Let me be clear: from a legal, constitutional, “democracy and rule of law” standpoint, yesterday’s announcement from the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) regarding the second step of the recall referendum process against Maduro makes absolutely no sense. The announcement does make sense, however, if you accept it for what it is: a naked, unashamed, ugly attempt to set up the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (MUD) and eight out of ten Venezuelan voters for failure or resignation. This fact is evidenced by the two points below.
First, the CNE has given the MUD three days to collect 3,959,553 signatures. Voting hours will be from 8:00 AM to noon, then from 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM. The CNE has allocated 5,392 machines for the process. Let’s do the math:
- At a whopping seven hours per day, that’s a total of 21 hours for Venezuelans to sign in favour of the recall. This means that the MUD will have to collect 188,550 signatures per hour in order to meet the goal.
- In order to collect 188,550 signatures per hour with the given number of machines, each machine will have to record an average of 35 signatures per hour. This gives voters a little under two minutes to use the machines to register their signature.
- If even a single machine breaks, or temporarily stops working, or if the connection to the CNE headquarters is slow, or if a voting center is late in opening, or if the process takes more a little under two minutes to complete, then the MUD will not meet the goal.
The CNE’s demands in this respect are so absurd that they approach the realm of mathematical and physical impossibility. It is evident that with its demand, the CNE is hoping to create such a massive bottleneck that – on top of the regular “hiccups” that mar any bureaucratic process, such as an election – there simply will not be enough time or machines to record the votes.
To give you an idea of how absurd the demand is, the CNE gave the MUD 30 working days to collect signatures from 1% of registered voters earlier this year. The CNE gave the MUD 30 working days to collect 195,721 signatures, and it now expects it collect nearly that amount per hour.
Second, the CNE has asked that the MUD collect signatures from 20% of registered voters per state. This requirement is contrary to what is clearly outlined in the constitution. Article 72 of the constitution outlines what the recall referendum process looks like, and begins [emphasis added]:
Article 72: All magistrates and other offices filled by popular vote are subject to revocation. Once half of the term of office to which an official* has been elected has elapsed, a number of voters constituting at least 20% of the voters registered in the pertinent circumscription may extend a petition for the calling of a referendum to revoke such official’s mandate
The key phrase for our purposes in the article above is “in the pertinent circumscription”. The meaning of this phrase is beyond doubt. If you live in the city of Valencia and you want to recall the mayor of Valencia, you have to collect signatures from 20% of registered voters in the city of Valencia to hold a referendum. For recalling a mayor, the “pertinent circumscription” in this case is “the city”. If you live in Aragua state and you want to recall the governor of Aragua state, you have to collect signatures from 20% of registered voters in Aragua state to hold a referendum. The “pertinent circumscription” in this case is “the state”. If you live in Venezuela and you want to recall the president of Venezuela, you have to collect signatures from 20% of registered voters in Venezuela to hold a referendum. The “pertinent circumscription” in this case is “the nation”.
As if that fact were not clear enough, it is further evidenced by the way that Venezuelans elect their president. On presidential election day, any Venezuelan who is registered to vote goes to their local voting center and casts a ballot. At the end of the day, every ballot is tallied. The person who wins the most votes becomes president. The point is obvious, but at the risk of sounding pedantic I will spell it out. Venezuelans don’t elect their president “by state”. That is, they do not require that in order to become president a candidate win a majority vote in each of the 23 states. This makes sense, because if the presidential electoral system was set up “by state”, a candidate might win a majority vote in 22 states but then lose in one state, which would then mean that they would lose the election.
The president is elected at the national level, so the CNE should have asked the MUD to collect signatures from 20% of voters at the national level. By telling the MUD that they must collect signatures at the state level, the CNE is setting the MUD up for failure precisely because of the situation that I have outlined above: the MUD could collect signatures from 20% of registered voters in 22 states, but if it collects signatures from only 19.99% of voters in one state (because electors there took an average of over two minutes to use the voting machines, for example), then the recall effort will fail. In other words, the only reason the CNE has made this requirement is to multiply the MUD’s chances of failure by 23.
Third, the CNE also announced that the actual recall referendum could take place in either February or March of next year. This is after the January 20, 2017 deadline for triggering a presidential election. This means that even if the referendum is held, when Venezuelans vote to recall Maduro they will not be given a choice to elect a new president. Instead, the vice-president will become president until at least 2019. Right now, the vice-president is Aristobulo Isturiz, but there is nothing stopping Maduro from naming someone else vice-president if the referendum does go ahead. To add insult to injury, the fact that the CNE is unlikely to hold gubernatorial elections this year makes a strong case for arguing that the government has no problem doing away with elections in general if its not convenient for them. In other words, waiting for the next presidential elections might be naive because there may very well be no such thing.
As the points outlined above show, the CNE’s announcement yesterday make sense only if you consider that the organization’s purpose is to put an end to the recall effort against Maduro, or at least mitigate the damage to the PSUV by pushing the referendum to next year. The announcement puts the MUD in a difficult position, because it is now faced with either playing a game that is rigged against it and losing, or calling it quits and losing. If the MUD really wants to put an end to the disastrous Maduro administration and give a voice to 8 in 10 Venezuelans, it must reject this this grotesque violation of democratic principles and push for a peaceful, non-violent solution to the crisis.
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