Venezuela: Institutions, Indecision and Referendum Turmoil

The Canadian Foundation for the Americas' senior analyst predicts that Chavez is likely to see out the end of his term in 2006

In spite of an ongoing jurisdictional battle over a series of rulings regarding the revocatory (recall) referendum process, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) has set a tentative date: 8 August 2004, for a referendum, pending verification of sufficient signatures. It has also designated four days at the end of May (27-30, 2004) for confirmation of the signatures that are in question. Of the over 3 million signatures that were submitted by the opposition, only 1.9 million were accepted-half a million short of the 2.4 million required to force a revocatory referendum on President Hugo Chavez’s mandate.

Unresolved Institutional Disputes

The verification of unconfirmed signatures, which was supposed to have been completed in February, has been delayed by court appeals and disagreement over institutional jurisdiction. In March, the CNE announced that it intended to publish the list of individuals whose signatures were in doubt and allow these individuals to “ratify” their signature at public polling stations.

The opposition coalition that submitted the original signatures (lead by umbrella organization – the Coordinadora Democratica), appealed this authentification process to the Electoral Panel of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, which ruled against the CNE’s decision. Subsequently, the Constitutional Panel of the Supreme Court attempted to thwart the Electoral Panel ruling, claiming that the latter panel did not hold the authority to rule on CNE affairs. This disagreement between Supreme Court panels is still awaiting settlement in a plenary session of the full (20-person) court, which is predicted to rule in favour of the CNE (LA Weekly Report, 06/04/04).

Indecision Among the Opposition

The Supreme Court decision may be moot, however, as the Coordinadora Democratica agreed to follow the new guidelines for verification set by the CNE last week. The new rules include four days for verification in May, the announcement of outcome of the verification process on June 4, and a tentative referendum date set for August 8, pending the results of the verification process. The CNE ruling also included the acceptance of approximately 100,000 previously disqualified signatures. International observers including The Carter Center and the OAS have stated their support and willingness to monitor the verification process, (despite concerns over delays in the process and earlier suggestions that using a smaller but statistically meaningful sample to validate signatures would be logistically more feasible).

On the one hand the CNE’s new rules address some of the opposition requests and concerns, including the admittance of more signatures and the possibility of holding a referendum prior to August 19-after which date a vote against Chavez would automatically result in Vice-President Rangel completing the term-something the opposition would like to prevent. On the other, the opposition will likely find that these new rules present a similar logistical challenge in terms of having to individually verify hundreds of thousands of signatures. Although they have accepted that CNE guidelines, there is likely lingering concern that a failure to validate signatures or the discovery of high rates of falsification will undermine their overall political capital.

Even though it appears that the verification process will proceed, in order for the opposition to realize their goal of ousting Chavez they need to garner more votes in the referendum than those with which Chavez was initially elected, i.e. over 60%. A recent poll by pro-opposition media Globovision indicated that, if held now, the number of votes in a recall referendum would not be sufficient to remove Chavez from office (LA Weekly Report, 20/04/04). A second poll by Alfredo Keller & Associates, released on Friday April 23, suggested a similar outcome. Of those polled, 35% supported Chavez, while 31% would vote against him in a referendum. Although most of the remaining 34% did not support Chavez, the poll indicated that they would abstain from voting due to a split in support for the opposition (Reuters, 26/04/04).

Chavez’s growing popularity

Chavez’s popularity is seen to be slowly increasing, in part due higher oil prices resulting from OPEC’s cut to oil production in early April, which provided Chavez with more capital to implement the social programs promised (LA Andean Report, 06/04/04). Predictions of economic stabilization and growth for 2004 due to the recovery of the oil industry have also helped buoy Chavez’s popularity, despite the fact that these economic gains follow a 9% contraction in the Venezuelan economy in 2003, continued levels of high under- and unemployment, and the economy’s persistent vulnerability to economic shocks.

Whether the verification process is successful or whether a referendum is held, Chavez is likely to see out the end of his term. The alternate institutional process through which the opposition can make gains is in municipal and state elections, originally scheduled for August 1, 2004. However, a singular focus on the referendum at the expense of election campaigns makes it increasingly unlikely that these elections will bring about the change desired by the opposition.

Judy Meltzer is a FOCAL (Canadian Foundation for the Americas) Senior Analyst