Recall Referendum: The Road Ahead

 

In 2006—Chavismo’s heyday—El Comandante could not have foreseen Venezuela’s current woes in a country boasting a balanced budget, record-high oil revenues, and one of Latin America’s fastest growing economies.

 

In contrast, the country’s current outlook appears grim at best. Medical officials have estimated a dearth of 80% of necessary medicines and medical equipment. According to the Centre for Documentation and Social Analysis, 72% of average monthly wages are being spent on food. Notwithstanding Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution”, a wave of violence has gradually overtaken the capital, Caracas, as well as much of the country. The most recent Latinobarometer poll found that 48% of Venezuelans have been directly or indirectly affected by crime over the past twelve months.

 

In the current climate, it would appear evident that the PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido Venezolano) and Chavismo’s heir—Nicolás Maduro— are on the brink of political obsolescence. Such a conclusion would be warranted considering the mounting unpopularity of the president. According to the most recent polls, if a recall referendum were to be held now, 65% of the country would vote to remove Maduro and expedite new elections.

 

The problem with such an expectation is related to one of Chavismo’s main strategies: a progressive cooptation of key political institutions such as the National Supreme Court (NSC) and the National Electoral Council. On December 6th 2015, the opposition coalition won the super-majority (two-thirds of the seats) in the National Assembly’s legislative elections needed to pass modifications to the constitution and expedite the ouster of the president. However, a very important caveat to this electoral gain was the government’s alteration of the NSC’s composition prior to the anticipated victory of the opposition—the regime has stacked the judiciary with political cronies. Consequently, the opposition-ruled National Assembly was denied its two-thirds majority over electoral fraud allegations to three of its candidates. Additionally, since the National Assembly resumed its sessions on January 5th, close to two dozen laws passed by the opposition MUD (Mesa de Unidad Democrática) have been overturned by the judiciary, including an amnesty law that would have freed numerous political dissidents.

 

With the discernible legislative paralysis, the opposition is left with one viable electoral means to expedite the removal of the PSUV: a recall referendum. Article 72 of the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution—Chávez’s magnum opus—provides that a such a process may take place once half the term of the president has elapsed and 20% of the registered voters in the affected constituency petition for the revocation of the mandate. Considering Maduro’s arrival to power in 2013 and the six-year presidential terms in Venezuela, a recall referendum is constitutionally mandated this year.

 

An important date the opposition and the government have both focused on is January 10th 2017—the deadline after which a recall referendum would lead to a transfer of power to the vice-president rather than the fast-tracking of presidential elections. The National Electoral Council—the institution responsible for taking charge of the process—has delayed validating the signatures of the petition and has exacerbated fears that the government is intentionally putting off the recall referendum until next year. Additionally, it has yet to set a date for the recollection of 20% of the signatures despite the fact that it legally had until the beginning of September to do so.

 

On August 9th, the president of the National Electoral Council, Tibisay Lucena stated that the next step would “probably” take place in October. Considering the prior affirmation of electoral officials that the final referendum would be held 90 days after the approval of the signatures of 20% of the electorate, that would entail that a recall referendum would take place at the earliest in late January.

 

Appreciating the sense of urgency in order for a recall referendum to take place this year—a prospect glowing dimmer by the day—the MUD has been organising a series of protests in and around Caracas to put pressure on the government and the National Electoral Council to hold a vote this year. The most preeminent march thus far—dubbed the Taking of Caracas—assembled hundreds of thousands of protesters according one of the partners of the MUD coalition, Voluntad Popular—the party of the country’s most prominent political prisoner, Leopoldo López.

 

However, the opposition’s push for an electoral exit to the current political and economic crisis Venezuela is embroiled in has been met by a simultaneous repressive governmental response. In the week preceding the march, the PSUV not only fired 4000 state employees for signing the opposition’s referendum petition, but escalated its crackdown on prominent Voluntad Popular political figures—arresting Yon Goicoechea for possession of “bomb-making materials” and transferring former mayor Daniel Ceballos from house arrest to prison for plans to “destabilise the country”. Additionally, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Agency—SEBIN (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional)—raided the house of Voluntad Popular leader Lester Toledo without a warrant, accusing him of “foreign terrorism”.

