The international media and the president of the OAS, Luis Almagro, are demanding that Venezuelan president Nicholas Maduro allow a presidential recall referendum to take place in 2016.
Why are they demanding that it take place in 2016?
Both government critics and supporters appear to agree that if a recall vote is held before January 10, 2017, that an opposition victory will trigger fresh presidential elections. The Venezuelan constitution says one recall vote is allowed after the midway point of the president’s six year term, but if the recall vote takes place (and is won by the opposition) in the fourth year then the Vice President takes over for the remainder of the term – a new president would not be elected.
Is January 10, 2017 really the deadline in this case?
Government supporters and critics (and the international press: examples here and here) all seem to agree that it is, but that is actually debatable. Maduro was elected in April of 2013, which suggests the deadline should be April of 2017. However, due to Chavez’s health crisis and absence in early in 2013, Maduro was acting president as of January, 2013 which was only a few months into the last term that Hugo Chavez won before he died.
Did the opposition initiate the process for a recall vote immediately after January 10 of this year?
No. The opposition was (and remains) bitterly divided. Early in the year, key factions believed that they had better options available to them than a recall. One option they were excited about was passing an amendment to shorten the presidential term (including Maduro’s retroactively) to four years. In a recall referendum, the opposition would have to win with more votes than Maduro received in April of 2013. However, a referendum on the “term shorting” amendment would have a lower threshold: no requirement to win with more votes than Maduro received in 2013. The Supreme Court, which is solidly Chavista (supportive of Maduro), shot down the idea but they had reasonable constitutional grounds for doing so. By insisting that the amendment apply to Maduro’s term, the opposition made it obvious that the amendment was a gimmick to get a lower threshold for ousting Maduro than what it would need in a recall vote.
If the Supreme Court is Chavista, why did the opposition pursue a strategy that required a cooperative Supreme Court?
Because of fierce internal divisions and overconfidence after their big win in National Assembly elections in December, the opposition made foolish decisions. Had they united behind Henrique Capriles who pushed very hard for initiating the recall vote process immediately, they would now have vastly stronger grounds for demanding that a recall vote take place in 2016.
The international press will sometimes mention opposition divisions but very rarely give readers a real sense of how intense the hated is among various factions. For example, here is a recent unhinged and homophobic rant against Capriles launched by Julio “Coco” Jimenez, a member of the faction led by Leopoldo Lopez. “Coco” has appeared on CNN a few times. This faction is especially bitter towards Capriles for not calling for more street protests after Maduro’s narrow election win in April of 2013. Those protests resulted in nine people getting killed. In December of 2013, Lopez insisted that if Capriles had kept calling his supporters into the streets that “Capriles would be president today”. A coup is the only way those street protests would have led to a Capriles presidency in 2013. There was absolutely no credible basis for disputing Maduro’s election win.
Is it reasonable to demand that the recall vote be held in 2016 despite the opposition’s delay in initiating one?
No. There was a presidential recall vote in 2004. Eight months elapsed between the opposition submitting the signatures at the end of November 2003 and the vote being held in mid August of 2004. The opposition is not at the stage of having collected the signatures required for a recall vote. It has only gathered signatures for the national electoral council (the CNE) to begin the process: gathering signatures totaling 1% of the electorate starts the process; then gathering – and having the CNE verify – signatures representing 20% of the electorate triggers a vote.
A detailed map of the process also shows that the January 10, 2017 deadline is a very tight one even if the CNE engaged in no foot dragging at all. I think the opposition does have some credible complaints about foot-dragging by the CNE, but what the opposition’s international cheerleaders completely ignore is that the tight deadline is due to the opposition’s delay.
Had the process been initiated by the opposition in January of 2016, it would have either guaranteed the recall vote in 2016 (I am assuming like everyone else does that they would have been able to get the signatures), or been able to make an irrefutable case that foot-dragging by the CNE was the reason it didn’t take place. Having delayed for months – setting aside the histrionics of the OAS president Luis Almagro and others – alleging that a constitutional right to recall has been trampled if the vote doesn’t happen in 2016 is unjustified.
Lastly, Almagro’s vitriolic demands for a recall vote in 2016 in Venezuela stand in stark contrast to Almagro’s polite disagreement with the parliamentary coup in Brazil and his collaboration with US bullying aimed at imposing fraudulent elections in Haiti.