The Curious Case of Venezuela’s Recall Referendum: Murder … or Suicide?

You haven’t heard the whole story.


Venezuela’s recall referendum is officially dead. Throughout 2016, it was the most important campaign promise of the country’s political opposition coalition, the MUD. Opposition leaders repeatedly promised their supporters the referendum would be held in due time, and would force Chavismo from office. As of today, that is now completely impossible.

For anyone unfamiliar with the nuances of Venezuela’s referendum mechanism, the whole issue comes down to a question of timing. If Maduro were to lose a referendum held before January 10, snap elections would be called. The president’s approval rating has long been hovering around a miserable 20 percent, and polls suggest he would lose a new election by a landslide. This meant the referendum was the MUD’s big chance to totally push the left from power in Venezuela.

Today, it’s January 10. Although it’s been obvious for months, the date on the calendar leaves no room for dispute: the referendum isn’t going to happen.

Technically speaking, the referendum could still go ahead, but it won’t be the one the MUD promised its supporters. A Maduro loss would simply result in the president being replaced by his vice president, who would serve out the rest of the term. It’s unlikely anyone in the MUD is even vaguely interested in pursuing this option.

So What Happened?

For the most part, the mainstream media has regurgitated the MUD’s talking points, arguing the referendum was killed by Maduro and his allies. On the other hand, the government and state media have pointed the finger at the MUD itself, accusing the opposition of bungling the complicated preparation process. Naturally, this latter perspective rarely finds its way into international media reports on Venezuela.

To understand what happened, we have to go back in time to April, 2016. That was when the MUD officially launched their recall referendum petition. Off the bat, it’s worth noting the MUD’s preparation for the launch was chaotic – to say the least. In the first three months of the year, various factions of the coalition were divided over whether to focus on the referendum, or instead prioritise overhauling the country’s progressive constitution. There were even rumours the MUD’s National Assembly head Ramos Allup tried to convince other opposition leaders to give up on the referendum in exchange for securing the release of supporters jailed on charges related to political violence.

Internal disputes and power games are nothing unusual to the MUD, though it meant they went into the first step of the referendum process without their best foot forward.

This first stage was required to take place over the course of a month, and included a preliminary signature collection drive. If all went well, they could proceed to carry out a second petition over three days. Once that hurdle was cleared, Venezuela’s electoral authority, the CNE, would have three months to prepare for new elections. All up, the referendum could have reasonably potentially taken place by September at the earliest – assuming everything went according to plan. However, even this was optimistic. The only other presidential recall took place in 2004, and took around eight months to prepare. Based on that timeline, the MUD couldn’t have expected the referendum to be held any earlier than December – giving them absolutely zero room for error.

Going off the Rails

The MUD hit their first speedbump in May, when the CNE found the preliminary petition included the names of approximately 10,900 dead people. This setback in itself was enough to make the referendum impossible before January 10, according to constitutional jurist Maria Alejandra Diaz. It’s at this point that the facts get fickle. Many among the opposition claim the CNE lied or exaggerated about the dead voters simply to push back the referendum. To their credit, it’s certainly not that outrageous to suggest a bunch of Venezuelan bureaucrats might be just a little obstructionist (something anyone with any experience of Venezuelan-style bureaucracy has likely seen in action). However, in the CNE’s defence, it has no history of manipulating votes, despite years of such allegations being levelled at the institution. When the PSUV lost their legislative majority in December 2015, the CNE promptly released the results in all their gory details. Meanwhile, conspiracy theories that claim the 2013 presidential election results were manipulated have been proven statistically impossible. I myself was at a protest against the 2013 election outcome outside a CNE office, where opposition demonstrators repeatedly told me electoral officials and Cuban secret agents were burning ballot boxes as we spoke. Everyone had a friend of a friend who had supposedly seen the CNE having their ballot box barbecue, but when I went to look, there wasn’t even any smoke. Somehow, nobody in the crowd had even had the foresight to snap a photo of the crime in action. I never ended up finding the friend of a friend witness (every friend just led me to another friend, who in turn, pointed me to one of their friends), so I didn’t put too much stock in the allegations.

The CNE’s credibility was also questioned after the 2012 elections, despite credible international observers confirming the results. In other words, time and time again, allegations against the CNE have been debunked beyond any serious doubt, and today they have a pretty reasonable track record of presenting election results as they stand. Perhaps 2016 was the year the CNE started tampering with their results; but until a single shred of evidence surfaces to support this allegation, I’m going to go ahead and give the organisation the benefit of the doubt.

MUD Intentionally Impedes the CNE

Moving on, the CNE’s efforts to proceed with the referendum preparation were again hampered after the results of the preliminary petition were released. However, again we can tangibly prove the government wasn’t to blame for these delays; the opposition was. After the disappointing results were released, opposition protesters took to besieging CNE offices across the country. The protests quickly turned violent, forcing the CNE to order its staff to remain at home. These protests stretched on through much of May, burning critical time necessary for the opposition to secure an early recall referendum. Hence, once again, the opposition delayed the referendum, not the government.

The Timetable

Amid the chaos, there were signs things could get back on track by June, when the CNE announced it would verify questionable signatures by asking petitioners to come into their offices in person. This process took place from June 20-24. By August, the CNE had approved the first petition, and established a timetable for the next step of the recall referendum’s preparation. This timetable put the second petition in October, with the final referendum slated for “halfway through the first quarter of 2017” at the earliest. At this point, the referendum was dead in the water, though opposition leaders continued to falsely claim it might still be possible before January 10.

Another major setback took place in October, when three state level courts intervened, blocking the second petition drive after reviewing allegations of irregularities in the first phase back in May. The Supreme Court later upheld these decisions, thus forcing the CNE to once again halt the signature collection drive. Irrelevant of whether or not these court decisions were justifiable, the fact remains that by this point, the referendum was already over.

The Facts Stand for Themselves

So what was the point of dredging up all this historical minutiae? The point was that this post mortem of the referendum clearly shows the MUD itself impeded preparations at critical points in time. There’s also certainly points in the narrative where the actions of the state bureaucracy can be called into question. We can and should ask, “Why did the courts block a process that had already been given the green light by the CNE months earlier?” However, in doing so, we should also ask, “Why did the MUD wait so long before uniting behind the referendum?”

Why didn’t the MUD exercise more diligence in ensuring their signatures were totally clean?

Why did MUD leaders urge their supporters to protest outside CNE offices, knowing full well it could endanger the entire process?

The facts stand for themselves here. We have to call the death of the referendum an assisted suicide. Maybe the state bureaucracy was too slow to call an ambulance, but it was the MUD who prescribed the cyanide pills.