The international press has already carried the opposition’s version of the March 15 ruling by the Electoral Chamber of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, validating the more than 800,000 signatures that had been set aside for re-verification by the National Elections Council based on suspected fraud.
News outlets have announced that the Venezuelan Supreme Court declared valid sufficient signatures to proceed with a Recall Referendum on President Chávez’s mandate. The opposition has been setting off fireworks all night and celebrating this critical decision, which allows them to apparently achieve their hard-fought goal of attempting to remove President Chávez from his democratically elected office prematurely. Were the story to end here, a date for a referendum would be set and the opposition’s propaganda machine would start cranking.
Yet what the international and Venezuelan media failed to include in their breaking news reports about this issue, is the crucial factor that could render yesterday’s decision by the Electoral Chamber unenforceable. Articles 335 and 336 of Venezuela’s Constitution clearly set forth that all interpretation of laws, decrees, orders and agreements made by the different branches of Venezuela’s government falls within the authority and jurisdiction of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court. Yesterday’s decision by the Electoral Chamber was a stark violation of this constitutional mandate and indicates a potential conflict between the companion chambers of Venezuela’s highest court.
Last week, members of the opposition filed a request for an injunction with the Electoral Chamber of the Venezuelan Supreme Court that called for a reversal of the National Elections Council decision declaring more than 800,000 petition signatures invalid and subject to re-certification. Soon after, members of a pro-government coalition, Comando Ayacucho, filed a petition with the Constitutional Chamber to supplement two of the Supreme Court judges in a position to rule on the injunction due to a conflict of interests. The opposition quickly responded with a similar request. As a result of these requests and a determination that the initial injunction petition dealt with issues of constitutional interpretation, the Constitutional Chamber stepped in to declare the issue within its jurisdiction and authority, in accordance with articles 335 and 336 of the Venezuelan Constitution. This, in effect, gives the Constitutional Chamber the first right of review of the injunction request.
The Constitutional Chamber issued an order to the Electoral Chamber to refrain from any review of the National Elections Council decision on the validity of petition signatures, based upon its constitutional position as the sole legal authority authorized to interpret laws, rules and similar decrees emanating from the Constitution. Under the Venezuelan Constitution, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court must first rule on the interpretation of the National Elections Council’s decision in order for the Electoral Chamber to proceed with its review of the injunction petition. But yesterday, in an unprecedented overstepping of authority and jurisdiction, the Electoral Chamber announced its decision to hold the National Elections Council’s ruling on the signatures invalid, thereby ignoring the Constitutional Chamber’s mandate and opening the doors for the verification of more than 800,000 petition signatures, which could give the opposition the 2.4 million signatures needed to enable a recall referendum on President Chávez’s mandate.
What is at issue here is the legitimacy and authority of Venezuela’s highest Court and most powerful democratic institution. The confusion of this debate between two of the Court’s chambers and the media’s manipulation of the impact of the decision has clearly placed Venezuela’s democracy in a dangerous position. Through media and legal manipulation, the opposition has succeeded in projecting an image of disorder and conflict within the one institution that is bound by law to abide unrelentingly and objectively by the Constitution and to ensure rule of law.
Regardless of the outcome of this conundrum, the opposition will undoubtedly manipulate the situation to their advantage. If the Electoral Chamber’s decision is allowed to stand, it will evidence a breakdown of the Supreme Court and a clear violation of the Constitutional Chamber’s constitutionally authorized power to interpret all laws and rulings made by the varied branches of government. If the Electoral Chamber’s decision is overruled and remanded by the Constitutional Chamber, the opposition will cry wolf and claim unfoundedly that the Chávez administration has violated their rights by forcing its will on the Court and desecrating democracy. And should the entire Court rule on the matter, unpredictability of the outcome will lead the opposition into a frenzied attempt to influence the judges and the public through media manipulation and false claims of authoritarianism on the part of the government.
It is during tense and volatile times like this that reason and rule of law must prevail. The Court should not permit politics to play a role in this decisive moment that will affect the future of Venezuelan society and it must pledge and abide by its oath to uphold the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.