David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
The Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) has issued a press release setting out a series of requirements for the signature drive to call a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro that make it all but impossible to hold this year. The announcement puts in place three enormous obstacles.
The CNE set the three days from October 26-28 as the dates during which the opposition needs to collected the required signatures. In the case that this requirement was fulfilled, which will be determined by late-November, the CNE date would be announced in early December the date for the actual referendum. They stated that given the 90 days they have by law to hold the event, it would take place “during the middle of the first quarter of 2017.”
If President Maduro were to lose a referendum after January 10, no new elections would be triggered, but the Vice-president would fill in as president until 2019.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the decision by the CNE that the percentage of voter’s signatures needed to petition for the referendum will be 20% in each state, not nationwide. During the previous phase in which the MUD had to gather 1% voter’s signatures, the opposition coalition struggled to meet this requirement in states such as Nueva Sparta, Carabobo, and Anzoátegui.
Yet another problem is the number of finger print scanning machines that the CNE has said it will use to validate the signatures collected in the event of a 20% gathering drive. The MUD had argued that at least 19,500 machines should be distributed around the country for there to be any possibility of reaching the target of 3,913,403 signatures in three days.
But the CNE said it will deploy only 5,392 such machines in 1,355 voting centers. The CNE has at its disposal over 14 thousand voting centers.
Elections journalist Electoral expert Eugenio Martinez says that for the 1% signature validation drive each machine scanned an average of 260 voters per day. In a perfect scenario the opposition could top 1,401,920 per day. It has to gather at least 3,913,403 signatures in three days.
However, the CNE centers will be open three days for just seven hours a day—from 8 am to 4 pm with a lunch break from 12 pm to 1 pm.
The only pro-opposition rector of the CNE, Luís Emilio Rondón, dissented from the majority opinion on the decisions announced. He also made public the CNE’s decisions shortly before the publication of the official press release. He summed up his disagreement with the CNE’s actions saying “I thought it was necessary to establish conditions that facilitate the exercise of these [i.e. electoral] rights.”
The MUD Executive Secretary, Jesús Torrealba, reacted by asking opposition leaders to wait “in silence” until the coalition has made a formal statement on the issue, which he announced for “the next few hours.” But unsurprisingly several opposition leaders immediately commented via Twitter.
Henrique Capriles criticized the CNE for simply issuing a press release and not giving a press conference to explain its decisions: (@hcapriles) “Are they not going to come out to face the country and explain what they have approved? Have they no shame, no respect for the People?” He also however appealed for time for a common opposition reaction: “When we have all the information, and in unity the country is asking for, we will make our pronouncement.”
But radical opposition leader Maria Corina Machado called for civil disobedience: (@MariaCorinaYa) “Let’s focus on what its central: not only are the conditions for collecting the signatures unacceptable; they announced that the referendum will be in 2017. It is time for civil disobedience.”
Several analysts hit especially hard the requirement that 20% had to be collected in each state. Constitutional expert José Ignacio Hernández argues that the decision by the CNE to ask for 20% signatures for each State is “unconstitutional, illegal, and arbitrary.”
Well known political consultant Edgar Gutierrez tweeted “The 20% per state norm is as ridiculous as if the CNE had not proclaimed Maduro [president] in 2013 because he did not win every state.”
Eugenio Martínez summed up tweeting: “The CNE has approved the worst possible conditions for the 20%. The political bias of the decision is undeniable.”