Criticism Mounts as Venezuela’s Recall Process Drags On

David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

Yesterday a group of former ministers and pro-Chávez intellectuals held a press conference to demand that the CNE put a date on the recall referendum without further delay. They called their initiative “Platform for the Defense of the Constitution.” The event came three weeks after the verification process of the signatures needed to initiate the process, and a week before the CNE has promised the results of its audit of the verification of its first audit (not a typo), of the signatures needed to initiate the referendum process.

On June 29 the Center for Political Studies of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello and Transparencia Venezuela, among other NGOs, issued a press release in which they criticized the CNE for “systematically delaying the activation of the referendum and stablishing requirements not mentioned in the Constitution or the approved electoral norms.”

The background of these statements is that time is of the essence, since, if pro-government officials can delay the recall referendum until 2017 it will guarantee the continuity of Chavismo in power. If the recall happens before January 10, 2017 a successful recall would lead to new presidential elections. If it happens after that date it would simply mean that a vice president chosen by the president, would fulfill the final two years of his term.

The first stages of the process—soliciting the correct forms for the signatures, collecting the signatures, having them audited by the CNE and having those audited signatures verified by signers, took 56 days.

The opposition claims that 409,393 citizens, more than double the 1% registered voters required, passed through the CNE fingerprints machines to validate their signature from June 20-24 to validate their signature. But CNE rector Tibisay Lucena said it will take 20 working days for technicians to compare the fingerprint scans made by the machines with the “biometric archives” of the CNE. It won’t be until July 26 when the CNE will issue its final report on whether if the opposition reached the 1% threshold and the process can go on.

Venezuelan elections journalist Eugenio G. Martínez argues that this additional audit was made necessary by CNE decisions. “For this stage,” writes Martínez, “the CNE could have opted for using a system similar to that used in elections which allows for a real time comparison between the fingerprints and the CNE’s archives. However the rectors decided to opt for a system in which the fingerprints were only digitally registered (in the machines) and then later revised.”    

Opposition leader Capriles Radonski says that the CNE is again dragging its feet, unduly adding “verification of the verification” steps to the process, outside established norms. A representative of the opposition coalition MUD, Vicente Bello, says that even taking into account the delays there is no reason not to start the second stage of the process during the last week of July. MUD’s executive secretary Jesús Torrealba has asked the CNE to “accept the obvious, that the opposition has gathered more than 1% signatures,” and to skip the 20 days verification stage so that the second phase of the process can start.

The second phase will require a new drive to gather the signatures of at least 20% (around 4 million) registered voters. The opposition says it already has detailed plans for collecting those signatures. In contrast to the first signature gathering drive, this one would be done by the opposition together with the CNE directly using its fingerprint scanning machines.

The actual electoral norms say nothing regarding whether the 20% is nationwide or for each electoral circumscription, as was the case in the previous step. They only speak of “20% of the voters in the Electoral Register by the time the petition is made, in the corresponding circumscription.”

However, it is important to know that the norm was also unclear in this matter about the 1% signatures needed to start the process, yet the CNE required that 1% be gathered from each state.

The UCAB document also mentioned this point. “In relation to the collection of the 20% of signatures, we should remember that the percentage is relative to the national circumscription, because this is what the Constitution establishes for the President of the Republic, and that therefore any attempt to proportionally distribute that percentage along federal entities would be arbitrary, biased, and contrary to the Constitution.”      

The opposition could therefore face obstacles in the second stage of the process similar to the ones it faced in the first. According to Martínez, in the 1% verification process the geographical distribution of the 300 fingerprints scanning machines deployed by the CNE was skewed and this made it impossible for the opposition to verify more signatures than it did in five days. More machines were put in places were fewer signatures had been collected, instead of in, or near, opposition strongholds, argues Martínez.

A detailed report by Julett Pineda published in the news portal Efecto Cocuyo describes how the MUD struggled in some regions to reach even the 1% validation of signatures because of where the machines had been located. For the 20% of voter’s signature drive the opposition would have only 3 days according to norms. Opposition experts say that at least 20,000 machines would be needed, and these would have to be better distributed in at least 4,000 gathering centers with 5 machines each.

In their document, the leaders of the Platform for the Defense of the Constitution suggested that it is unacceptable “that officials who do not have electoral matters as part of their official attributions make statements right and left about whether the electoral event will occur.”

And indeed, such statements have been many.

While polls suggest that 7 out of 10 citizens would vote against Maduro if a recall referendum was held today, head of the PSUV legislative block, Hector Rodríguez, said in a recent interview that the recall referendum is not a priority for the people. He accepted that the referendum is a constitutional right, but also argued that petitioner had to go through a legal process, “and the way they are going (the opposition), it doesn’t seem they are going to make it.”

On July 12 president Maduro clearly stated his government’s stance on the issue of a possible recall referendum against him being held this year: “I can tell you many things about the referendum, the first thing, it will not happen,” because “the opposition has turned a constitutional process into a fraud.”

And indeed the whole process could come to a halt before it gets to its second phase if an appeal for interpretation made to the Supreme Tribunal (TSJ) by PSUV leaders is accepted. They want the TSJ to stop what they call a “gigantic fraud” by the opposition. The case must be presented to the TSJ by one of its own judges. Luis Damiani has been asked to do so.

Jorge Rodríguez, mayor of Caracas and the government’s designated watchdog over the process has proposed that the CNE should establish a new requirement for the recall. Because President Maduro was elected in a single election day, argues Rodríguez, “the signatures should be collected in just one day.”

PSUV leader and deputy of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, concurred but added that since the norms ask for the signatures of 20% of register voters, then logically only 20% of the CNE’s machines should be deployed. “We are not going to make it easy for you, escuálidos (opposition),” said Cabello.

The CNE directorate, however, has made no comments on these ideas by PSUV leaders. Instead the four female, pro-government rectors of the electoral ruling body held a press conference on July 7 to accusing the opposition leadership of using machista insults and vulgar language against them.

Added to all the existing obstacles are reports that lists of signatures are being used to purge the government of dissenters. Cabello justified the practice saying any administration official “signing against the compañero Nicolás (Maduro), should immediately resign his post.”