Electoral Chamber of Venezuela’s Supreme Court Issues Controversial Ruling on Recall Signatures

Venezuela's Electoral Chamber ruled in favor of an opposition request to declare invalid the Electoral Council's decision to re-certify suspicious presidential recall referendum signatures, which would mean that the opposition has enough signatures for a recall referendum. However, experts say the decision has many problems, leaving a final decision for the full Supreme Court.

Caracas, March 15 (Venezuelanalysis.com).- In a surprise announcement today, the Electoral Chamber of Venezuela’s Supreme Court issued a ruling that reverses the National Electoral Council’s (CNE) decision to have citizens re-certify their signatures on hundreds of thousands of cases where the signatures appeared suspicious. That is, the Electoral Chamber said that over 800,000 signatures where personal data appeared to be filled out with similar handwriting would have to be counted as valid, thus bringing the total number of signatures in favor of a presidential recall referendum to 2.7 million, which would exceed the 2.4 million needed to convoke a recall referendum.

Signatures with similar strokes appear on many of the petition forms, prompting election authorities to suspect that they were filled by a single person and not by the people listed as signers. Instead of disqualifying them, authorities choose to ask those listed to confirm their signatures. The Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court pretends to block the revalidation process.
Photo: Venezolana de Television

The court’s Electoral Chamber made this decision under questionable circumstances because the Constitutional Chamber had previously argued that the Electoral Chamber should refrain from issuing any rulings on the matter for two reasons. First, several requests had been filed with the court to excuse the judges of the Electoral Chamber due to their partisanship in the issue. Second, the issue ought to be a matter for the Constitutional Chamber because there is no law governing recall referenda, thus making the issue a matter of interpreting constitutional law and not of laws that are already on the books. Neither of these arguments had yet been decided, which is why the Constitutional court merely issued a ruling that prohibited the Electoral Council from making a decision until the “base of the issue” is decided, that is, whose competency the issue belongs to.

The chair of the Electoral Chamber, Alberto Martini Urdaneta, said that by attempting to restrain the Electoral Chamber, the Constitutional Chamber was “violating the rule of law.” Specifically, Martini argued that the Constitutional Chamber’s decision to restrain the Electoral Chamber was illegal because it was made by only three of the Chamber’s judges while the quorum for that chamber is four judges. Ivan Rincon, the president of the Constitutional Chamber and president of the Supreme Court, however, said that that characterization was false and that their ruling was procedurally correct because four judges were indeed part of the decision. Ismael Garcia, the spokesperson for the pro-government side in these issues, thus said that it was the Electoral Chamber that was violating the rule of law.

Many supporters of the opposition have taken the court’s announcement to be the final word on the recall referendum against President Chavez and in the wealthier neighborhoods of the capital people have been celebrating by exploding fire crackers and honking their car horns. The opposition coalition “Democratic Coordinator” issued a statement, saying that the decision constituted “a return to legality and constitutionality of the recall referendum process.”

However, the issue is far from decided. The Attorney General’s office issued a statement saying that “the Electoral Chamber’s decision has incurred an evident procedural disorder…” The office argues that the Electoral Chamber reacted to a request for a temporary restraining order, that is, the opposition representatives’ request to stop the CNE’s signature re-certification process, by issuing a permanent order, that the CNE should consider all suspicious signatures as valid.

According to some pro-government analysts, by celebrating a decision that is not yet the final word on the issue, the opposition risks disappointing its supporters once again, just as happened in during last year’s oil industry shut-down and the demonstrations that led to the April 2002 coup.

Another problem with the Electoral Chamber’s decision has to do with the manner in which the judges made their decision, with only two of the three judges belonging to the chamber and inviting a third replacement judge, who is not the legal replacement for the absent judge.

It is unclear where the issue will go from here. However, according to most experts, when an issue is in dispute between two chambers, it should go to the Court’s plenary. In the plenary, the Court is said to be more or less evenly divided between judges who are sympathetic to the Chavez government and those who oppose the government, thus making the outcome unpredictable. The plenary however, decided in 2002 to absolve of all charges the military officers involved in the coup d’etat against Chavez, and has ruled in several ocassions against the Exceutive Branch. The Constitutional Chamber is still expected to make a statement on the issue very soon, before it goes to the full court.