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LatinNews Daily - 14 June 2016

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Venezuela’s PSUV challenges recall referendum process at TSJ

Development: On 13 June Venezuela’s ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) formally challenged at the supreme court (TSJ) the political opposition’s efforts to initiate a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro.

Significance: The PSUV has asked the TSJ to examine the process because the national electoral council (CNE) said it found over 600,000 fraudulent signatures among the 1.8m submitted on 2 May by the opposition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) in petition of a referendum. On this basis, the PSUV argues that the MUD may have violated the constitutional rights of Venezuelan citizens. The PSUV’s motives are transparent – it wants to delay the referendum past the date at which a vote in favour of a presidential recall would trigger fresh elections. If the referendum is held any time after 10 January 2017, the vice-president would instead replace the president for the final two years of the six-year term, with no new elections required.

  • Legal analysts suggest that the TSJ, stuffed with government-appointees, could opt to suspend the signature verification process altogether, on the basis of fraud, obliging the MUD to start over from scratch.  Alternatively, the TSJ might seek to delay the next stage of the process, requiring the collection of 3.8m signatures (20% of the electorate), which once validated would then require the CNE to stage the referendum.
  • The CNE also said on 10 June that there were 1.97m signatures on the list submitted by the MUD, above the 1.8m the MUD claimed it collected. In order to petition for a recall referendum, the signatures of 1% of the registered electorate are required – amounting to just over 197,000.  Having declared valid 1.3m signatures, the CNE now requires all those people to present themselves to verify their identities by way of electronic fingerprint. This process is due to commence on 20 June for a five-day period, with fingerprint scanners of the type used in Venezuelan elections to be dispatched to designated verification centres nationwide. It appears - albeit it has not been entirely clear on this point - that the CNE wants to verify all 1.3m, which could amount to a further delaying tactic.
  • President Maduro and other senior government officials pre-empted the CNE’s labours by reiterating over the weekend (11-12 June) that a recall referendum would only take place in 2017, and only if the MUD met all the (constantly shifting) criteria. This kind of rhetoric appears to belie any notion of the separation of powers. Increasingly, the nominally independent CNE looks subservient to the Maduro executive, which secures legal cover for its every move from the pliant TSJ. In the face of these kinds of obstacles, it  is difficult to anticipate a recall referendum any time soon.
  • In this context, international efforts to mediate a solution to Venezuela’s internal crisis may focus on a mutually-agreeable transition government from 2017 that would steer the county through to the scheduled general election in late 2018, with a new administration – potentially opposition-led – taking office on 10 January 2019. Yesterday the Organization of American States (OAS) began its 46th General Assembly of foreign ambassadors in the Dominican Republic, with the Venezuelan crisis glaringly absent from the officially agreed agenda. Yet the General Assembly comes just weeks after the OAS secretary general, Luis Almagro, controversially moved to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter against Venezuela, on the grounds that the institutions of democracy in the country were at risk. This is scheduled to be voted upon by the OAS’s plenary in Washington DC on 23 June- requiring only a majority vote of 18 votes to trigger ‘diplomatic measures’ in support of Venezuela’s democratic institutions.
  • Meanwhile Venezuela’s opposition leader, Henrique Capriles Radonski, the most high-profile advocate of a recall referendum against Maduro, yesterday met Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartes and Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri to ask that they back the calls in international forums like the OAS and the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) that constitutional democracy be respected in Venezuela. To some criticism, the Macri government, which has been very critical of the Maduro administration, unexpectedly said that it might not vote in support of Almagro’s call to invoke the Democratic Charter, arguing that to isolate Venezuela in that way would be counterproductive.  It has been alleged that the Macri government’s apparent U-turn was part of efforts to secure support for Argentina’s proposed candidate to become the next United Nations secretary general - Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra. Argentina received some criticism for what looked like cynical bargaining. Capriles met Macri in Buenos Aires after a short meeting in Asunción with Cartes, a fierce critic of the Maduro government.

Looking Ahead: Street violence continues in Venezuela, with a tally of three civilian deaths in the past week amid lootings and food protests in several parts of the country. All three victims appear to have been shot by police, although state prosecutors are continuing to investigate. The Maduro government yesterday announced that electricity rationing would be eased and restrictions on public sector working hours reduced.