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Venezuela: One and a half years waiting for a recall referendum

By Eugenio Martinez, El Universal

If the opposition manages to ratify 525,118 signatures, the presidential recall vote will take place on August 8, 2004. The ratification process scheduled for May 28 to 30 will become the fourth signature collection campaign undertaken by the opposition in its attempt to obtain a popular vote against the president. Now it needs to ratify more than 525,000 signatures. Saturday, October 14, 2002. Oppositionist parties Primero Justicia, MAS, Unión and Bandera Roja undertook a signature collection campaign to request a consulting referendum on the continuity of President Hugo Chávez in power.

One and half years later, according to data provided by the poll firm Datanálisis, 59.1 percent of the voters who want to revoke Chávez' mandate still expect the vote to take place some day.

In the last 18 months, a large number of Venezuelans have taken part in three signature collection events. The Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) and the National Electoral Council (CNE) annulled two of them, and the third one depends much on the ratification process (which many interpret as a new collection campaign), scheduled for May 28 to 30, 2004.

Legal and technical reasons have prevailed over the citizens' initiative. The first time, in November 2002, the TSJ argued that Leonardo Pizani, a substitute member of the CNE, had been "illegitimately" incorporated to the board of directors. The second time, in February 2003, the CNE itself decided that the signature collection had been "extemporaneous."

After one and a half years, only one thing is clear: that 1,910,955 signatures are valid, 1,192,914 were objected for problems including similar handwriting, and 375,241 are invalid.

But if the opposition manages to ratify 525,118 signatures, the presidential recall vote will take place on August 8, 2004.


The initial idea On October 10, 2002, after many internal disputes, the political parties and non-governmental organizations grouped under the opposition umbrella organization Democratic Coordinator finally decided to collect signatures from all over the country to support a petition for a consulting referendum about Chávez' continuity in the presidency.


The conflict immediately sparked between the pro-government groups and the opposition about the results of such an event. Some members of the opposition insisted that the consulting referendum would be binding from a moral point of view, because a large number of votes against the president should convince him to resign. Chávez supporters termed this approach as illegal.

Submitting the signatures

The signatures collected the first time were submitted to the CNE on November 4, 2002. While only 1.2 million signatures were necessary under the Constitution, the opposition had gleaned 1.89 million.


In December 2002, the members of the board of the CNE, Alfredo Avella, Rómulo Lares, Leonardo Pizani and José Manuel Zerpa, with the dissenting vote of Rómulo Rangel - all of whom had been named by the National Assembly in May 2000 - called the consulting referendum for Sunday, February 2, 2003.


Null and void

On November 29, Rómulo Rangel, then member of the CNE's board and now electoral advisor to the pro-Chávez group Comando Ayacucho, explained that the announcement made by the electoral authority was "null and void" because it had been approved only with three favorable votes, when the rules require four.

Against Pizani

The consulting referendum began to die when Deputies Cilia Flores, Darío Vivas, Desirée Santos and José Khan of the ruling party filed an appeal to the Electoral Chamber of the TSJ against the decision. Their argument was simple: The CNE's decision is illegal because it was made with three votes (Avella, Lares and Zerpa). Pizani's vote should not be considered valid because he incorporated to the agency after resigning, that is, he is not an active member.


On January 22, 2003, the Electoral Chamber of the TSJ declared as valid the appeal introduced by the MVR deputies and ordered the board of directors of the CNE "to refrain from deciding on the matters that are not essential to the normal administrative functioning of the agency, especially from organizing electoral, referendum or other processes, and suspend those already initiated" until the controversy over the number of members of the board was resolved.


Four petitions

The political response of the Democratic Coordinator to the suspension of the consulting referendum was a massive signature collection campaign for four constitutional petitions.

One of them requested a reform of the Constitution to reduce the presidential term in office, and it was signed by 4,426,921 people.

However, the political minds finally chose the presidential recall, supported by 3,236,320 citizens, as the route to follow. Besides, 3,554,251 signatures were gathered to request an abrogating referendum against 47 laws passed by Chávez as part of special powers given to him by the Legislative Power.

The non-binding petitions included one supporting to the Pdvsa workers and the media, another disowning the president, and a letter asking for the support of the international community.

Without CNE

The signatures requesting the referendum to revoke the president's mandate were kept in the headquarters of Súmate, the organization that displayed the collection campaign, until August 19, the day that marked the half of the presidential term.


The opposition submitted the signatures to the CNE on August 20, 2003. Six days later, the TSJ chose Francisco Carrasquero, Ezequiel Zamora, Jorge Rodríguez, Oscar Battaglini and Sobella Mejías as the new members of the CNE's board. As the rumors arose that the signatures might be invalidated because they had been collected too much time before and without covering the constitutional extremes, Súmate announced that it was in capacity to organize a new signing collection operation in 15 days.


"Essential formalisms"

On September 12, the CNE - although without the votes of Zamora and Mejías - declared that "the revoking referendum requests submitted on August 20, 2003 are inadmissible, as the signatures that (...) support these requests were collected in an extemporaneous way, with anticipation." This means that the petition was signed before the right to request the recall "was born" under article 72 of the Constitution. Additionally, the resolution also argued that the collection forms signed by the citizens did not contain a formal request to the CNE, but "rather a sort of proclamation," which is not subject to law.

The mother of all frauds

On December 17, the board of the CNE approved rules for revoking recall processes to be held in Venezuela. This document, particularly the section regarding signature verification, would be later used to justify the invalidation of the collection forms with uniform handwriting.

On September 18, based on the legal norms stating that the electoral authorities would organize a popular vote within 150 days, it was said that the recall would take place by the end of February 2004.


The third one

Once all the criticisms about the norms were overcome, the CNE organized a signature collection operation for the presidential recall petition. The event was held between November 28 and December 1. The electoral agency printed, in security paper, collection forms that were sufficient for only 66 percent of the total number of voters registered. It eliminated the collection of signatures abroad because it was unable to "guarantee" a clean process. It ordered the activation of the military-run República Plan to protect the operation.


On December 20, one week before the signing event, the CNE "surprised" the political parties by announcing new rules for the verification of the signatures. For instance, they said, a signature would not be considered valid when fingerprints of the signer are found overlapping each other. Rodríguez also said that the petition would be invalidated if the personal data and the signature of a citizen was repeated; when one of the data entries or the signature were missing; when the collections forms showed signs of having been corrected, and when the name of the official whose mandate is subject to recall did not appear in the form. When the number of collection form did not match the forms provided by the CNE, the signatures in those forms would be invalidated.


Before Christmas

Súmate submitted the signatures to the CNE on December 20. At that moment, as a result of an agreement, the five directors gave Christmas vacations to the CNE workers and began the verification of the signatures on January 5, 2004.

Promise not kept

Although the organization was evaluating only collection forms for recall petitions against opposition legislators, Zamora and Rodríguez, vice president of the CNE and president of the CNE's National Electoral Board, respectively, announced that the process had formally started, and promised the results for February 14.

For May

On January 14, Zamora and Rodríguez denied a piece of news published by El Universal saying that the CNE would finally announce the definitive results of the verification process by May this year.

Recall on August 8

In spite of the criticisms made, both in public and private, by the OAS and Carter Center against the signature verification process, the ratification process, scheduled for May 28 to 30, will become the fourth signature collection campaign in one and a half years. If the opposition does ratify more than 525,000 signatures, the CNE will organize the recall vote for August 8.

Translated by Edgardo Malaver

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