Decision-Time in Venezuela

The decision of whether there will be a referendum has been delayed, thus increasing everyone's anxiety over what will happen next. This is especially true since the dynamics of the recall process are quite complicated and the outcome is impossible to predict at this point.

The deadline came and went and not too much happened. According to some in Venezuela’s opposition and within the government, February 13th was going to be the big day – either the national elections council (CNE) would rule in favor of a referendum or all hell would break lose. However, neither happened. The opposition organized a big demonstration for February 14th, which independent observers estimated to be around 20,000 demonstrators. Originally the demonstration was planned to go to the CNE headquarters, at which opposition leaders would submit a formal complaint about the CNE’s delay in reaching a decision on whether there will be a referendum.

There was good reason to believe that violence would break out at the demonstration because the government had scheduled a “mega market” for the same day, right on the route to the CNE headquarters. A clash between government supporters and opponents thus seemed unavoidable. In the last minute, however, the opposition decided not to march all the way to the CNE, but to stop a few blocks sooner.  In his weekly television program, Aló Presidente, President Chavez said that his government had received intelligence that the opposition was planning disturbances in order to destabilize the government, but that the government managed to defuse these plans in time.

In the course of the demonstration, Venezuela’s oppositional 24-hour news channel Globovision, presented continuous images of large crowds of demonstrators marching down the freeway. However, a closer look at the images showed that these were not live images, but previously recorded, even though the caption claimed that these were live (“en directo”).  There were several clues which suggested that the images were taking from demonstrations a year or two ago. First, the image was very grainy, much the way a video image looks after having been copied several times or sitting in storage for a while. Second, the state TV channel, which is usually of a much poorer quality, showed very sharp images of what it too said were live transmissions of rather sparse crowds on the freeway.

No matter what the actual numbers were, the media war of images still is in full steam in Venezuela, with each side claiming that it has a solid majority behind it. Opposition leaders, of course, say that if Chavez claims he has a majority, then why is he resisting the recall referendum with charges that the opposition committed fraud in its petition drive for a recall referendum? Chavez and his supporters respond that they are not opposed to a recall referendum, as long as it is called within the full letter of the law.

On several occasions Chavez and leaders from parties that support his government have presented what they say is proof that the opposition cheated in its signature collection process. Examples of the fraud they have evidence for includes signatures of people who are deceased, duplicate signatures, and signatures of minors and of foreigners. The most important and controversial instances involve entire petition forms (with ten signatures each) filled out in the same handwriting and petition forms that are not registered in the day’s closing documents (all forms had to be accounted for, as either filled out or blank and verified by observers from both sides).

Sumate, the organization which has been providing much of the opposition’s logistical support in the signature collection process, admits that there were instances where people signed the petition who were not supposed to or who did so incorrectly. Still, according to its calculations, the number of invalid signatures is around 265,000, thus leaving about 3.2 million valid signatures, which would be more than enough for a presidential recall referendum, which requires over 2.4 million signatures (20% of the registered electorate).

However, ultimately, whether or not there will be a referendum will probably depend, more than anything else, on how many signatures the CNE invalidates as a result of “unregistered” petition forms and of what are known as “flat” petition forms (forms signed by the same person). Chavez supporters say that according to the CNE’s rules (article 29), both of these types of forms should be invalidated. Unfortunately, there is some ambiguity in the formulation of the rules, thus allowing opposition leaders to say that such an interpretation of the rules is not justified. So, while there might indeed be 0.26 million signatures that both sides agree to invalidate, there could very well be another 0.8 million that will be hotly contested. Which way the CNE goes on this issue will not be known for another two weeks, when the CNE promises to submit its decision on whether there are enough signatures for the various referenda (presidential, opposition legislators, and pro-government legislators).

President Chavez has already promised that if the CNE does not invalidate the signatures that he and his supporters consider questionable, he will take the matter to the Supreme Court, possibly delaying the recall referendum. Similarly, some in the opposition have promised to do the same, should the CNE rule against them.

