bello, MUD representative in the CNE, says he is not concerned since he understands from the president’s declarations that Jorge Rodriguez will be the government’s representative in the CNE for the referendum process, “and we also have our representatives here,” he declared.

Yet other analysts are worried that Rodriguez’s commission could be a reprise of the infamous “Tascón list.” After the 2004 recall referendum against Chávez, pro-government deputy Luís Tascón published the list of those who had signed the referendum petition. In the following decade the list was used by government officials to vet applicants for government jobs and services.        

To be successful, the votes to revoke the president would have to be equal or more than the votes he received when elected for his post: 7,587,532 votes. Last week, pollster Luis Vicente León, said the “the recall referendum option is approved by more than 65% of national voters,” but that opposition needed to be unified in pursuing a single strategy of government change.