On Thursday September 22, the Consejo Nacional Electoral de Venezuela (CNE—AKA the Chavista Electoral Council of Venezuela or CCNE) announced the terms of the constitutional referendum process—about three months later than it should have. And, as expected, the CNE essentially said that any referendum wouldn’t take place until after January 10th, 2017, after which, according to the constitution, Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz would assume office should the unpopular current president Nicolas Maduro receive a popular vote of no confidence—as also expected.
In issuing its announcement, the CNE effectively gave a collective middle finger to the international community and Venezuela’s constitution. But there could be an international response that turns this into a democratic outcome, if the international and regional community are willing to push.
After politically dragging its feet to approve the referendum after the opposition delivered the constitutionally required 1 percent of voter signatures on May 2 this year, this week the CNE finally gave the green light to the necessary collection of 20 percent of voter signatures required to trigger the actual referendum. The complicated task of of gathering an estimated 4 million signatures is now to take place October 26 to 28. But as the CNE cautioned that would not likely mean that an actual vote until after January 10, quite likely “in the middle of the first quarter of 2017.”
Actually that makes sense: who can collect so many signatures, have them validated, have the signatories made public and denounced by the government (as happened in 2004), massively spend public money to buy votes, coerce public employees to vote for the governing party, and organize an entire balloting process complete with a toothless election-day observers from UNASUR) in 17 weeks? Those things take time.
Convenient. If you’re the government, at least—which is hoping that the price of oil will increase allowing it to have some breathing space for a new round of profligate partisan patronage. If you’re one of the many millions of Venezuelans waiting in line for basic staples or a pregnant mother having to face the prospect of delivering her baby in one of the sh**-hole hospitals that are strapped for equipment and electricity or a cancer patient who needs medicine… well, not so much. It’s also not so convenient for the democratic opposition and the millions of citizens who want change: what incentive do they have now to organize the signature campaign and get out voters to… ensure a continuation of this abysmal government just under a new president Isturiz?
Will the international community that has promised to mediate between the opposition and government stand on the sidelines and remain silent while the government clearly flouts its wishes? If left up to UNASUR of course it would. Though now with the news that Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has spoken to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to call for a regional group of friends to try to address the situation, there may be some light.
It’s going to be difficult to get the CNE to walk back its announcement and timeline, and, of course, they wouldn’t be party to any mediation (though since they are so clearly part of the government, perhaps they should be?). But there is an option that could be put on the table: temporarily suspending the constitutional provision that requires that the vice president to assume the office should the sitting president receive a popular vote of no confidence. It could be temporarily amended by agreement of the parties at the mediation table either to allow for an entirely new election or for a coalition, unity government to take office until the next presidential elections scheduled for 2019.
Such a provision would also help resolve the fear that’s in the back of the heads of many observers that no one really wants to say: given how polarized and nasty the chavista movement is, could the opposition actually govern alone were it to win power? A unity government would create a shared responsibility to rebuild the country’s decimated economy, society and institutions. And could we expect the chavistas play nice with their unity partners when they don’t even allow the opposition to govern in the National Assembly? It’s tough. But first, it wouldn’t be the same members of the current government and second if there were a real international mediation group engaged in the process, they could help ensure a more cooperative, accountable, moderate chavista contingent.
Of course some may complain that changing the rules of the referendum by international agreement is unconstitutional. But violating its own constitution has never bothered the current government much. At least this time it would be done by consensus.