It took Venezuela’s opposition almost five years to figure out the best way to try and remove a president it despises. After three employer-sponsored general strikes, a coup d’état, a shutdown of the country’s oil industry and an unconstitutional petition drive, the opposition is now opting for the only constitutional route for ousting an elected Venezuelan president: a recall referendum.
In December 2001, when President Hugo Chávez introduced a series of 49 laws meant to “deepen” his movement’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” the opposition responded by intensifying its campaign against Chávez with its first general strike. The new laws called for the redistribution of the country’s agricultural land, required banks to provide micro-credits to the poor, encouraged the growth of producer cooperatives, protected small-scale fishing from industrial competitors, enabled the restructuring of the country’s crucial oil industry and many other provisions that ran smack into the vested interests of the country’s business elite. Another important sector in the opposition is the country’s main union, the Venezuelan Workers’ Federation (CTV), a close traditional ally of the country’s former ruling party, Democratic Action. The CTV has been at odds with Chávez over his efforts to force direct elections on the union federation.
Following the failed April 2002 coup and Chávez’s return to power, the opposition still believed it could remove the president before the end of his term in 2006. This time the opposition focused on the country’s all-important oil industry, which it believed, if shut down, would bring the economy to its knees and force Chávez to resign. The management-led shutdown indeed forced the economy into a tailspin, resulting in a 10% decline in GNP for 2003. However, Chávez did not resign. Instead, he fired those who participated in the politically motivated strike—namely management and administrative employees—and in a surprising recovery, Venezuela’s oil industry returned to nearly full production in less than six months with only half of its pre-strike workforce.
When it became apparent that the two-month oil industry strike was not going to bring down the Chávez government, the opposition began organizing a “consultative” referendum against the president. Venezuela’s constitution provides for four types of referendums for which citizens can petition. One of these is a consultative referendum, which asks the electorate a question of national importance, such as whether the country should join an economic union. Another is a recall referendum, which can be applied to elected officials halfway through their term in office. Because Chávez had not yet reached the halfway point of his 2000–2006 term, the opposition could not utilize the recall referendum option. Instead, it called for a consultative referendum to be held on February 2, 2003, to ask citizens if they wanted the president to resign. The National Electoral Council (CNE) ruled that the consultative referendum on Chávez could proceed, despite legal challenges from Chávez supporters. At the time, the CNE was primarily composed of oppositional members temporarily appointed by the transitional legislature when the 1999 constitution was being implemented.
The Supreme Court, however, declared the consultative referendum illegal because only a recall referendum can be used to challenge a president’s tenure in office. The opposition reacted by using the February 2 date to collect signatures for a petition intended to activate a recall referendum once Chávez reached the mid-point of his term on August 19, 2003. The opposition hailed the petition drive as an unprecedented success and claimed over 4.5 million signatures against the president. Other petitions circulated that day included the recall of legislators, the reinstatement of oil industry workers and amendments to the constitution.
On August 20, the opposition submitted the signatures it had collected in February. But Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled that the petition was illegal because only signatures collected after the mid-point of a president’s term can be used to trigger a recall referendum. Another complicating factor at that time was the lack of a functioning National Electoral Council (CNE) to regulate or supervise a recall referendum. The country’s legislature, the National Assembly, had failed to fill the posts left vacant by the outgoing transitional appointments to the five-member board of the CNE, forcing the Supreme Court to step in and name the board members. By late August 2003, Venezuela had an electoral council that appeared to be politically balanced, with two members sympathetic to the government, two allied with the opposition and one allegedly neutral. Given the political tensions and the immense pressure the opposition was now exerting for a presidential recall referendum, the CNE became the country’s most important institution.
The CNE’s first and foremost task was setting up the rules for recall referendums. Since both sides in Venezuela’s conflict mistrust each other profoundly, transparency and the avoidance of fraud were top priorities. As a result, the CNE instituted rather restrictive procedures for collecting the signatures necessary to activate the referendum. According to Venezuela’s constitution, at least 20% of the electorate—about 2.4 million registered voters—must sign a petition to trigger a referendum. The CNE decided that the signatures must be collected over a four-day period in a closely supervised procedure. The CNE printed special petition forms on “security” paper and restricted the number of locales where signatures could be collected.
Both sides reluctantly agreed to the procedures—the opposition were hoping for more days and longer hours for collecting signatures, while Chavistas sought more restrictive rules—and both applied to the CNE to organize petition drives. The pro-government side applied for petition drives to activate recall referendums against 37 opposition legislators, while the opposition applied for petition drives against the president and 30 pro-government legislators. The CNE decided that the two petition drives should take place on two different weekends, with the pro-Chávez initiative taking place November 21 to 24 and the opposition’s from November 28 to December 1.
The first signature collection process, which Chávez supporters had organized, went relatively smoothly, with few complaints from either side. At the end of the four-day process, the organizers announced that they had collected some two million signatures to activate referendums against 37 opposition legislators—the constitution requires that at least 20% of the voters in each legislator’s district sign to activate a recall referendum. Surprisingly, both the opposition and pro-Chávez media covered the event in a balanced manner.
