In a long-expected decision, Venezuela’s national electoral council announced on Monday that the political opposition’s efforts to mount a recall of President Nicolas Maduro had passed the first hurdle, securing the signatures of 1% of the country’s voters.
But several more steps remain, including the gathering of millions more signatures, before any vote can take place — and the pace at which this process moves will largely be decided by the embattled government.
So even as the recall effort moves forward, the possibility of a messy political confrontation remains.
The national electoral council (CNE) said that nearly 98% of the 408,000 signatures gathered had passed an audit, well exceeding the 1% standard (about 200,000 signatures). The opposition leadership pushing the recall, led by the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition, had two days to submit a formal request to move the process forward.
After that, the CNE — which many believe to be slanted in the government’s favour — will have 15 days to respond to that request, then another 15 days to set a date for the second petition drive, which will be a three-day period during which the opposition has to gather the signatures of 20% of the electorate — some 4 million people.
The CNE gets 15 days after that to count and verify the signatures, and, assuming the signatures pass muster, it must set a date for the actual referendum that, based on current polling, would likely end with Maduro forced from office.
‘The political game’
But it is extremely unlikely that the process, delays of which have already inspired large street protests, will move forward in such an orderly fashion.
The timing of a potential referendum is extremely important. If Maduro loses a vote held before January 10, 2017, another vote for president is to be held, seen as the best chance to end the Socialist Party’s 17 years in power. If Maduro loses a vote after January 10, then his vice president takes over.
Evidence the government wants to delay a referendum has already been on display. The opposition submitted the first petition, with 1.85 million signatures, for approval on May 2. According to David Smile and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz, the results of the audit of those signatures were ready on July 19, but the CNE put off announcing it until the start of August.
It’s not clear how the process will proceed from here. Some estimates foresee signature-gathering and voting as happening in late fall or early winter, possibly even in early January. Political scientist Greg Weeks said the government could be so brazen as to have the referendum on January 11, while TeleSur, a state-backed media outlet, said the recall vote wouldn’t happen before 2017.
Despite years of political and economic strife, it’s not clear what kind of response this apparent foot-dragging will elicit from the public — though that’s not necessarily a good thing for Maduro.
The government’s delays are “not a big topic of discussion among people,” Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Business Insider.
“Chavismo has lost a lot of popularity and has few defenders in public. Everyone knows what it is doing but sort of chalks it up to the political game,” Smilde added, referring to the political movement named for Maduro’s predecessor, late President Hugo Chavez. “In fact, I think it should be worrying for Chavismo that people are not more disappointed.”
‘They want to see stability’
The opposition recall effort seems to have broad public backing, gathering nearly 2 million signatures in the first petition drive. But this doesn’t necessarily translate into support for the opposition itself.
“The MUD and its leaders have roughly double the support of the PSUV and its leaders,” Smilde told Business Insider in an email. “But that still leaves them with the support of about half of the population.”
“The MUD has not yet been able to take advantage of the space left by the decline of Chavismo,” Smilde added. “They have gained support, but it is more because of disgust with Chavismo than by putting forward a real proposal for the country and alternative ideology.”
“There’s nothing that has even been implied” by the opposition about its proposals, Alejandro Velasco, a historian of Latin America at New York University, told Business Insider ahead of legislative elections in December.
“I mean the opposition right now is basically … hoping to ride the wave of extreme discontent, and the less that that it says about any concrete policy agendas, the better it will be in terms of winning” those December elections, Velasco said at the time.
Indeed, while 63% of Venezuelans said in June they would vote for Maduro’s recall, his support has hovered around 25% in recent months, a sign that a bloc of loyal backers has not been peeled away from the government.
Moreover, in light of the opposition’s failure to present concrete proposals to counter the government’s actions, Venezuelans whose support of the government is wavering, and even some of those who say they disapprove of it, may not go as far as voting down Maduro.
“What they imagine would come from an un-negotiated resolution,” that is, from forcing Maduro out of office, “is a very difficult couple of years, with severe economic policies that would really hurt them,” Velasco told The Christian Science Monitor in July. “They want to see stability.”
Maduro has also argued Venezuela is facing a covert economic war orchestrated by those opposing his government. Many economists have dismissed that, but it may resonate with Venezuelans who remember hard times in the 1980s and 1990s.
‘A popular demand’
The political scene is more divided than just a simple government-opposition contest. Within the government, conflict has arisen over Maduro’s handling of the present situation and his purported departure from the legacy of Chavez.
To some, there are now the concepts of Chavismo, referring to Chavez’s legacy and policies, and of Madurismo, referring to the current president and his administration.
Within the opposition there are also divides. Many of the differences are over how to oust Maduro and the governing socialist party.
While opposition leaders like Henrique Capriles have pursued electoral challenges, others have pushed for drastic action, like massive street protests. According to Smilde, for the time being, the opposition is likely to leave those internal divides unresolved.
“It is probably better for them to continue to do what they are doing: fight for the recall referendum, which is a popular demand,” he told Business Insider.
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