 

A day after the “Taking of Caracas” march, the Foreign Minister, Delcy Rodríguez, stated that the government “stopped a massacre”, while the Interior Minister, Nestor Reverol, congratulated the Bolivarian movement on having “frustrated the intended coup d’état”. By invoking threats of foreign terrorism and creating the dichotomy of a “rightist” opposition versus the “people”, the Maduro administration has adeptly taken a leaf from Chávez’s populist playbook, galvanising support from citizens by associating the country’s economic moribundity to the “international [political] right’s” efforts to undermine the regime. According to Francisco Rodríguez— a former head of the National Assembly’s Economic and Financial Advisor Office under Chávez and chief economist at the Bank of America in the Andean region from 2011 to 2016—Maduro’s accusations of an “economic war” on Venezuela is only a part of the president’s “political diatribe”.

 

In light of the government’s most recent arrests and its ostensible manoeuvres to deny a referendum this year, a lot more focus has been placed on the Venezuelan government by human rights groups and the international community—both bemoaning the government’s recent jailing of Daniel Ceballos and its prohibition on several foreign journalists from entering the country to cover the protests. Additionally, over the last month, both the American Vice-President, Joe Biden, and the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, have reiterated the need to hold the recall referendum this year. This is notwithstanding Maduro’s affirmation that a vote would not take place before 2017.

 

Given the government’s power, a recall referendum seems unlikely to happen this year due to the president’s use of repression against political dissent and the president’s extension of the over 120-day old state of emergency that he has used to circumvent the National Assembly to pursue his economic policies without legislative challenge. However, in the wake of his recent suggestion of lifting immunity from elected officials and his increasing use of draconian measures against opponents, Nicolás Maduro appears to be in dire political straits. Across Latin America, his administration’s democratic legitimacy has gradually deteriorated. In May, the Secretary General of the OAS (Organisation of American States), Luis Almagro, invoked the Democratic Charter against Venezuela in a bid to remove the country from the organisation due to the “alteration of democratic order”. Recently, Venezuela’s other four full-member partners in the regional trading bloc Mercosur—Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil— have balked at entrusting the rotating presidency to Venezuela and have threatened to suspend its membership if it does not comply with the bloc’s human rights and trade rules.

 

With another year of economic hardship expected in 2017, Maduro does not stand much of a chance in the face of an eventual recall referendum. A consolation for the president may be the better prospects for his ruling PSUV party. Assuming a defeat in a recall referendum after the crucial January 10th deadline next year, the executive would hand over control to the Vice-President, Aristóbulo Istúriz—a leftist intellectual known for his more moderate positions. The most intangible advantage the PSUV would have, however, is time. It is also going to be a factor in whether or not the party—with or without Istúriz—will be able to withstand the traction gained by the opposition by the time the next presidential elections take place in 2019. In the 2012 municipal elections, twenty of the twenty-three governors elected were Chavistas. In an atmosphere of growing inflation, increasing poverty and chronic shortages of staple goods, limiting the opposition’s gains will be crucial for preserving the meagre legitimacy the regime presently enjoys. For Maduro and the PSUV, with thousands of Venezuelans scurrying across the border to Colombia in search of provisions, addressing the dearth of food may be a start. Critically, a government wherein petrol accounts for 95% of exports will be at the mercy of oil prices as it endeavours to give the economy a semblance of vigour in time for the elections.

 

In the meantime, the MUD will continue pressuring the government to hold the referendum this year by mobilising considerable portions of the populace—hoping to maintain the heightened international attention on the crisis and facilitate dialogue with Chavistas. According to David Smilde, a Venezuelan analyst at the think-tank Washington Office in Latin America (WOLA), government workers represent the “backbone of Maduro’s coalition”. By mobilising large sectors of the population, the MUD has an opportunity to apply pressure on Maduro’s administration and to dispel the government’s narrative of a rightist/leftist dichotomy. If ever the recall referendum does not materialise in 2016, the December municipal elections will be a chance for the MUD to “progressively gain power spaces” according to Delphos Poll Director and Central University of Venezuela professor Félix Seijas Rodríguez.

 

If the party of Chávez—the PSUV—is to survive the current turmoil the Venezuelan polity is marred by, the future president will have to be reconciliatory with the diverse opposition as well as his regional partners. Without mending those fences, it will be next to impossible to recover the country’s ever-faltering democratic credentials from hemispheric and international partners growing increasingly annoyed by the leftist regime’s rising political and economic moribundity. With the absence of any external legitimacy as well as the country’s consequent regional isolation, Maduro’s Venezuela will be nothing more than a pariah state.

 

Luca Loggia

Policy Intern at InPRA
I'm a third-year honours student in political science at McGill University. My core interests are Canadian foreign policy, and Venezuelan politics. However, Latin America as a whole is a region propitious for political analysis due to the recurring patterns of populism, caudillismo and the link between leftist rhetoric and nationalism