Venezuela’s Attorney General Challenges Court Ruling on Constituent Assembly

Venezuela’s attorney general took on the country’s highest court Thursday, challenging a ruling that could pave the way for a rewriting of the constitution.

By Ryan Mallett-Outtrim
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Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz has questioned whether Venezuela's participatory democracy is in decline. (AFP)
Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz has questioned whether Venezuela's participatory democracy is in decline. (AFP)

Puebla, Mexico, June 2, 2017 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuela’s attorney general took on the country’s highest court Thursday, challenging a ruling that could pave the way for a rewriting of the constitution.

In her fiercest criticism of the court yet, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz filed a clarification request against the Supreme Court’s (TSJ) decision to allow a constituent assembly to proceed without an initial referendum. The constituent assembly will have the power to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution, and was proposed by President Nicolas Maduro in May as a way to overcome the country’s deep political divide. While grassroots movements have largely welcomed the proposal, the opposition and corporate groups have dismissed the move as a political ploy by Maduro. They’ve also argued the assembly can only be called after a referendum – a claim the Maduro administration disputes.

On Wednesday, the TSJ agreed with the government, and issued a ruling confirming no initial referendum is needed, though any constitutional changes proposed by the assembly will still be put to a vote.

That ruling is now facing a challenge from Ortega. In a statement released Thursday, she called for “clarification” as to how the ruling addresses the issue of participatory democracy – the idea that voters should be actively engaged in the political process. Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez, was an advocate of participatory democracy, though Ortega questioned whether the latest TSJ ruling undermines this concept.

“We have asked for clarification on whether the participatory and protagonist democracy has lost its validity, and if the validity of representative democracy has been renewed; because the [TSJ] ruling seems to eliminate participatory democracy,” she said after issuing the challenge.

She continued by arguing public participation in the constituent assembly should be greater today than it was in 1999, when an assembly was called by referendum. The government has argued a referendum was only necessary in 1999 because the previous constitution had no legal mechanism for calling a constituent assembly. The current constitution does not specifically state that a referendum must be held in order to hold a constituent assembly. Article 348 simply says that the initiative may be called by the President, the National Assembly, Municipal Councils or by 15% of Venezuelan voters. But Ortega said that an initial referendum should be held in the interests of human rights. 

“They are trying to infringe the progress of human rights via a constituent assembly process where public participation has been reduced to the absolute minimum. This violates the human rights stipulated in the constitution,” she stated.

While the right-wing opposition has welcomed Ortega’s criticism of the ruling, government supporters responded by protesting outside outside the attorney general’s office in Caracas on Friday. Meanwhile, prominent Chavista Diosdado Cabello has called on Ortega to focus on prosecuting violent right-wing groups. The attorney general has been accused of acting with excessive leniency towards those carrying out acts of politicised violence over the last eight weeks of opposition protest, which have led to at least 69 deaths. 

Maduro himself has also waded into the fray, defending the TSJ ruling.

“The Supreme Tribunal of Justice has issued a clear, unequivocal, conclusive ruling that the convening of the national constituent assembly is constitutional and legal,” he told state media.

Maduro argued the assembly itself could be used to further promote an inclusive democracy. He also outlined a handful key areas he argued the assembly should discuss.

"The first of all is peace. Second is the new post-oil, productive economic model, and third is the constitutionalisation of all social missions," he said.

Other issues included domestic security, a crackdown on corruption and “impunity” and national sovereignty.

Meanwhile, just hours after Ortega issued her request for clarification, a presidential commission released a new report highlighting public engagement with the constituent assembly process. According to the report, over 640,000 Venezuelans have participated in preliminary talks. This includes meetings held nationwide last weekend, when grassroots groups selected candidates for the upcoming assembly elections.

The elections themselves are set to take place in July.