That the opposition should challenge the decision should be no surprise, since the recall referendum is their last and only hope to get rid of Chavez before 2006, the next regularly scheduled presidential election. However, Chavez saying he wants to challenge the decision if it goes against him provides more force to the opposition’s claim that Chavez, if he truly believes he is popular and would easily defeat any referendum against him, should let himself be put to a vote. This is a naïve claim, though, because most politicians know that even if they are popular, popularity is a fickle thing. Chavez’ popularity, if the polls of opposition polling organizations can be believed, has fluctuated between 80% and 30%, in the past five years. The most recent opposition polls put him around 45%, which is one of the highest of any politician in Latin America, and almost certainly for any who has been in office for five years.

The relatively wide fluctuation in popularity that any politician can go through in a short amount of time means that it is always safer for a politician not to face a recall vote than to face one. So it should be no surprise that despite Chavez’ confidence of winning a recall vote, he would prefer not to have to go through with the procedure at all.

Given that the much of the opposition (some are said not to be that interested) is quite desperate to have a recall referendum and that Chavez and his supporters are trying to avoid it by pointing out the instances of fraud, there is tremendous pressure on the CNE to come up with a decision. Recently some opposition leaders have said that if the CNE decides to annul one million signatures (probably mostly the ones signed with the same handwriting and the ones that are unaccounted for in the petition drive’s closing documents), then the opposition will launch a campaign of generalized civil disobedience. Exactly what this strategy means is unclear, but could involve anything from boycotting future elections to a renewed terrorist campaign against government institutions, as happened last year during and immediately after the oil industry shut-down.

The more moderate elements in Venezuelan politics are placing much hope on the international observers, from the Carter Center and the OAS, to act as a final judge of whether the CNE is doing a fair and good job. However, it looks like the decision on which signatures to exclude will have more to do with a legal interpretation than with any underhanded maneuvers on the part of CNE officials. That is, the international observers are not as qualified to rule on matters of legal interpretation, something which should be up to Venezuelan courts, as they are at identifying fraud on the part of election officials. This means that almost no matter which way the CNE’s decision goes, the losing party will almost definitely challenge the decision in the Supreme Court, which would mean further delays.

There is much anxiety among the opposition over the possibility of further delays. While a recall referendum against the president became possible halfway through his term, on August 19, 2003, the new rules and authorities for organizing a petition drive for referenda were not in place until late November. It then took the opposition three weeks to submit the signatures, which it submitted a few days before Christmas. The CNE thus did not begin verifying the signatures until mid January and will now be about two weeks late in delivering a decision at the end of February. If a decision is made in favor of a recall referendum, the CNE has about three months to organize the referendum, meaning that the earliest a referendum would take place now, if nothing else comes in between, is early June. The reason the opposition is anxious about all of these delays is because if the referendum were take place after August 19, and the president loses the recall, then the vice president, José Vicente Rangel, or someone else Chavez names, serves out the rest of the president’s term, until the end of 2006.

Further complicating the process is recently publicized information that numerous organizations that work with the opposition have received funding from the U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Among the more notorious organizations to have received funding from the NED is Sumate, which says that it is merely doing a public education campaign to promote democracy in Venezuela. However, it is well known that Sumate is one of the main logistical support organizations for the opposition’s campaign to recall President Chavez. While Chavez and his supporters are now making a big deal about Sumate’s NED funding, this information was readily available already a long time ago. The PPT, one of the parties in the Chavez coalition, has said that it will try to take Sumate to court for treason, for having accepted money from a foreign government in order to destabilize the Venezuelan government.

While many pundits have been hoping that the presidential recall referendum would finally put an end to Venezuela’s apparently non-ending political crisis, it seems unlikely that it will. The very decision on whether or not there will be a referendum will be cause for plenty of upheaval, but especially if the CNE decides not to call for a referendum. If the CNE decides against a referendum, it is almost certain that the opposition will launch more strategies and tactics for destabilizing the government. Even though this is a form of blackmail, it would thus be in the interest of Venezuela to proceed with a referendum.

The outcome of such a referendum, however, is extremely difficult to predict. On the one hand it always is easier for people to say what they are against than what they are for. So if just Chavez is on the ballot, in a yes or no vote, then more people would probably vote against him than if they had to make an actual choice in favor of an alternative – especially since the alternative is still quite unarticulated and internally divided. On the other hand, the requirement for ousting Chavez is relatively tough, so that at least as many have to vote against him as originally voted for him. The actual outcome of this entire process thus could easily go either way.