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Referenda and the origin of Venezuela's political crisis

By Miguel Octavio

Because many people who are somewhat removed from the Venezuelan crisis are visiting this page today, I thought I would make a brief history of the referenda requested by the opposition.

Hugo Chavez was elected in December 1998. One of the first things he did was to call for a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the Constitution. This was done through a referendum, a figure which appeared nowhere in the old Constitution. But through a popular petition, it was done.

The new Constitution, contemplated two types of referenda: Consultative referenda, where the people would vote on important issues and would require 10% of the registered voters to sign a petition and Recall Referenda, where people would be able to request for a recall referendum after the midpoint of the term of any elected official.

Contrary to popular perception, it was not Chavez that introduced this concepts into the Constitution, they were introduced in the project to change the Venezuelan Constitution by the COPRE in the mid-90’s and it was lawyer Ricardo Combellas, who coincidentally no longer backs Chavez, who introduced their discussion in the Constituent Assembly.

In November 2002, before the strike, the opposition began gathering signatures for a Consultative referendum asking whether the people approved or not of the job President Hugo Chávez was doing. On January 23d. 2003, the Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled that the referendum could not take place, not because the question was illegal, as the pro-Chávez forces requested, but because the Court said no elections or referenda could take place in Venezuela until a new Electoral Board (CNE) was elected by the National Assembly.

After many attempts of trying to choose an Electoral Board, the Supreme Court stepped in and said that since the Assembly had left a legal void by not naming the new CNE and thus it would name one which would be in place until the Assembly fulfilled its obligation. (It never did)

They day after the mid-term of President Hugo Chavez, the opposition submitted 3 million signatures collected in a petition drive which it submitted to the new CNE. One month later in mid-September, the new CNE said that the petition was unacceptable because there were no regulations on how to do it and it would issue the regulations soon.

The CNE in early October issue the regulations. They were absurd for a petition. Essentially, the CNE would issue forms printed on money paper. During four consecutive days, those that asked for the petition would set up booths, much like polling booths, in the presence of a CNE representative and many witnesses from the other side to gather signatures. The people would have to sign and leave their fingerprint on the form. Each form had ten lines and it contained the name, the birthdate and the National ID number of the person signing. There were very specific regulations as to how the fingerprint should be stamped, you should write clearly, don’t go over the boundary etc. But the regulations did not say anything about the person signing having to fill out their own personal data.

One troublesome aspect of the petition drive is that the results would be made public, putting pressure on Government employees and the military not to sign and those living abroad could not participate, despite the fact that the Constitution says they have a right to participate in electoral processes.

Despite the hurdles, the opposition gathered 3.6 million signatures of the 2.436 million needed and turned in 3.4 million to the CNE.

This was all handed in before Christmas and despite the fact that the law says the CNE has one month to say whether the signatures are there or not, it ahs been two and a half months and no answer has been given to the opposition petition (or that against Deputies on both sides)

Half way through the verification of the signatures, where just the data was being checked, it looked like clear sailing, rejection rates were running at 5-9% in the first 13 states verified. Suddenly, the CNE technicians decided to declare under observation all the forms in which the data was filled by the same person, i.e. had the same calligraphy the so called “planas”, but the signatures were different. These occurred because in an effort to make sure the signatures would be validate, those collecting the signatures would fill out the data in some booths and simply have the person sign and stamp the signatures. This was done according to regulations that said only the signature needed to be by the person. Similarly no rule said this was a reason to eliminate a signature.

Reportedly, the CNE has certified valid 1.914 million signatures, has placed under observation 750,000 and ahs rejected 718,000 either because of data inconsistency or because the cover sheet that accompanies the form (the “acta”) had a number different than the total in the form.

What the CNE proposes is to have people go back and ratify or conform that they did sign only for the “planas” and those forms that had other errors, but not for the 714,000 to technical problems.

Thus in one word, the opposition would need (doable but difficult) that over 70% of the people that sign the “planas” go back and confirm they did.

The opposition has argued that the CNE is changing the burden of proof, presuming those signing are guilty without having any proof and says why not ratify ALL signatures, particularly those that have problems with the “Actas” and inconsistencies with the electoral registry.

In the end, this has been an obstacle course for the opposition which has complied with every step, despite the difficulties introduced. However, the pro-Chavez members dominate the Board of the CNE by a three to two margin. People feel cheated; think the system is unfair, that the rules should not be changed on the fly. Last Friday, during the G-15 summit in Caracas a huge opposition demonstration was met with excessive force, two people die and 40 were injured. Since then there have been continuous protests and clashes with the military police and the National Guard. Human Rights have not been respected and over one hundred people have been jailed, some without charges or due process. The CNE and the opposition negotiate at this time a possible compromise on the signatures.

But we did not have to get this far. This is only a petition to have a recall vote. Who is afraid of the actual recall vote? Not the opposition.

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