When the opposition’s petition drive began, things turned ugly once more. Chávez supporters claimed that their observers witnessed many instances of cheating, such as petition forms being taken from their official locations, people signing with fake identification cards and workers being pressured by employers to sign. International observer teams from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center, however, said that despite Chavista claims of fraud, the petition drive was a clean process.
For the petition to succeed, the opposition coalition calling itself the “Democratic Coordinator”—consisting of more than a dozen parties from the far left to far right and several dozen oppositional organizations—had to collect at least 2.4 million signatures. The opposition, absolutely convinced that it had overwhelming support, claimed it could easily collect more than 3.7 million signatures, which is the number of votes needed to oust Chávez in the potential recall referendum. The radical opposition coalition known as the “Democratic Bloc,” which had split from the more moderate Democratic Coordinator, argued that if more than 3.7 million signatures were collected, the opposition should simply claim victory and try to force Chávez to resign in the context of a “civil-military rebellion.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Venezuela’s former governing party, Democratic Action, announced that the opposition had collected 3.8 million signatures. Shortly afterwards, the Democratic Coordinator stated that the real number was 3.6 million signatures. Leaked reports from the oppositional and U.S.-funded organization Sumate, which provided logistical support in the petition process, said it had counted 3.4 million. Henrique Salas Römer, an oppositional former presidential candidate who is again on the campaign trail and has steered clear of most of the rest of the opposition, said that the actual number was 2.8 million. Meanwhile, pro-government observers said that only 1.9 million signatures were collected. Some three weeks after the end of the petition drive, the opposition turned in over 3.45 million signatures.
With the exact number of legitimate signatures still to be deter mined, both sides claimed to have unequivocally defeated their opponents. The pro-Chávez camp bolstered its claim with a massive demonstration on the capital’s largest avenue. The final decision, however, rests with the electoral council, which has 30 days to count and verify the signatures. Since the opposition turned over the signatures during the CNE’s holidays, the countdown for the signature verification process did not begin until January 12. In other words, sometime around February 13, the CNE was supposed to have a final total for the number of signatures requesting a presidential recall referendum and for the recall referendums against opposition and pro-Chávez legislators. The CNE failed to meet its self-imposed deadline. As of this writing, the CNE promised to have its results by March.
The CNE’s determination of which signatures will be counted is sure to create controversy. Chávez supporters, for instance, claim that anywhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million opposition signatures were collected fraudulently. They say blank petition forms were not returned at the end of the signature collection period and that phony signatures were added during the period between the end of the collection process and the turning over of the signatures to the CNE. This type of fraud could be uncovered by determining if there is a discrepancy between the number of signatures that observers documented at each signature collection location and the number of signatures that were actually turned in three weeks later. If the actual signature count does not correspond with the observers’ documentation, say the Chavistas, then the excess signatures must be nullified. Opposition supporters on the other hand believe that the observers’ documents should not take precedence over the actual signatures.
If the CNE rules in favor of a recall referendum, then it must be held within 90 days, meaning that June is the earliest a recall referendum against the president could take place. If the CNE should rule that the opposition did not collect enough signatures for a recall referendum, then the opposition will no doubt claim that the government has unduly influenced the CNE. While some opposition leaders have said they would accept the CNE’s decision, others have launched a campaign to discredit the CNE, claiming that it is in the process of unjustifiably disqualifying large numbers of signatures. This suggests that certain sectors of the opposition might opt for yet another extra-constitutional struggle, despite the agreement it signed with the government in May 2003 committing both sides to respect the democratic procedures set in Venezuela’s constitution.
The opposition has now played almost all of its cards, from general strikes to a coup attempt to a constitutional recall referendum. If it does not succeed with the referendum, the opposition’s more radical elements will likely assume control of the opposition once again. This would result in further destabilization, additional obstacles to the implementation of the government’s reform policies and increased suffering for the country’s poor. However, if the electoral council rules that there will be a referendum, government supporters will likely cry foul, and Chávez has pledged to appeal such a decision to the Supreme Court.
In a recall referendum, the voters only get to vote on whether or not to remove the president from office. They do not get to choose his successor. Recent poll figures show Chávez regaining popularity, with 45% of voters saying they would vote in favor of Chávez in both a recall referendum and a new election. It is still possible that a slight majority might buy into the message that the opposition and the private mass media have been hammering home every day for the past two years: removing Chávez from the political scene would solve all of Venezuela’s problems. However, if Chávez is recalled and then allowed to run again in a subsequent presidential contest—an issue that still remains to be resolved by Venezuela’s Supreme Court—Chávez could very well win all over again.
About the Author
Gregory Wilpert is a sociologist and independent writer living in Venezuela. He contributes regularly to the Web site Venezuela Analysis www.venezuelanalysis.com.