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Venezuela’s recall referendum explained

By Aleksander Boyd

London 21 Apr. 04 – Much has been said and written in regards to the political crisis in Venezuela. The opposition, formed by political parties of all tendencies, has been trying every trick in the book, legal and illegal, to oust President Hugo Chavez. However it seems that the most effective way to rid the country of the maverick leader is the constitution which, needs to be stressed, was drafted, proposed and implemented by the man himself once he got to the presidency. Article 72 of the Venezuelan constitution cites:

All magistrates and other offices filled by popular vote are subject to revocation.

Once half of the term of office to which an official has been elected has elapsed, a number of voters constituting at least 20% of the voters registered in the pertinent circumscription may extend a petition for the calling of a referendum to revoke such official's mandate.

When a number of voters equal to or greater than the number of those who elected the official vote in favour of revocation, provided that a number of voters equal to or greater than 25% of the total number of registered voters* have voted in the revocation election, the official’s mandate shall be deemed revoked, and immediate action shall be taken to fill the permanent vacancy in accordance with the provided for in this Constitution and by law.

The revocation of the mandate for the collegiate bodies shall be performed in accordance with the law. During the term to which the official was elected, only one petition to recall may be filed.

Said article provides the constitutional basis for the recall referendum effort. Furthermore article 70 of the constitution establishes:

Participation and involvement of people in the exercise of their sovereignty in political affairs can be manifested by: voting to fill public offices, referendum, consultation of public opinion, mandate revocation, legislative, constitutional and constituent initiative, open forums and meetings of citizens whose decisions shall be binding among others; and in social and economic affairs: citizen service organs, self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms, including those of a financial nature, savings funds, community enterprises, and other forms of association guided by the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity.

The law shall establish conditions for the effective, functioning of the means of participation provided for under the present article.

Plebiscites or referendums have been utilised by President Chavez in 7 previous occasions, according to Jennifer McCoy and Laura Neuman from the Carter Centre. At the peak of his popularity (first two years of government) Chavez introduced a series of changes to the political and constitutional landscape of the country. Constituent assemblies, approval of a new constitution and legitimation of public officials were needed, in his view, to end years of maladministration at the hands of traditional politicos. Sovereignty, at last, was to rest upon the People. Such grandiloquent plans made Chavez more than a political leader. His ordinary manners and charisma have worked wonders in the disenfranchised psyche, to whom the president epitomizes success, a true folk hero in other words.

The tide has changed though. His popularity level can be placed in a band between 25 – 35 %. A dramatic decrease if one is to consider that only four years ago almost the entire nation was very supportive of him. The reasons are varied. Campaign promises did not crystallize; anti-corruption plans never left the drafting stages; failed redistribution of wealth –at the expense of the destruction of PDVSA-, employment, education and health issues have been tackled in unsustainable fashion; thus the saviour of the dispossessed seems to be bent in retaining power per se. He has in numerous occasions expressed that he will not abandon the presidency until 2.021, constitution notwithstanding.

The opposition on the other hand, after harsh realisation, that their sole option to regain control would be to compromise with the government for a peaceful, democratic and constitutional solution, followed the presidential advice that ensued the oil strike of last year. Let us remember that in May 29th 2.003 government and opposition signed an agreement (833 under the auspices of the OAS, PNUD and the Carter Centre) which laid the premises needed for the resolution of the conflict. The 3.2 million signatures gathered in February’s 2.003 collection drive were deemed “extemporaneous” by the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court. The rationale behind the ruling was that since these were collected before the presidential midterm they were invalid. The opposition decided to start afresh and organized a second collection drive that was to be held in November 2.003. The National Assembly (legislative branch) was in charge of appointing the new board of directors of the National Electoral Council (CNE). After much disagreement and official torpedoing the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court appointed on August 25th 2.003 the new board formed by five members namely; Francisco Carrasquero, Oscar Battaglini, Jorge Rodriguez, Solbella Mejias and Ezequiel Zamora.

