You would think that a major economic recession, dire food shortages and a power crisis that has led to supply in most cities being cut to just four hours a day in a country that that has the world’s largest proven oil reserves (297 barrels, at last count) would be enough to guarantee that Nicolás Maduro would soon be given his walking papers by the Venezuelan people.
And, indeed, as predicted in this column six weeks ago (see “Maduro’s Last Stand,” which ran in this space on March 3), the Venezuelan opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) party has managed to collect the signatures of 600,000 people demanding a recall referendum of the leftist politician who has molded himself in the likeness of his mentor and predecessor Hugo Chávez. (It only needed 200,000 signatures to get the ball rolling.)
But while the MUD and its progressive platform of food on the table, a return to free-market capitalism and a political distancing from Moscow have inspired thousands of Venezuelans to rally behind its plan to oust Maduro, the process of actually removing the socialist president from power is a lot more complex and convoluted than garnering signatures on a petition.
In accordance with the Venezuelan constitution, voters are legally allowed to hold referendums to recall elected officials, including the president, but those referendums can only be held after the official’s term has reached its midway point, which in Maduro’s case, was on the 19th of this month.
Once a proposed, referendum supporters have 30 days to collect signatures from at least one percent of registered voters, which is exactly what the MUD did this week.
So far, so good.
But as it turns out, after the initial petition is reviewed and verified by electoral authorities (which can take weeks or even months), a second petition has to be collected with the signatures of a minimum of 20 percent of voters (about four million, nearly seven times the numbers of names on the MUD’s current petition), and again, the signatures need to be certified by the Venezuelan National Electoral Council.
Okay, with Venezuela now ranking as the country with the world’s highest inflation and government workers being furloughed to just two days of work a week, that step seems doable.
But then there is a third step in the recall procedure that thwarts the process even further: For the referendum to pass, at least as many voters as those who elected Maduro have to cast their ballots in favor of his recall, and, in what was no doubt an extremely fair and transparent polling in 2013, the Son of Chávez walked away with 7,587,579 votes.
Venezuela has a total of 19.5 million voters, and in the 2013 election, voter turnout was about 74 percent.
Since it is unlikely that a referendum will get as large a turnout as a presidential election, Maduro’s opponents are going to be hard-pressed to garner enough ballots to pass the recall.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s just say they do.
There is yet one more caveat in the recall process, and it is a doozy.
If Maduro is recalled before the end of his first four years in office — that is, April 19, 2017 — there will be new elections and the MUD can run a candidate.
Ay, but there’s the rub.
If Maduro is recalled after the end of his first four years, his vice president and prodigy Aristóbulo Istúriz takes over and runs the country until the end of his elected term in 2019.
Obviously, time is of the essence if the MUD and Venezuelan voters want to see real change in their country sometime before Caracas defaults on all its international obligations and goes into total bankruptcy.
But at the bidding of Maduro and his cohorts, there is a strong possibility that the National Electoral Council will drag its feet when it comes to processing, counting and verifying the petitions.
Venezuela’s recall process is a tangled labyrinth that could serve to keep Maduro — or at least his patsy — in office to the end of his term in 2019, and God help the Venezuelan people should that turn out to be the case.
Therese Margolis can be reached at [email protected]