Venezuelan Recall Referendum on Opposition Deputies Suspended

Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled that the recall referenda on nine opposition legislators should be suspended because the deadline for holding the referenda passed six months ago. The referenda were ssupposed to take place this April.

Caracas, February 16, 2005—The constitutional chamber of Venezuela’s Supreme Court suspended a recall referendum against nine opposition deputies to the National Assembly (AN), yesterday.  The recall was scheduled for this April 3rd, but has been postponed after the constitutional chamber voted in favor of a motion put forth by Salomón Centeno, deputy to the AN for the state of Cojedes and a member of the opposition.

The ability to recall elected officials, from local councilors to the President of the Republic, was a controversial addition to the 1999 Constitution of the Bolívarian Republic of Venezuela.  Last May, Venezuela’s opposition succeeded in collecting sufficient signatures to hold a recall referendum against President Hugo Chávez.  That referendum was held on August 15th, 2004, resulting in a powerful victory for Chávez, who had his mandate as President reconfirmed until 2006 with almost 60% of the vote.

Early last year pro-government organizers collected sufficient signatures to warrant a recall referendum on nine opposition deputies as provided by article 197 of the Venezuelan Constitution.  However, according to Centeno, “it has been 17 months since the election (acto comicial) in question was solicited,” whereas article 33 of the regulations governing recall referenda state that the referendum must be held no more than 97 days after the requisite signatures have been ratified, “resulting in the expiry of the [election] petition,” said Centeno.

“We placed a temporary injunction before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court against the timeline that the National Electoral Committee (CNE) established for the recall referendum,” said Centeno.

Had the CNE held the recall referendum for the AN deputies on time, it would have occurred on August 21st, only 6 days after the referendum to recall President Chávez.

The Constitutional Chamber based their ruling on the existing precedent of the cancellation of a recall referendum against governors and mayors.  That referendum was scheduled to coincide too closely with the upcoming elections for those positions, held on October 31st, 2004.

In the past, the Supreme Court has been criticized for being under the sway of President Chávez.  Last June, US-based Human Rights Watch issued a report entitled “Rigging the Rule of Law: Judicial Independence Under Siege in Venezuela,” where it criticized the National Assembly for passing a law increasing the number of Supreme Court Justices, calling it a “court-packing law.”

Yet in contrast to Human Rights Watch’s pessimistic predictions for judicial autonomy, one of the first rulings of a newly expanded Constitutional Chamber has been decided in favor of opposition deputies to Venezuela’s National Assembly.