The CNE is according to the Organic Law of Electoral Power, the Organic Law of Suffrage and Political Participation and the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela the entity in charge with the organization, supervision, regulation, and scrutiny of electoral events. The new directors set rather extreme rules for the recollection of signatures; petition forms were numbered and printed in security paper; an array of electoral observers –both national (pro and anti government) and international- were designated to supervise the drive; the army behaved as if the case were a presidential election; in short the conditions imposed by the CNE have proved to be the most lethal instrument for the opposition against Chavez’ rants of “Mega Fraud.” How so? Quite simple, each day all the forms gathered were checked by a team of observers who in turn had to count, verify and sign the final deed to be given to CNE officials. In the aftermath the OAS, the Carter Centre and local supervisors expressed that the process had taken place with utmost normality and transparency.

Nonetheless Hugo Chavez commenced with his prevarications right after the collection drive, Worse still, CNE officials decided to send to a repair process roughly 876.000 signatures owing to similar handwriting. They considered fitting to do so after discovering that there were very many forms in which electoral data appeared to have been written by the same person. What is in question is not the authenticity of fingerprints or signatures but rather the similarity of handwriting in regards to names, ID numbers and constituency locations. This issue begs for a clarification. There does not exist one single article in Venezuela’s legislation that justifies the illegal decision of the CNE. Furthermore the constitution, the laws aforementioned, and others related to electoral matters do not permit for such an outstanding violation of people’s rights. The burden of the proof has been placed upon the electorate, presidential decrees dealing with simplification of administrative processes have been ignored and more importantly the CNE’s official position stands in a legal limbo. Nowhere in the rules it is established that everyone should fill in the details. Explicit provisions with respect to signatures and fingerprints were included in the rules governing the recall process; nothing is mentioned about the “illegality” of official assistants writing names, ID numbers and constituency locations.

As customary the government is banking on the widespread legal ignorance of the laymen to advance its “Mega Fraud” allegations. In light of the CNE’s preposterous and illegal stance the opposition decided to denounce them before the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court. Venezuela’s judiciary is –like most legal systems worldwide- hierarchical. It follows then that the plenary of the Supreme Court is the highest judicial body of the land followed by the different chambers (constitutional, electoral, administrative, penal, civil and that of substantiation) of the Supreme Court. In the legal building all chambers are in the same floor, read no chamber can render void or annul rulings of another. Predictably the Constitutional Chamber (controlled by chavistas) attempted to nullify the ruling of the Electoral Chamber that deemed illegal the decision of the CNE to send to repair 876.000 signatures. Foreigners do not seem to understand the graveness of the situation, which can be summarised as a constitutional coup. Imagine England Court of Appeal’s Criminal Division annulling rulings of the Civil Division in civil cases. The Electoral Chamber (highest instance where electorals disputes can be resolved) ruled recently that the 876.000 'dubious' signatures must be added to those considered valid; the resulting number of signatures exceeds the minimum number required by the constitution and therefore the CNE is obliged to set a date for the recall referendum. The chavista majority of the CNE board i.e. Carrasquero, Rodriguez and Battaglini, decided otherwise and ignored the ruling of the Electoral Chamber. Such is the scenario in Chavez’ Venezuela.

Amazingly enough last year the same justices from the Electoral Chamber decided that the signatures collected in February 2.003 were “extemporaneous” and so the government was obviously very pleased by their decision. Today as the ruling is against them they recourse to the Constitutional Chamber that, needs to be emphasized, has got nothing to do with it. CNE officials have in their hands the future of the country.

In the meanwhile 3.4 million Venezuelans (number of people who signed in the collection drive) are desperate for there is not one single institution that has not been permeated by government sycophants. Recent upheavals have been placated by the government in barbaric fashion leaving political prisoners, extra-judicial deaths, missing persons and tortured along the way. Every human right organization at a national and international level has condemned the brutal practices of the regime of Hugo Chavez only to find official contempt and accusations of servileness to fascist opposition groups. Democratic re-legitimation is the only way out for Mr Chavez; that or joining the ranks of Latin American dictators.

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