Venezuela’s right-wing opposition coalition, the Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD), has officially launched its signature collection campaign to force a recall referendum against incumbent president, Nicolas Maduro, this year.
Thousands of opposition supporters flocked to sign the petition in public squares across the country this Wednesday, after MUD spokespeople confirmed that they had received the official go-ahead from Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE).
“May nobody let down their guard: the threat of the streets got us these petition sheets and that pressure must be maintained to achieve the recall this year,” said radical rightwing MUD legislator, Freddy Guevara, to supporters on social media.
The current leftist president of the country, Nicolas Maduro, won national elections by a thin margin in 2013 and is the leader of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution.
But Maduro’s term has been wracked by economic crisis caused by plummeting oil prices, as well as spiraling inflation and the scarcity of basic goods. His opponents state that his administration has also failed to successfully get to grips with corruption in public institutions and worsening violent crime.
“We can no longer stand this situation, the food, the queues, the corruption, the insecurity,” said J. Martinez, who added her signature to the petition in Plaza Brion in the middle class zone of Chacao, Caracas.
“This government has got to go!” she proclaimed as she was received by applause and chants of support from onlookers.
A Complex but Democratic Affair
Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution, which is touted as one of the major achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution to date, states that all publicly elected officials are eligible to be removed from their position by popular referendum once they are midway through their time in office.
However, the procedures for carrying out such a move are complex, and the official in question may only be discharged from their post if a number of votes equal to or greater than those cast for their initial election are registered in favour of their dismissal.
The opposition will also have to prove that their request for a recall referendum has sufficient backing from the electorate. Over the next 30 days, they will have to collect signatures from 1% of all registered voters in each of Venezuela’s 23 states.
In smaller or more rural states such as Cojedes this means collecting just 2361 signatures, whilst in bigger states such as Miranda they will have to gather at least 20,399.
Opposition spokespeople have suggested that they reached these targets within hours of opening signature collection stalls, but have yet to release official figures.
“We’ll get the 20,000 signatures today… people have been coming since 10am,” explained facilitator Karina Molina from Plaza Brion, who said that her team had collected 500 signatures in 4 hours.
The second stage for activating the referendum requires the collection of signatures from 20% of the electorate – amounting to nearly 4 million signatures – within a period 72 hours.
This process will be aided and supervised by the CNE, which will also have to verify the authenticity of the signatures against their databases.
If all the names are found to be above-board, then the electoral body will have 90 days to convoke a nation-wide recall referendum on the president’s mandate.
Venezuela will face two possible outcomes if the public vote to dismiss their current president, depending on the time-frames involved.
Voters will head to national elections to choose a new president if Maduro is dismissed before completing four years of his six year term. In the event that more than four years have transpired, the country’s vice-president, Aristobulo Isturiz, will step into control of Miraflores, according to the country’s constitution.
But opposition supporters on Wednesday dismissed the idea that just Maduro would step down, and demanded the resignation of the entire socialist party government.
“We want to remove Maduro and company, the whole lot,” said Martinez.
Question Marks over Miraflores
Despite their mutual agreement on revoking Maduro, however, opposition supporters and spokespeople are less clear about who should take his place at Miraflores – even in terms of candidates from among their own ranks.
“We’ll get to that when we get to is, first thing is first, we have to get out of this mess first,” commented Martinez.
Some observers are predicting an inter-party power struggle within the infamously fragmented coalition to name a candidate ahead of potential national elections, as well as to settle on a plan for government.
“We’ll have primaries when that moment comes,” stated Hasler Iglesias, President of the Federation of University Centres.
While information on what measures an opposition government would take is scarce, Iglesias explained that a MUD administration would act swiftly to “re-found all the public powers” including the CNE and Supreme Court.
But such claims have set Chavista alarm bells ringing over a possible witch hunt within public institutions should the MUD take power.
Since their landslide win at the legislative elections last December 6th, the opposition has intensified its campaign to remove the government from power. MUD legislators have put forward a number of competing initiatives to debilitate the government, including a retroactive constitutional amendment that would cut presidential term limited to four years. The reform was partially quashed by the Supreme Court for being unconstitutional earlier this week.
Unconstitutional and Constitutional Strategies
“This (recall referendum) has to be the strategy, because first of all there is no other mechanism that is as participatory as the recall referendum… Of course we are going to get him (Maduro) out by force, from a juridic perspective… but the focus has to be the referendum,” said Molina.
Nevertheless, the Venezuelan opposition’s infamous approach of combing several tactics to oust the national government – including what they call “heating up the streets” – has led to uneasiness that violence could erupt as the signature collection campaign picks up steam.
As unsubstantiated rumours of ransacking and violent barricades in Zulia state and Catia, Caracas reached Plaza Brion on Wednesday, signers appeared to be buoyed by the news.
Their general belief is that unconstitutional street action against the government will help their cause – even if they are not officially backing it.
“There is shit going off all over the place, this is heating up,” one young member of the youth wing of Popular Will whispered excitedly to another.
Reports that the CNE was also the target of a string of attacks by opposition supporters demanding petition sheets have also increased uncertainty surrounding the coming weeks.
Some of the country’s most conservative forces are playing a leading role in the petition campaign, including student movements from elite universities and religious organisations such as the Catholic church.
Although they are encouraging aggrieved Chavistas to sign the petition, the extent to which government supporters turn their backs on the current administration and align themselves with the right will likely prove pivotal in a potential referendum.
“I’m not Signing a Goddam Thing”
On the other side of the political divide, thousands of Chavistas rallied to the defence of the president with news of the referendum, denouncing it as a right-wing coup.
On Twitter, more than 35,000 users tweeted the hashtag #TotalSupportForMaduro as opposed to just 1,500 tweets plugging the “signathon”. Some 5,200 users also tweeted the hashtag “#ResignNowYou’veBeenRecalled”.
On Facebook, defiant Chavistas changed their profile pictures to photos stating “I’m not signing a goddam thing” and “I refuse to sign against the homeland”.
Nonetheless, Chavismo also appears to be divided over how to deal with the nose-dive in popular support, with some Chavistas vowing to oppose the recall referendum at all costs and others seeing it as an opportunity to regroup and re-orientate a revolution which they say has lost its way.
Maduro’s second in command, Aristobulo Isturiz, appears to be the current favourite to run as the United Socialist Party of Venezuela candidate in the event of new elections, although no official announcements have been made.
This table reported to have collected 500 signatures in the first four hours (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis)
Plaza Brion at around 11am on Wednesday (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis)
The signing process (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis)
Opposition supporters queue to sign up (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis)
Leopoldo Lopez’s the Popular Will Party had a significant presence at the event, as well as Justice First and A New Path (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis)
Student movements were also instrumental in the signature collection process (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis) ‘This revolution will be written in the dustbin of history” (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis)
Opposition merchandise (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis)
“Venezuelans for change” (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis)
Opposition legislator, Freddy Guevara, and Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, sign the petition (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis)